Daytime TV: The simple things

Gary Day on the beauty of everyday objects, a baroque pilgrimage and a long-running soap

March 26, 2009

Marcel Theroux wants to know more about wabi sabi, an aesthetic that celebrates the unfinished, the imperfect and the transient and is "a fundamental part of Japanese identity" (In Search of Wabi Sabi, BBC Four, Saturday 10pm). His search does not get off to a good start. At the airport he asks a smiling check-in girl to explain the term.

She clearly has no idea what he is talking about. "Can you write it down for me?" inquires Marcel, who has yet to grasp that they don't all speak English in Japan. The girl's smile grows in proportion to her incomprehension as Marcel repeats his request.

But even when Marcel has learnt some of the lingo, the nature of wabi sabi continues to elude him, as it does many of the natives. "Was that something we studied in school?" wonders one young woman from underneath her umbrella. Tokyo is blurry in a downpour.

Marcel books into a hotel. Horror! The en suite has a heated toilet seat. There is going to be no spiritual experience here, and so he hightails it to the suburbs as the guest of a family. The wife wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a skull. She and her husband sit patiently while Marcel shows them his photographs of leaves, taken on Tooting Common.

His host introduces Marcel to his work colleagues and tells them their English visitor has come in search of wabi sabi. They get as near as politeness permits to falling about laughing.

The director of a museum explains that wabi sabi originated in the 16th century. It was a turn away from elaborate decoration to rustic simplicity. A slightly misshapen pot has its own kind of beauty. Even serenity.

The haiku is another form of wabi sabi. Marcel joined a workshop in the park. Seeking inspiration, its members contemplated a statue of Matsuo Bash?, Japan's most famous haiku poet. His best-known 17 syllables concern a frog jumping into a pond. Since all haikus must evoke death, it presumably lands in the jaws of a passing predator. Look before you leap, eh?

Marcel decides to give hotels one more try. But it is no good. The room is depressingly plain. Isn't that wabi sabi, though? The setting for the tea ceremony - "the clearest expression of this mysterious entity" - is itself rather stark. It's all about creating a space in which host and guest can explore the spiritual sense of beauty.

After a nice cup of tea (the beverage was originally used as stimulant to keep monks from falling asleep), it was off to a monastery. Marcel's cell made the hotel room look like the royal bedchamber at Versailles, its extreme austerity designed to help empty the mind and put it in touch with the void.

The same effect can be achieved more quickly and comfortably by watching the Bravo channel. In the end, Marcel discovered that everyone finds their own wabi sabi. There are days when I'd be grateful just to find my keys.

On the face of it, wabi sabi couldn't be more different from the baroque. One is characterised by silence, the smallness of things and the inevitability of change while the other is sumptuous, operatic and terrifyingly final. And yet the word "baroque" originally meant a rough or imperfect pearl.

This was not one of the gems imparted by Waldemar Januszczak in his second programme on the art of the Counter-Reformation (Baroque, BBC Four, Wednesday 9pm) but there was still plenty to treasure here. Including the presenter's dark blue shirt, turquoise shorts and the oyster shell hanging enigmatically from his neck.

Waldemar was on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Staff in hand, he set off at a furious pace. I was exhausted trying to keep up with him, and I was sitting down. Pausing briefly in the Jewish quarter of Seville, he asked if we could feel its cultural potency "bubbling up" beneath us. Not from Bedford, no. And I felt rebuked for my lack of soul.

The baroque, Waldemar enthused, was fascinated with low life. Its intense realism - "can't you hear the eggs in this painting sizzling?" - was a hook to pull you into the picture's real meaning; that life is short, reality is an illusion and only the word of God lasts for ever.

But as the baroque journeys across Europe, it begins to lose the dimensions of eternity. Rembrandt's self-portraits suggest that failure can be interesting. Why look for wabi sabi? It is all around us.

Most of the characters in EastEnders (BBC One) live in big houses. Yet none of them seems to have a washing machine. So they go to the launderette. Are they washing their dirty linen in public yet again, or is there a more subtle message? The launderette is run by Dot, a devout Christian. Is she secretly cleansing them of their sins?

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments