The Japanese term 'mono no aware' translates literally to the pathos of things — a term coined by 18th-century scholar Motoori Norinaga. He used this expression to encapsulate the spirit of Japanese literature that would eventually form parts of their cultural traditions. Contrary to Western tendencies toward engineered happiness, power and control — based loosely on classical Greek ideals — parts of Japanese culture often valued a "deep feeling", "sensitivity", or "awareness" to the measures in life and its fleeting beauty. Rather than a sense of permanence, it was in the transience of things that one found notions of the sublime. The wilted colour of Sōla flowers, the patina of Cor-ten Steel, the passing ring of the Gion Shōja bells added character and beauty to a transient and changing life. The mindful awareness of time and place presents viewers with the latent, buried emotions in reality. From the calls of birds to the ripple of streams, being present to these observations formed a practice of self-cultivation that was often considered the key to 'ways of living'.
Mono no aware explores beauty as both a ubiquitous and singular experience, or a state of being that passes both internally and externally. Instead of harbouring feelings of cynicism and control over one's realities, being aware of its transitory existence is, for parts of Japanese history, a call to the spirit of a moment. It is a patient, nuanced appreciation of the passing phenomena in our emotions, truths, and realities. The term is one of the most beautiful and sweeping concepts that illustrate the presence of being — of wakeful seeing.
This Japanese expression confronts the bittersweet feeling of perceiving the change in things. As Sei Shonagon wrote in the 10th century Pillow Book, “when one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.” This is the latent pain and joy that accompanies people, place, and time as we realize change. The most common, modern theme is the fondness for the cherry blossom, embodied by those who gather, picnic and pose beneath the branches of the beautiful Sakura tree, capturing the fleeting moment of the bloom. After flowering for about a week, the blossoms fall to animate feelings of joy and sorrow, or mono no aware. The Japanese film director, Yasujirô Ozu is also considered a model of this thinking. His works use objects over actors to express a sense of place, feeling, and the pathos of things. It also follows through some of the studies here.
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Yet this expression might be best understood as the idea of a worldly transcendence, or a type of acceptance for that which will never be permanent. In modern times, author Kazuo Ishiguro often ends his great novels with a sense of unresolved conflict, or a sort of resignation to the moments that happened. It reiterates how we so often fail to appreciate the transitory nature of the things that summon and shape our different lives. In perceiving these layers, we experience the bittersweet, living depths of mono no aware.
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As objects, the artworks here are built from pigments, surfaces, coatings, and frames that each carry different qualities of age and time, each transforming like our own surfaces — our skin. Contrary to many conservation standards, these artworks 'live' with us, each one changing over time to become something slightly different from the moment before — slowly evolving to become something 'other' that we have little command over. However, we choose to approach these parts of our continuous change; we are only left to ponder, or perhaps just revel in this wonder, even when it's not imminently seen.
— michael graf