The paper covering the tables at Svartengrens, one of my favorite restaurants in Stockholm, is a perfect expression of wabi-sabi.
Wabi-sabi can be summarized as the acknowledgement of three simple realities: “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
On the paper, Svartengrens prints their name in rough and faded ink. As you eat, the paper picks up marks and stains: a ring from a water glass, drippings of fat, crumbs from a dessert.
Unlike the perfect cleanliness of a white table cloth, the faded lettering and plain paper seems improved by this patina of wear. It becomes a reminder of the roughness and imperfection of everyday life.
Food and eating are both intrinsically linked to the fleeting nature of experience. Food must be eaten in the short window between growth and decay. After that it becomes useful in a different way – as fertilizer for another plant that will sprout and eventually decay.
I avoid restaurants that feature slickness and shine rather than the natural textures found in wood, stone and paper. These materials embrace wear and are made better by them. In a certain sense they are alive. They acquire a deeper character as they age. Their wear tells a story that reminds us of our own experience as finite beings. In contrast, a scratch or scuff in plastic or vinyl merely exposes the limited and lifeless nature of the material.
Food and eating is one area of experience in which wabi-sabi manifests itself. There are many others. The Disintegration Loops of William Basinski are a demonstration of time and decay within the domain of sound. Basinski created these sounds by accident. As he transferred old analog tapes to a digital format, the tapes began to break apart as they played.
What makes these works so memorable is not the fact that the loops are slowly disintegrating but the fact that we get to hear their deaths. In a very real way, we experience the muddled, ugly, brutal realities of life. What’s more, these muddled, ugly, brutal realities of life are, in their own way, incredibly beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than the original, pristine loops ever could have been.
Embracing wabi-sabi offers a profound understanding of the world. Things arise and pass away. As humans we carry the burden of the knowledge that we cannot remain forever. But this is what makes beauty and meaning possible.