There is a painting I encountered recently titled “Butterfly.” It depicts foliage and cat, but no butterfly can be seen in the painting. However, the cat is looking up at something off the paper. One can imagine that the butterfly had just flown out of the scene before the artist could paint it, but still the cat was looking at it.
Paintings like this requires the participation of the viewer to complete the picture. The viewer supplies what is left out of the painting. That means not everyone perceives the painting in the same way. Is the butterfly yellow? Is flying away or toward the cat? Does it have spots? Today, there is a whole genre of participatory art, where the audience is required to interact with the art or become part of the performance. And everyone who participates perceives it differently.
In graphic design the space around an object is called negative space or white space. More white space in a design tends to isolate and/or emphasize the element. Sometimes the negative space is more interesting than the pictured object. Like the optical illusion of a vase, where the negative space is two faces in profile. This is also known as figure ground perception, where the object is defined by the space surrounding it.
I am a student of Japanese calligraphy and I have progressed to the point where I also need to pay attention to the composition. Lately, sensei talks to me more about the spacing within and between the characters, as well as placement on the page, more than the actual strokes of the character. While the form and brush strokes are still important, I also need to pay attention to the white space for overall composition.
I first encountered this concept of negative space and what is not there relating to tea in a shikishi hung in a tea room in Japan. The shikishi read, 雲の間 “kumo no ma” the space between the clouds. I thought to myself, that’s silly, the space between the clouds is sky. Is it a poetic way of saying sky, or is there a deeper meaning? Of course, there is always a deeper meaning to what is hung in the tokonoma. What do you think is another interpretation of 雲の間?
This concept of ma is intriguing. The dictionary definition of ma is: the gap, pause or space between two structural parts. Wikipedia says that “ma is not something that is created by compositional elements; it takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements. Therefore, ma can be defined as the experiential place understood with emphasis on interval.” In music it could be the space between the notes, not the notes themselves. In Japanese gardening the space between the rocks, trees or bushes.
The Japanese idea of ma is about creating moments of awareness, rest, and quiet. We need to create interruptions or absences that allow for reflection, or for differences to be reconciled.
This led me to think about what is not there or the negative space in temae. The negative space is when no action is taking place and sometimes can be more interesting than when there is action taking place. What could be interesting about the pauses in temae, when it seems like nothing is going on? I have been taught that there is a rhythm to temae. There is action and inaction, movement and rest, sound and silence. It is interesting how the pauses in temae emphasize what is going on. Just like white space will call attention to elements in design, pauses and silence give meaning to actions.
When I am doing a presentation of chanoyu, people often ask me if there is talking is allowed. Many people are uncomfortable with the silence and try to fill it with chit chat. However, in the silence, if one is listening with your mind and spirit, many things are going on. There is what I call the intimate silence, where people can communicate at many levels and feel closer and more intimate than when having a conversation.
The go, go and do more pace of our lives rarely values time for reflection, let alone rest and silence. There is always something to be done, something to cross off our “to do” list. Which brings us back to “kumo no ma.” Which may suggest to us to slow down and fill our time and space not with things or deeds, but reflection, meaning and planning.
For many people, the Corona virus has given us a pause in our life. Not working, staying home, cancelling meetings, going out only for essential things gives us time to reflect on our lives, something that we rarely have time for. It gives us time to figure out what truly is important to us and to rest, gather our resources, and perhaps sit in silence for the first time in a long time.