Minimalism in Japanese Tradition

When artist Frank Stella said ‘What you see is what you see’, he was describing works of his own – an expression that meant in essence of its meaning that unlike the concept and practice of abstract expressionism, his art was construed and interpreted as it was directly seen. Where abstract expressionism mimicked and represented the world through landscape, people and objects, Minimalism began as an opposing movement to comprehend the capacity of interpreting art as it was, in its entirety and how it was presented. When minimalism arose in the 1950s to combat the movements of gestural art of before, it flourished in grandeur in the 60s and 70s with Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin and Robert Morris re-enforcing the idea that some works of art are just those, through geometric patterns, order and simplicity, Minimalism would continue into the 21st century and heavily influence a bustling society.

The ideology and practice of Minimalism, although beginning in the visual arts, transpired into the distinct mediums from music to theatre, the distinct idea that a minimalist composition or play was stripped down to its raw implications. Minimalism then appeared in the applied art of architecture where a space was reduced down to its most necessary components and built on its functionality and essentiality. It is not hard to draw parallels between minimalism’s clean lines and simple structure to the Japanese culture and traditions of Zen practices including ikebana and wabi-sabi. In actuality, Japanese customs had already embraced the ideology, allowing the pure, subtracted spirituality to combat the destruction and chaos of World War II. These simplistic approaches to battle the residue of the war seeped into their lifestyle and these principles have been profoundly implemented in the movement of minimalistic architecture. In fact, the ‘Japanese Peace Pagoda’ in Rumassala, Sri Lanka, built by Buddhist monk Nichidatsu Fijii, was a beacon of peace and inspired many since the World War II. Many temples that take on the Japanese design principles across the globe are cultural symbols to promote and inspire peace and tranquility.

The Japanese tradition and principles are similar in concept to that of the minimalism aesthetics. The concept of Zen aesthetics involve practices including ‘Ma’, ‘Ikebana’, ‘Wabi-sabi’ and more. The methodology of ‘Ma’ revolves around the idea of empty space and open area, ‘negative space’. The distance between two objects, the proximity from one pillar to another, or the space surrounding an object and the significance that lay within these spaces are what entail in the practice of ‘Ma’, a notion of cognizant awareness of the simplistic placement – an empty space. ‘Ikebana’ or the arrangement of flowers practices the art of refining the flower tree and pruning it to the centre of its existence, stripping away redundant branches, an act of minimalism. The concept of ‘wabi-sabi’ centred on the idea of asymmetry and imperfection. ‘Wabi-sabi’ was a celebration of imperfect beauty incomplete nature. Around the 14th century, the word took on more positive connotations. While the words don’t directly translate tot English, ‘wabi’ is meant to encompass the expression of simplicity, freshness or understated elegance and ‘sabi’ refered to the serenity of growth and beauty. These practices were some of the key influences that trickled into minimalism.

Minimalism in architecture meant conveying simplicity and peace. Through the utilization of light colour palettes to minimal interior artefacts, the space was designed to be simple and made to pay conscientious homage to the art of the space and only its significant pieces be it furniture, accessories or minimalistic works of art. It is recorded that when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe adapted the phrase ‘Less is More’ in his practice, he propagated the concept, elevating the significance of simplicity in a society whose design discourse relied heavily on celebrating grandiosely the architectural artefacts in their glory and instilling ‘more’, a practice only few could afford. The phrase ‘Less is more’ was first coined in the 18th century by an English poet, when two centuries later, architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe prioritised function over glamour. Architects like Tadao Ando and Kazuyo Sejima facilitated the ideology of minimalistic architecture through their designs influenced by the Japanese concept of simplicity. More artists followed, as they comprehended the nature of the space and celebrated its authenticity in raw fashion, conveyed through geometric constructions and orderly structures. Soon, minimalism became a magnetic practice that opened up a space and created conversation with ease. 

22nd January, 2021 Applied Art