“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.” – Leonard Koren, 1994.
There are some books that I return to again and again, and Leonard Koren’s ‘Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers’ (1994) is one such title. The book, a slight volume that can be read in one single sitting, was one of the first titles that identified and introduced the concept of wabi-sabi to English readers.
I was drawn to the book because it championed a focus on aesthetic values and considerations of beauty that contrasted with Western traditions and ideals of ‘perfection’. Working on Wonky with co-curator Caitlin Shearer, and speaking with all the thirteen artists in the show over the course of many months, I was struck by how much these aesthetic ideas continued to resonate.
Wabi-sabi is one of those concepts that while difficult to explain in explicit terms, can be felt and experienced instinctively. I realised that while Koren identified a particular Japanese worldview, some of the underlying experiences he discussed could be a starting point for a broader consideration into creative practice today.
In this regard, while Wonky started as an exhibition inspired by Japanese aesthetics and wabi-sabi, it has since developed into something broader. One of these key ideas in Wonky is an acknowledgement of the uncontrollable forces of nature, and the unpredictable nature of ‘making’. This conflation between art-making and unpredictability has been a significant point of creative energy, as Caitlin and I encouraged artists to “embrace a little wonkiness.”
The playful works of Niamh Minogue and Elise Sheehan capture some of this unpredictability, exploring relationships between forms and function using simple lines and shapes to unexpected results. Charlotte Watson’s suspended drawings on the other hand, give expression to an intuitive and gestural mode of art-making, taking cues from nature and landscape traditions. Her practice makes strong connection with meditative practice, and the power of art as a process to heal trauma and create new possibilities.
This focus on nature, both thematically and through materials, is also keenly expressed in the collaborative works of John Brooks and Cassandra Smith. Combining textile weaving, collage making, and performance (in the form of a nature walk), Brooks and Smith’s work takes cues from the surrounding world to extrapolate a personal encounter.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, the link to the natural world is demonstrated in the works of Belinda Evans, who uses nature-dyed textiles and found materials as a means to explore the imperfect beauty of the natural world. Gina Rockenwagner’s hand-stitched quilt, which takes inspiration from the Blue Mountains, further develops this theme.
While nature can be seen as a source of comfort, the works of Luke Maninov Hammond and Robyn Phelan consider its implications from biological and atmospheric perspectives. Hammond’s practice is strongly inspired by his background in neuroscience imagining, and his works reimagine biological forms in all their complexity and impermanence. Phelan’s works on the other hand turn to larger atmospheric patterns and the visual motif of the cloud to consider the larger effects of climate change.
Of the thirteen artists in the exhibition, nearly half work with ceramics. This was not a conscious curatorial decision, but came about because the themes of imperfection lend themselves particularly well to ceramic practice, which involves a certain aspect of ‘letting go’ and unpredictability through the firing process.
Tara Burke’s vessels embody this imperfection of ceramic materials, and their very hand-formed nature lends each object a particular charm and personality. In contrast, Yoko Ozawa’s reflection vases represent an approach to ceramic practice that is grounded in an appreciation for the simple and organic. Her use of water in the vases prompts viewers to slow down and appreciate their immediate surroundings.
The ceramic works of Zhu Ohmu and Rachael McCallum challenge boundaries of the medium, even after the completion of the work. Ohmu’s practice encapsulates the Japanese art of kintsugi (or kintsukuroi), the traditional art of repairing broken pottery with gold. In Ohmu’s hands, the gaps and cracks in her fragmented vessels are filled instead with plants, which take on a life of their own. Rachael McCallum’s ceramic paintings, which are suspended on the wall, are subjected to the external forces of gravity in her closing performance titled Wreckt.
The destruction of McCallum’s work in her closing performance is a poignant conclusion to Wonky exhibition. By acknowledging forces outside of our control, while also embracing the imperfect and transient, we can find virtue and beauty in the unexpected and unconventional.
TLDR; Nothing lasts forever, and that is OK.