Japanese ethos of beauty in demise

01:54, Oct 17 2012
Bronwynn Billens
IMPERMANENT: Flower portrait by Emma Bass at Red Gallery.

Auckland photographer Emma Bass' house is full of flower arrangements and weeds in various stages of decay.

Her flower portraits, on display at Red Art Gallery from this Saturday, are done in the spirit of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi and eschew the unconventional.

Bass says her exhibition, Imperfection, is a gentle contemplation of the greatness that exists in the inconspicuous.

The works span seasons and trace the intimate arc of lifespan, honing in on quietly exquisite, artless evidence of demise.

"I wanted to challenge the concept of what is beautiful. For me, this project is about framing reality. The flaws themselves are beautiful, because they are true to life," says Bass.

"Some of the arrangements are not what you'd expect to see in a vase, such as overlooked and humble weeds, thistles, dandelions and just plain, ordinary grass."


Bass says she discovered the wabi sabi concept through a friend who was doing a PhD in anthropology.

"She had a book on wabi sabi, and I devoured it. All things are impermanent, all things are imperfect, and all things are incomplete," she says.

"Now when I am confronted with the imperfections in my life, I try to say to myself, ‘Ah, wabi sabi', and a load seems to lift. The wabi sabi ethos to find beauty in reality can be applied to our wider life - our bodies and the ageing process, even the ever-changing world around us."

Bass says she has developed "a bit of an obsession" with vases, collecting them off Trade Me and eBay, and has run out of storage space at home.

"Presently I have three flower arrangements sitting on my ledge, nicely demising," she says.

She originally trained as a nurse, but has been working as a freelance photographer for 20 years after doing a photography course in London.

Red Art Gallery will have 12 of her works on display, which are all about a metre tall.

"I like the fact that these images are a bit of a double-take. On first glance they look like pretty arrangements, but on closer inspection you see that things are not what they seem. Petals are falling, flowers are wilting, turning brown. It's subtle, but I think that's what makes them work."