The beauty of IMPERFECTION

Sited in the newly refurbished Craft gallery of Manchester Art Gallery is “The Fascination of Whats Difficult” by Edmund de Waal, a sequence of six black lacquer lead-lined boxes each containing a trio of plain thrown porcelain cylinders in celadon and white glazes, their interiors gilded, reminiscent of the threads of gold used to mend the cracks and wounds in Japanese tea bowls and vases.This ancient Japanese art form recognises and values the beauty in brokenness, a philosophy that encourages us to embrace our wounds and to find beauty within our vulnerability. Within Japanese spirituality there exists the narrative of wabi-sabi, the act of embracing the beauty of imperfection, that it embodied in many of their creative practices. The crooked and uneven lines of natural materials like old timbers are evoked in the term ‘wabi’ and the unexpected beauty of decay, earthy patinas from years of wear and tear and human touch in ‘sabi’. This aesthetic language values the understated beauty in the impermanence of all things, the changing state of materiality, the narrative of an object and its surface through its growing and evolving story from beginning to its demise. Japanese shrines and sacred spaces adopt this aesthetic too, black lacquered spaces, worn away from the hand marks of generations lead to distressed gilded interiors, lit by soft candlelight that flicker gently to create shadows and mystery, a complete contrast to our western design of white cube, brightly lit spaces.

De Waal has used this notion within his crafted works to invite us to consider this philosophy of imperfection. Each vessel is individual, irregular, imperfect yet their repetition creates a sequence, like the notes on a stave of music, or the words in a page of prose, they create a narrative, a story of the everydayness of daily living. Their placement is exactly determined by the artist to create ‘pauses, spaces and silences, where breath is held inside and between each vessel.’ He says of his work, ‘it has at it’s heart a meditation on time, both the time it takes to make something and the time it takes to see something,” brought together in dark lacquered vitrines they aim to slow time down, to capture a moment in stillness.

They invite us to question the simple everyday objects we each own, to ask why we keep them and what they say about our lives and our story. What has each object witnessed in its lifetime? Who has touched it, cleaned or polished it? How many generations before us have valued and used the objects we display on our mantlepieces?

De Waal’s mother Esther has written a devotional book on the writings of the Jesuit contemplative Thomas Merton who valued the practice of spirituality within the ordinariness of the everyday. His quest for solitude and simplicity led him to live in a hermitage at the abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. His writings have been dispersed around the globe sharing insights into contemplative prayer, compassionate activity and the pursuit of stillness. He writes, “Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it………We have thinking to do and work to do which demands a certain silence and aloneness. We need time to do our job of meditation and creation.”

De Waal’s creative crafting of the repetitive process of thrown vessels hand made at the potters wheel make material these thoughts, meditating and creating in a quiet space for hour upon hour seeking a deeper understanding of himself, his story and the world. Venerating the imperfect, the crooked, and the simplicity of black and white his work is a spiritual exercise, a material mantra or prayer about the beauty unveiled within the ordinariness of the everyday.

Consider your own story. What are the marks, the imperfections and wounds that have shaped your life? Which of these have been healed with the touch of gold to bring a greater sense of depth and joy to your life, and which are still open wounds of anger, resentment and bitterness? Write down your thoughts in the margins of this booklet, or in your journal then take a gold pen or some gold leaf and draw around the words that describe the wounds that still cause you pain. Recognise that the suffering you have endured will never leave you completely for they have changed and shaped you to become the person you are today. However you can allow these wounds to be transformed into the golden threads of compassion by embracing the beauty and joy that can be found with the acceptance of our vulnerability and brokenness and finding the courage to forgive those who have wounded us. When our pain remains hidden it’s power over us grows so it is important that to help us befriend our sorrow we must share it with someone who is able to receive it and help us to begin the journey of transforming it into gold. Share what you have written with someone you can trust and ask them to be open with you too about their experiences of brokenness.

The Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen writes, “To make compassion the bottom line of life, to be open and vulnerable to others, to make community life the focus, to let prayer be the breath of your life….. that requires a willingness to tear down the countless walls that we have erected between ourselves and others in order to maintain our safe isolation.”