Love/Hate Minimalism

The Oculus, New York.

I write in response to the increasing anxiety and resentment toward minimalism in recent discourse.

Jonny Aspen, Associate Professor at the Institute of Urbanism and Landscape in Oslo Norway, uses the term "zombie urbanism" to describe areas of New York and other international urban centers with an appetite for minimalistic constructions that look like they’ve been contrived by Apple Inc. Aspen uses the High Line as an example, though my personal bane of existence is the Oculus at World Trade Center. Costing over $4 billion to complete, the Oculus’s outer appearance evokes the endoskeleton of a beached whale. The monstrosity’s innards are bloated with white Italian marble and yet houses your average chain stores like H&M, Starbucks, and Sephora. The central lobby area could be mistaken for a skating rink, with its endless glossy white floors.

A recent essay in The Verge directly accused Silicon Valley for creating the popular desire for a related style called AirSpace. The expanding reliance on digital technology to not only power our livelihoods but also dictate our social lives has shaped a need for culturally ambiguous (and therefore globally acceptable) spaces that photograph well. Photographers discovered the aesthetic appeal of a white, vacuum-like environment very early on. A standard professional photography backdrop involves a blank cloth draped over a kickstand to eliminate any horizon line and give the illusion of vastness while highlighting the foregrounded figure. The fundamental reality, of course, is that we do not live inside the artificiality of a photoshoot, and it is toxic that cities are being built without the common citizen in mind.

Within these observations of how minimalism is detrimental, it can be seen how minimalism is securing a reputation for being elitist.

There is no shortage of lifestyle brands and social media “influencers” who regularly capitalize on our thirst for negative space amongst the digital noise of internet click holes. Minimal_people, as just one example, is an Instagramer’s wet dream of fake-candid images depicting just one tiny figure wanderlusting through a vast open space – usually an exotic location or Swiss-designed architecture with the warmth of an alien spaceship. Their tag line “travel more” selectively showcases a very privileged group of cosmopolitan citizens who can afford frequent vacations under the guise of being nomads who have forgone their materialism in search of purer pursuits.

Why tho.

A friend of mine recently observed, “Minimalism is getting whiter. In every sense of the word.” Minimalism as a proponent for modernity has long existed in the popular imagination as slick, monolithic Western skyscrapers, vast empty rooms dotted with tasteful thin furniture, expansive white tabletops littered with latt├ęs and macarons. Point blank, minimalism is equated with racial whiteness. Being a minimalist has come to mean erasing any ethnically defining feature unless it falls within an established, Western, and masculine visual vocabulary.

I digress. I am actually writing in defense of minimalism. Without navel-gazing too much, I personally try to exercise minimalism when it comes to material possessions such as clothing, furniture, ephemera, and sentimental objects. Minimalism helps me examine every purchase or belonging and question its necessity, muting the voices of impulse and market appeal. It eliminates wastefulness in spending habits, time spent in vain, and the obsession over material assets.

My grandfather was a notorious minimalist, and serves as an inspiration. He lived in China during the Communist Revolution, when any superfluous items such as artwork and jewelry were considered selfish and strictly prohibited during wartime. My grandmother’s childhood home was completely stripped of treasured family heirlooms and feminine wardrobe; my grandmother was forced to cut her long braids into a chin-length bob as a means of persuading women to stop looking in the mirror and have a career. While she lamented her previous lifestyle, my grandfather embraced the government-issued Mao suit uniforms, rationed meals, and monkish living space. He owned the same set of furniture and clothing for decades, never desiring an upgrade. He instead dedicated his time to his studies and his family.

Minimalist Naoki Numahata talks to his two-and-a-half year old daughter Ei in their living-room in Tokyo, Japan, March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Recently, freelance writer Naomi Numahata explained how he limits himself to just 150 possessions for an uncluttered, unburdened lifestyle. Pictures of his threadbare apartment reveal a neatly organized yet mismatched set of bowls, a lone porcelain cup with delicate flower inlay, and an assortment of less than a dozen plastic rainbow hangers. Numahata abides by the traditional Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, a form of austere minimalism that embraces imperfection. Numahata’s admirable style lies within his ballsy integrity and resilience against the incessant demands of consumerism. Most importantly, his version of minimalism does not seem expensive or completely cleansed of his culture.

Donald Judd Dining Table. The Judd Foundation.

Not only can minimalism be healthy as a personal philosophy, but also can also offer spiritual release as an aesthetic preference. I adore the great American minimalists such as Agnes Martin and Donald Judd, whose works encourage introspection and for the viewer to actively complete the work within one’s own mind space. Judd rejected trendy, mass-produced furniture in favor of either discarded antiques or making his own. If you see a simple table by Judd, examine its clean lines and straightforward construction, and think, “I can do that”, perhaps that’s precisely what he wanted you to realize. His work upheld the importance of the skilled laborer and the artists’s craftsmanship, which is quickly disappearing from society today.

Ydessa Hendele, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002.

However, it is also important to treasure the philosophical depth of art that does not fall under minimalism. The exhibition The Keeper now on view at the New Museum featured Ydessa Hendeles’s room-sized installation Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002), a maximalist’s exploration of how the habit of collecting and preserving is a passion that is only human. Amassing objects serve as a means of connecting to a community of like-minded collectors. How sad it would be if our tastes slowly began to converge, homogenize, and destroy these richly diverse communities.

Minimalism cannot be bought or consumed. It is not beneficial to champion minimalism as an excuse to eliminate the organic grime of urban neighborhoods, or masking the blight caused by gentrification through showy new developments. There are other productive ways to exercise minimalism that does not involve spending copious amounts of resources on white marble, sprawling real estate, and branded monochromatic clothing. A more humanistic minimalism involves an inner self-satisfaction with what is already there, and a willingness to parse down what we do not honestly need, because desire and fulfillment are ultimately psychological.