“From a mountain temple/the sound of a bell struck fumblingly/vanishes in the mist.”
In a vision of beauty that grazes the edge of nothingness, eighteenth century Japanese poet Yosano Buson invokes Wabi-Sabi, an aesthetic that values, in the words of Leonard Koren, “the imperfect, the impermanent and the incomplete.” Antithetical to the sleek, flawless, symmetrical ideal of beauty of our tech-saturated modern era, this quality presents itself in the misshapen, rusted and cracked or in those moments of solitude when the weight and beauty of time’s passing is laid bare in a decrepit train station or a deserted mountain impasse. Wabi-Sabi is in pencil sketches of passers-by, in exposed wood panels, in the slap-dash sand sculpture dissolving under the wind and water of an ocean shore.
And this week, I found it in photography. The polaroids of German photographer Bastian Kalous posses a rare physicality that’s foregrounded through his use of expired film. Vast mountain ranges and solitary figures are imprinted on small and medium format paper faded pale or green or purple or tinged with gold flickers, a visual allegory for the emotive power and ephemerality of remembered moments. Many of them also show the wear of photographic chemicals – discolored spots or white, vacant corners at the edge of the image and, analogously, at the edge of meaning. As could be said of any art that has the quality of Wabi-Sabi, it’s the contact of presence with absence, of precision with mutability, that renders artistic form the more meaningful. The physical imperfections of Kalous’s photographs convey a sense that time has passed – is passing, will pass – for the viewer as well as the viewed. But what does that make them if not the more beautiful? Grazing the edge of nothingness with affecting imperfections emblematic of Wabi-Sabi, these photos not only depict nature, they embody it.