Messy Histories Part 9: Things That Fade


At the end of Week 8, “Flowers” week, I became enamoured with the work of Japanese florist-artist Azuma Makoto*. He ascribes his interest in flowers to the concept of mono no aware, which interviews translate as “an attraction to things that fade”.

It’s a concept which interests me. A lot of the meditation work I do considers the idea of impermanence, on accepting that nothing lasts forever and using that (in one way or another) as a guiding principle for life. It’s not as depressing as you might think, but the tangibility of things as experienced makes the idea that they’ll be gone one day hard to grasp. Maybe that’s what this desire for the ephemeral is really about – the one way of accessing something we know really, even if we don’t talk about it.

Art interacts with this concept in both acceptance and rejection. For centuries artists have been commissioned by patrons who refuse to be forgotten – a face captured in stone or on canvas may have an existence long beyond the lifespan of its subject. Art has been seen a means to achieving a kind of immortality. And we often see art itself as an eternal concept, something which will never fade. But at other times, art recognises this fallacy in itself. Flowers – like Dutch flower paintings – were one way of exploring mortality. Then there’s the vanitas and memento mori genres, which could both celebrate the beauty of objects whilst reminding viewers that they won’t last – death may never be that far away.

This week I’ve tried to think about where else art interacts with the idea of “things that fade” – a phrase I really like. What signifiers of impermanence have artists been drawn to, and how have these changed over the centuries? Where have stories from everyday become interpreted as great moments of art, markers of this universal truth?

I know it might be a bit of a strange one, this week. It’s not really a “theme” so much as an investigation. But I think it has thrown up some fascinating things to think about not only in terms of what art is for, but also point to some significant factors in why Western art has evolved in the way it has. Enjoy!

*I’m currently trying to work out my own response to Makoto’s work in a different project which may or may not be appearing here soon.

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