The embrace of negative space is celebrated in everything from home décor and flower arranging to poetry and all aspects of Japanese daily life.
I’ve always loved the term horror vacuii from the Latin “fear of emptiness” – a turn of phrase that turns clutter into a "horror." The term is used in the visual art and design worlds and is often associated with Italian art and literature critic, Mario Praz, who used it to describe the fussy suffocating chaos of the Victorian interior. Heaven forbid there should be an inch of space not overwhelmed by pattern, heavy furniture, ferns and gewgaws! No wonder Victorian women were always fainting.
But in Japan, the go-to aesthetic could easily be called amor vacuii … a love of emptiness, because that’s what fuels the cultural concept known as Ma.
Ma (pronounced "maah") is a celebration of not things, but the space between them. It is about negative space, voids, emptiness. And it is relished in everything from interiors, architecture and garden design to music, flower arrangement and poetry. And actually beyond; it can be found in most aspects of Japanese life.
Coco Chanel famously advised that, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” While removing, say, a scarf, might not reveal negative space, it does make room for the other accessories to shine. In a way, Ma does the same. In a home where there are too many things, nothing is highlighted. But by focusing on and expanding the space in which there is nothing, the things that are there spring into life.
As the Japanese lifestyle site, Wawaza explains, “MA is like a holder within which things can exist, stand out and have meaning. MA is the emptiness full of possibilities, like a promise yet to be fulfilled.”
One way to think about it is in a space that feels chaotic with clutter, it’s not about there being too many things, but about there being not enough Ma. Looking at an arrangement of components in terms of negative space – the areas that are empty – is a lesson taught in drawing and painting because what is not there is just as important, if not more, than what is there.
Wawaza observes that Ma can also be found “in the purposeful pauses in speech which make words stand out. It is in the quiet time we all need to make our busy lives meaningful, and in the silence between the notes which make the music.”
As a small example, the site explains, “when Japanese are taught to bow in early age, they are told to make a deliberate pause at the end of the bow before they come back up – as to make sure there is enough MA in their bow for it to have meaning and look respectful. Similarly, a tea break in a busy day has to be in a quiet place, away from the routines of work – so that one can soak in the serenity of MA before getting back to busy life.”
It’s really such a beautiful concept, especially relative to how we consider our belongings, as well as time and daily rituals, in the United States. Here we dazzle ourselves with being "crazy busy" ... with no Ma in between to define that which we are doing. We cram our homes and closets and pantries and even our dinner plates with stuff – and in our embrace of abundance, everything loses value. But with simple actions – like pausing during the day to reflect and breathe, or by having fewer things – there is room to focus on the space without things, the Ma, which makes the things there all the more precious.
In an essay, The Potential of Nothing, environment designer Lawrence Abrahamson notes that, “In nothingness, Ma enables.” An appropriately minimal statement that leaves room to appreciate how a love affair with emptiness can open the door to the abundance of so much more.