Somewhere inside of an ordinary hour, in the autumn of the previous century, Shōzō Satō sat down to draw an ensō in a single black brushstroke of ink. 

If some part of you can see the figure still shining itself dry a few moments later, can you see when it began to make incompleteness the condition of its completion? 

Fig. 4. Sato, Shozo, Ensō: Zen Circle, 1990, Sumi-e, 59.69 x 49.53, Gift of the Artist

It’s true that these things happen all the time. In the lexical cradle one word makes for another, like the wind caught in a window. In the ordinary way that any concept calls back to its opposite, simply by showing its face.

Still, this ensō is not identical with an idea or a shape, even if the form itself has been a standard expression in Japanese Zen art since at least the fifteenth century. It now circulates as a variable corporate logo or piece of product packaging, shorthand for serenity and ease. But it is never easy to see the singularity of anything that is actually in front of us. For example, the way that this particular ensō has an internal seam of care and an evenness of tempo that we can trace across the striations of limpid gray in its curve.   

In his book The Art of Sumi-e Satō offers instructions for placing one circle inside of another by aligning the gesture of the hand with the measured spinning of the brush, which should be pressed downward and to the right as soon as the bristles touch the paper while the hand rotates “the handle slowly to the right between thumb and forefinger so that the brush itself makes a complete circle.”

Fig. 5. Ensō (detail), photographed by a cellular phone assembled in China and containing rare earth metals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And so it has; somewhere inside of an ordinary day, in a year when history itself was purporting to be at an end. Though it was not autumn but the summer of 1989 when Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed that a century which “began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an ‘end of ideology’ or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as previously predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.”

Born in Kobe, Japan in 1933, Satō traveled with his father to Hiroshima in search of surviving relatives after the U.S. nuclear attack on August 6, 1945. They slept outside in the decimated city for weeks and found no one.

Years after learning that the sustained exposure to radiation he incurred during that trip had left him sterile, Satō would reroute the word into his description of what remained alive in the dynamism of a brushstroke’s impact (unpitsu no kihaku). The visible history in living lines should “‘cut the paper’ and remain with the work unfadingly through the centuries. A kind of radiation, you may not be able to see this power, but it is there, penetrating your bones and moving your soul.”

Here, the bristles of the brush separate to expose the underlying paper where the circle’s outer edges crumble into streaks of “flying white” as the incompletion of the arc offers a gift to what is lost and what persists.  It pulses in the afterglow of liquid darkness, holding the form open, tenderly now, to the event of our seeing.

Fig. 6. Ensō, “Given in memory of Mary Hagihara Kujawski Roberts. Her life was short in duration, her legacy reached a full circle in the richness of her contributions.”