Yasuhiro Sazuki ’s Cabbage Bowls: A Vessel For Emptiness and Simplicity

On initial sight, Yasuhiro Suzuki ’s Cabbage Bowls appear as a simple reminder of the beauty of nature.

The purity of the white, the appearance of weightlessness, and the overall elegance seem like a simple gesture made with a sense of deliberation to capture this. However this, like any other available reading of the work, is one that is purely subjective. It is wrapped up in layers (no pun intended) of Western education, culture and perception. On a deeper level than one’s own initial perceptions, Sazuki’s Cabbage Bowls (2004) have the capacity to teach us a much more meaningful lesson – one about the nuances of cultural understandings, and the differences that arise around concepts as similar yet expansively different as simplicity and emptiness.

Cabbage Bowl, Sazuki, 2004, Paper clay, 15x 20x 20 cm
Cabbage Bowl, Sazuki, 2004, Paper clay, 15x 20x 20 cm

What is mistaken as an aesthetic of simplicity through the Cabbage Bowls, is an aesthetic of emptiness; a concept intrinsically linked with the historic culture of Japan. Through an eloquent speech made to Google Hara brings clarity to this dialogue. He describes emptiness as not an aesthetic of Western simplicity, but as a concept of cultural significance. To the Japanese, emptiness is an allowance of power, a (somewhat) religious concept that has transcended into their aesthetics, culture and design to the present day. To consider Sazuki’s bowls from this cultural context, the absence of colour, and the natural associations made through the cabbage moulded form embody Hara’s view. The emptiness formed by ambiguity becomes a vessel for interpretive meaning, and here the power of ambiguity is clear in its ability to afford the work to many understandings, uses outputs and appreciations. In essence the piece does not exist to slap Western culture in the face, mocking our mass-machined culture. For all one knows it isn’t a message to us at all. Within Sazuki’s own portfolio, we see that there is a wonderful ambiguity to the explanation he provides for the work. We are enlightened, though perhaps only slightly, about a process of quiet observation, and his illustrations, whilst naive in appearance, hold a clear sense of personal intent. This is a practice not singular to the creation of the cabbage bowls, but consistent through all other works, in particular Zabuton of Leaves’ . The piece in question, the cabbage bowls, bound by a practice of deliberate ambiguity and emptiness, as such, becomes apparent as a largely reflective work. What the work means to Sazuki, however, compared to what this means to any user (whether Western or Japanese) is by no means more or less valid; a tribute to the power of the affordances of emptiness.

Process diagrams of Cabbage Bowls, by Sazuki, 2004
Process diagrams of Cabbage Bowls, by Sazuki, 2004
Zabuton of Leaves, Sazuki, 2004
Zabuton of Leaves, Sazuki, 2004

Perpetuating the differences of cultural sensitivity, are the haptic qualities of Sazuki’s Cabbage Bowls in comparison with those of Apple’s AppleWatch. Sazuki’s Cabbage Bowl, to the touch, is simply reminiscent of that of a cabbage; its precise moulding being the trigger of familiarity. The watch, on another scale, (in reference to their innovative haptic technology) proudly promotes that you can get someones attention with a simple tap”. Whilst there is nothing obtusely wrong with this, such a design feature rings true with the neediness ingrained within consumer technology. Where Sazuki uses haptics as a reminder and thus trigger of memory, the haptics employed by Apple act as a replacement. Rather than add genuine meaning to a dialogue that is often void of it, Apple removes meaning from a dialogue that was once more human. The opposition here lies in the relationship between communication and conversation. Returning to Hara’s Dialogue, he differentiates the nuances of communication between Western and Japanese cultures – a potential explanation for the evidently varied approaches to haptics. In Japanese conversation, he describes, the target is never clearly identified; the focus point is usually left unspoken. What this does, on a less literal level than form and shape, is provoke the communication of emptiness. As with Suzuki’s Cabbage bowls the point, as seen in his own explanation of them, is unclear. While The haptics remind us of a leaf – the purpose remains lucid to the viewer. Beyond the knowledge that this bowl references nature, there is no authoritative narrative, and no interruption of unique understanding between the object and its user. The user becomes free to reminisce in ways that are strictly unique to them and the forms and feelings they personally associate with the cabbage bowl. With the Western desire to sell, to constantly define and  clarify culture to the point of convenience, we see a less satisfying production of communication that is significantly less subtle elegant and reflective. We see complex design trumped by the emotional power of a mere cabbage shaped bowl.

Haptic 'qualities' of the AppleWatch as advocated by Apple
Haptic ‘qualities’ of the AppleWatch as advocated by Apple

Overall Sazuki’s designs, while both simple and empty in form, are rich in meaning and conceptual provocation. At the very least, to myself, they stand as a reminder to try and perceive works from a plethora of cultural perspectives; that Western perceptions do not always align with the subtleties of those of Japan and the East. I implore all those still slightly engaged to look at the works of Hara, for he highlights the details, intricacy’s and relevance of an elegance in design that is far too often taken for granted and misunderstood from a strictly Western mindset.

Advertisements