A week ago, I would have started this blog post with an apology for the long gap since the last one. But I am not going to, because I have discovered the concept of ‘ma’.
‘Ma’ is the Japanese idea that the space between things is as equally important as the things themselves. So, the beauty of a ceramic vessel lies in the space inside that makes it useful. Calligraphy is as much about the space around the sumi inked brush strokes as the lettering itself. Tiny pauses between the notes make the music. It’s not minimalism, which focuses on a taking away, so much as the deliberate creating of space with a purpose. It is linked to how we relate to the things around us.
Ma is about creating moments of awareness and quiet. Spaces for us to reconcile differences, to reflect, contemplate and be still. It is not so much about emptiness as the fact that the space holds room, deliberately designed for experience and interpretation.
It was in a coaching session that I stumbled on the idea, if not the word. I was talking about how being in a quiet apartment in Paris was an ideal creative retreat for me. How the apartment was an empty shell. I had created a distraction free environment where the only options for activity were the creative ones I had chosen to bring with me and yet, should I need stimulation, the busy city, with all its galleries, was right outside my calm little cocoon. It gave me time to think clearly, to renew a creative habit that had been buried. It reminded me of a Japanese garden. Which, after a short consultation with Professor Google, I realised are created on the principle of ‘ma’.
Then, I was browsing books in Shakespeare and Co found a thick book of Japanese poetry which included the words:
Thirty spokes meet in the hub, though the space between them is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay, though the space inside them is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors from the house though the space with them is the essence of the house.
At the Pompidou Centre, I saw for the first time the architecture of Tadao Ando, whose work illustrates this post. His work is imbued with ‘ma’. He says his aim, when creating his simple concrete structures is to ‘thoroughly purge my architecture of all things in order to create blank canvases. When touched by light and wind, these blank ‘voids’ become imbued with life. When inserted into a city, they can spark unexpected and exciting happenings.”
It struck me that ‘ma’ can also apply to designing our life. Giving space between events and activities need not be a negative. It can be a beautiful design choice. Gaps and pauses can be a conscious activity to allow renewal, consideration, inspiration and decision making. Just as an ikebana flower arrangement carefully leaves gaps between the stems, or a museum curator places one delicate vase alone on a plinth, separating out experiences can help us see then better. Space creates emphasis which leads to understanding. It allows for movement and interaction, room to step back and to move in. After a while it fosters wondering, thinking, creating again.
Or, as Tadao Ando said:
If you give people nothingness, they can ponder what can be achieved from that nothingness.
Too often I berate myself if I am not ‘keeping up’, not doing all my ‘things’, if not simultaneously, at least on parallel tracks, making progress on them all. Not making art for six months is a failure to run my studio business. Not posting the videos of the show straight after is something to write an apologetic blog post for. Not immediately seeking the next show is losing momentum. Productivity blogs tell us how to keep going, artbiz blogs encourage us to plan the next thing, social media gives us the impression everyone else is doing and we are falling away. Non-activity is something to motivate ourselves out of. It’s laziness. It’s career suicide.
Or, its ‘ma’.
There are times when its right to commit, full tilt to the end of a project, to squeeze every moment, to race to the finish line. To get tasks done, to keep up, to press on. It’s a time for action and energy.
Then, there are times for ma.
Time to separate out one project from another.
One activity from the next.
One thought from the next.
It’s not blameworthy.
It’s not lack.
It’s not even inactivity.
It’s necessary recovery.
It’s creative regeneration.
It’s here that you find your essence.