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Design Bridgen Visits: Adam Jeppesen – Out of Camp at Foam Photography Museum

This blog post started out as a review of the current Adam Jeppesen exhibition at one of my favourite Amsterdam spaces, Foam Photography Museum. But before I get to that, I want to tell you a story…

Skip back to Edinburgh, 2014, my good friend Craig turns to me at my desk, grasping a faun coloured book, adorned with a monochrome leaf and white italic sans-serif text, Wabi-sabi, for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. “Mate, you have to read this book!”

The warm faun cover of Wabi-sabi for artists designers poets and philosphers

I pick up the book. It’s a warm, tactile, uncoated texture — the kind where you really feel the grain — you sense this paper once lived as something else. I flick through the pages; large grey type, interspersed with unusual, yet intriguing black and white abstract photography; scratched tables, leaves pinned under heavy-mud, cracked pottery.

Spread from Wabi-sabi for artists designers poets and philosphers

And so I read, “Wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional…”

It wasn’t for another year before I picked up this book again. Now living in Amsterdam, browsing in a bookstore, that warm faun paper smiled at me once more, “Wabi-sabi, Leonard Koren.” Something about this culture was lighting a fire inside me. It went against my schooled instinct. Throughout my career as a graphic designer I have striven for perfection — typesetting, colour, production — everything has to be perfect. And here in this world, imperfection is beauty.

In his book, Koren examines the principles of Wabi-sabi, contrasting it with Western ideals of beauty; where it is perceived slick, seamless, flawless, Wabi-sabi celebrates the coarse and unrefined, the weathered and the aged. It celebrates the transitory, the unfinished — it reflects life itself.

Fast forward to 2017, I find myself in Foam Museum, admiring the work of photographer Adam Jeppesen. Now, Adam Jeppesen isn’t Japanese, he was born in Kalundborg, Denmark in 1978. I don’t even know if he has an active interest in the Japanese aesthetic, but there was something that immediately struck me as I indulged in the Out of Camp exhibition at Foam… Wabi-sabi.

The works that make up Out of Camp are a result of Jeppesen’s solitary journey overland from the North Pole to Antarctica in 487 days, and the repeat visits that followed. The photographs bear witness to a strenuous journey, while the images of remote and rugged landscapes are suffused with a sense of serenity and contemplation. “I was particularly interested to explore what being alone does to you. For me, the landscapes reflect this isolated and solitary state of mind.” Jeppesen’s own journey reflects the spiritual values of Wabi-sabi, as detailed by Leonard Koren:

  • - Truth comes from the observation of nature
  • - Greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details
  • - Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness

An important aspect of Jeppesen’s work is his labour-intensive approach. He only works with analogue photography, and he spent years organising and printing the negatives. He abandoned his search for the perfect print in favour of cheap reproductive techniques, such as photocopying. Coincidence and imperfections are essential elements in his work. A particular favourite of mine is Jeppesen’s Folded series. Magnificent glaciers are presented printed on rice paper, divided through A4-size grids through subtle folding patterns, as with a map. The delicate texture of the paper contrasts with the indestructible appearance of ancient rock formations. Half-tone patterns can easily be seen in the paper — a clear reference to the nature of the limited printing techniques used.

Adam Jeppesen - Chalten I - 2014 - folded archival inkjet print on rice paper

Wabi-sabi itself looks to “get rid of all that is unnecessary” and “focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy”. Jeppesen’s images are earthy, irregular and imperfect: it’s what makes them so raw and beautiful.

In Chalten I, damages as a result of physical hardship during the expedition are left un-retouched and remain clearly visible. In a time when the image has become infinitely perfectible and reproducible, Jeppesen experiments with the photography as a unique object that is subject to the forces of change and decay. With damaged edges, and a tarnished surface, this art — like the artist himself — has travelled: eroded maps of an inner-journey.

Section from Chalten I - 2014

Section from Chalten V - 2016

In the series Scatter, true to Wabi-sabi values, Jeppesen revisited discarded negatives in search for previously overlooked details, damages and coincidences that had previously gone unnoticed. Koren writes, “Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes.”

Artwork from Scatter - 2014-2016 - archival inkjet print on rice paper

By carefully dissecting and recycling his own archive, Jeppesen assigns new meaning to otherwise discarded material. The grainy details surpass the original subject of the photograph, to highlight its vulnerability and transience as an object. Comparisons can be made with the Wabi-sabi universe. Leonard Koren writes:

“Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness. As dusk approaches in the hinterlands, a traveler ponders shelter for the night. He notices tall rushes growing everywhere, so he bundles an armful together as they stand in the field, and knots them at the top. Presto, a living grass hut. The next morning, before embarking on another day’s journey, he unknots the rushes and presto, the hut-deconstructs, disappears, and becomes a virtually indistinguishable part of the larger field of rushes once again. The original wilderness seems to be restored, but minute traces of the shelter remain. A slight twist or bend in a reed here and there. There is also the memory of the hut in the mind of the traveler — and in the mind of the reader reading this description. Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealised form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness. While the universe destructs it also constructs. New things emerge out of nothingness.”

In Adam Jepessen — his work and his personal journey — I truly felt that I encountered a deep expression of the aesthetic and mind-set of Wabi-sabi. To fully appreciate Wabi-sabi is to understand that we too are imperfect; we are flawed, and have imperfections. It’s a lesson to all of us to appreciate the simpler things in life. A lesson to myself as a designer to see beauty in the creative journey and the traces that it leaves. Our ideas for brands are born out of a human process; we think and we sketch, we may collaborate with a craftsman; their marks and these stories live in the final design. Like Adam Jepessen, we too can ignore material hierarchy and burrow deep down to the core; to the subject, and to the idea.

In my exploration of Wabi-sabi I stumbled upon an article by blogger George McHenry. Via George, I end with words far greater than mine. “I am reminded of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Adam Jeppesen – Out of Camp is at Foam Museum Amsterdam until 27 August, details on the Foam website.

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