Useful emptiness: conceptualisation of space in Japanese art

Art Art & Lit Culture

The importance of free time and calm spaces has been frequently emphasised in recent times, often against the backdrop of anxiety that the world is ‘speeding up’; that is, becoming busier and more digitally controlled. As a result, much research has been done into the effectiveness of art as a form of mindfulness. A 2014 study by Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, for example, found that looking at paintings can stimulate the same areas of the brain as meditation. Along the same line of thought, Thomas Merton asserted that “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”: it offers the viewer a section of contemplative time and space, if only the viewer takes the time to stop and look at it. This is particularly true of art and literature that explores Ma.

Ma is one of the concepts that governs Japanese understanding and expression of space. Japanese conceptions of space and spatiality differ from those of the Western world: their interpretation centres around various concepts that encompass not only space, but also time and human relationships, contrary to the West’s interpretation of space as a place between physical boundaries.

This concept of Ma is normally defined as ‘negative space’. This means a space (or time) that is intentionally left empty, in order to allow the existence of relations and functions between people and things. Japanese conceptions of space are influenced by Shinto, a spiritual tradition that places almost as much importance on the spaces and relationships between objects and people as it does on the objects themselves; this means that all things are made up of not only themselves, but also the space and relations that they affect. Ma is therefore the literal grey area that allows different people, things, places and experiences to co-exist with less friction between them.

Japanese conceptions of space and spatiality differ from those of the Western world…

The Japanese consider it important to create and maintain spaces of Ma, in order to minimise tension and favour contemplation. To give an example from everyday life, Japanese conversations favour pauses that a Western listener might find uncomfortable. Owing to its importance in Japanese culture, expressions and explorations of Ma appear in both ancient and modern Eastern art and literature.

Arguably the most ancient source that references Ma is the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, a semi-religious, semi-philosophical text. Written in China in the 4th century BC, it contains a poem that explains Ma:

Thirty spokes are joined together in a wheel,

but it is the centre hole

that allows the wheel to function.

We mould clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that makes the vessel useful.

We fashion wood for a house,

but it is the emptiness inside

that makes it liveable.

We work with the substantial,

but the emptiness is what we use.

This poem teaches us that it is the empty space between the spokes of the wheel – the Ma – that allows the spokes to fulfil their function and work together. If the spokes were simply pushed together without space being left for Ma, then they could not form a wheel; the wheel consists of the spokes and the spatial relationship between the spokes. In this way, the Tao Te Ching explains the importance of Ma.

An early modern artist who depicted Ma through art was Hasegawa Tōhaku, who painted the ‘Shōrin-zu byōbu’ (‘Pine Trees’) in the late 16th century. In these two screens, it is the empty space between the shadowy pine trees that creates the landscape in the mind of the viewer.

Right-hand screen of the ‘Shōrin-zu byōbu’

Tōhaku’s use of black and white ink is reminiscent of chiaroscuro, the Renaissance trend for starkly-contrasted light and dark in paintings. In contrast to most Renaissance paintings, however, the empty areas in the ‘Shōrin-zu byōbu’ are light rather than dark. One might take Honthorst’s ‘Adoration of the Christ Child’ as an example of typical Renaissance chiaroscuro. In his painting, Honthorst employs dark space as a functionless emptiness; it serves merely as a background to highlight the glowing child. There is no question of the darkness linking the figures in the picture, or adding to the story that the picture tells. In contrast to this, the pale colour of the empty space in Tōhaku’s artwork makes it into something that links the trees: it becomes Ma, rather than simply being a vacuous space.

Honthorst’s ‘Adoration of the Christ Child’

A modern artist who explores Ma is Junko O’Neill, who aims for her work “to provide a breathing space for the viewer and let him sense the transient nature space possesses”. In ‘The Flow of Words’, she depicts two figures – one male, one female – who gaze out into an empty space. The figures are separated and yet linked by the undefined spaces that O’Neill creates. These include: the utterly empty space beyond the path that blends into the horizon; the invisible space behind the figures’ backs that must nevertheless exist in the world of the painting; and, of course, the three panels that are devoid of characters and depth. It is perhaps these panels that best encapsulate the idea of Ma. Untied to any specific space or time, they nevertheless allow the artwork to present its most important idea: the separation of the male and female figures.

‘The Flow of Words’ © Junko O’Neill, 2017

So, what is the use of artwork that explores Ma? One could argue that, when Ma is depicted in art, the viewer becomes able to appropriate it. We can use it as a space to project our own thoughts, and derive from it time for contemplation. Ma may also help us to understand that boundaries and concrete definitions are not always the most accurate way to view a concept. Perhaps, rather than viewing space as a functionless area between two borders, we could start to think in terms of Ma, and consider the virtues of empty space and time.

Main image Credit: ‘The Flow of Words’ © Junko O’Neill, 2017.