Tea, Tradition, and Tom Sachs at the Noguchi Museum

Installation shot, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation shot, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Participating in a tea ceremony at the Noguchi Museum as part of Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony felt like a highly controlled experience from the beginning, as are traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. There were many instructions: fill out a form at least a week in advance, watch three videos detailing Sachs’ studio process (enjoyable spoofs(?) on rules: Ten Bullets, COLOR, and Love Letter to Plywood), show up an hour before the event, and then wait to see if you receive a text selecting you to participate. So for unprepared me, this meant a hurried bike ride to the Noguchi Museum on a Sunday morning and not a little bit of anticipation after such investment. “Greetings” came the text around 11:45 am: “You have been selected..”

Garden shoes for the Tea Ceremony performance

Garden shoes for the tea ceremony performance

I had applied for a 12 pm Tea Ceremony with Johnny Fogg because it appealed to my interest in Tom Sachs and how his work would translate into this kind of event, but honestly I had no idea what was involved. As I learned, these tea ceremonies, held Tom Sachs-style and hosted by Johnny Fogg, present long-standing and complex Japanese ritual in new guise, complementing the Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony exhibition on view in the rest of the Museum. The small retrospective of Sachs’s imperfect, detailed work shows culturally appropriation run rampant with motifs of NASA and McDonalds and objects in plywood, resin, and Sharpie.

I and the other guests were invited to don a garment like a cross between a lab coat and a kimono. We surrendered our phones to a locked box. We removed our own shoes and put on tabi socks and “garden shoes” to prepare ourselves to enter the tea garden. Our host Johnny Fogg introduced himself and led us outside. The tea garden (in this case, the first semi-outdoor rooms of the Noguchi Museum) featured the clearly distinct sculptural work of Noguchi and Sachs. Noguchi is present in minimalist works made from natural materials. Sachs applied his distinctive assembly of mass materials to create a plywood shelter and bench marked United States and three angular “rocks” of grey wood coated in resin. We sat down on them, looking over at a resin-coated cardboard pagoda and lit stove with tennis balls serving as feet for the structure.

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Johnny Fogg introduced us to what was about to happen, encouraging questions about the ritual we were about to undergo. While formal, this ceremony would not follow all the rules of a traditional ceremony and that we as guests were not expected to come to it with any degree of knowledge of how to behave. Lucky for me! He offered us ceremonial tobacco, demonstrating the beautiful ember hidden in a mountain of ash, but there were no smokers in our group. The tea ceremony attracted a small group of onlookers who followed us as we paraded across the tea garden in our white coats and strange shoes to a gate. There were also lanterns, a koi pond and, perhaps less clearly related to Japanese tea gardens, an airplane lavatory.


We were formally led through the gate and instructed in how to cleanse our hands at the hand washing station. Then we were led to the tea house. Leaving our garden shoes outdoors, we entered through the low door on our butts and sat on tatami mats in a 9 x 9 foot room. A plastic kettle, a scroll painting featuring Muhammad Ali for a small shrine called a tokonoma (reading in characters: “It Ain’t Bragging If You Can Back It Up”), and a white plywood contraption labelled with numbers were the other objects in the room. We paused to meditate, the timer Johnny set to 90 seconds ending with a loud BUZZ.


Space Suit, 2007–11, Tyvek and mixed media

Finally, after this preparation, the tea ceremony could begin, not with tea–as I expected–but with sake. It appeared on a tray through the door behind our host in neat resin cups and saucers. Next came a Ritz cracker with a smear of peanut butter (“the brown wave”). Then Johnny Fogg placed an individual Oreo on its own small platter before us (“the sun at midnight”). Each course came on its own tray and required individual presentation. Then we arrived at the matcha–matcha, fine green tea powder, is blended with hot water to create a cup for each guest. The cups were uneven, handmade white ceramic vessels with NASA across the front, not particularly matched. One was simply all black. Johnny made each guest a cup of matcha, going through several steps of dusting off the already clean equipment, pouring water, and sifting matcha. It involved many pieces of re-purposed equipment, including a Yoda PEZ dispenser. We each drank in turn. We discussed the history of tea ceremony in Japan and, for newbies, our impressions of matcha. The watching crowd dispersed over time, and the quiet sounds around the room–of birds or wind–became more apparent. I felt more open to the other participants sharing this intimate space with me.

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Finally, we played games. This was not a competitive environment. We each raked a rock garden in turn  and admired what others did before and after us. Then we were handed a Sharpie, presented brand-name toward us, and a sheaf of white paper. The game was to do whatever we wanted with these materials. I made a paper airplane, then started drawing. And kept drawing. Eventually Johnny’s voice rather than the buzzer interrupted us–he hadn’t wanted to stop us since we were all so intent, so he had turned it off. The tea ceremony was over, we exited, put back on the garden shoes, walked to the entrance, removed our gear, and said goodbye.

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Japanese tradition and the forces of modernity appear both in the work of Noguchi and Sachs, albeit materializing in very different aesthetics. Yet it is invigorating to the Noguchi Museum to create room for such a comparison in their space. And the performative element of the tea ceremony really allowed the space itself to breath, creating an awareness of you the viewer in the space and the object before you, a consciousness that feels very in tune with Noguchi’s work.

Tea ceremonies with guest participants will be performed through July 24 as part of the larger exhibition Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony on view at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City.

Pigeons Light Up the East River: Last Week for Duke Riley’s “Fly by Night”


“Wanna go to a pigeon art thing in the Navy Yard?” Generally, when I’ve asked this, my friends give me skeptical looks. I get it; pigeons are not usually the vehicle for art and I myself am not a huge pigeon fan. Living in New York, I tend to ascribe them all the health and cleanliness of our subway rats. But Creative Time‘s latest summer intervention in public space is changing my mind.


The premise of the Fly By Night is that artist Duke Riley has raised and trained some 2,000 pigeons that he keeps in coops on a retired war ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. As dusk on weekends, the pigeons are released to swoop and sweep across the sky with very small but bright LED lights attached to their legs. Against the night sky, they create a shifting constellation of lights that is sweet, subtle, and enchanting. When I viewed it from the roof of a nearby wine bar, I and the rest of the crowd were entranced for the long show, like children watching quiet fireworks. When I saw it last night, after waiting in the stand-by line for tickets, the crowd was excited, letting out big gasps of excitement as the pigeons were shooed by handlers off the coops and flew out right above us.

The performance is durational, occurring over about half and hour at the onset of dusk, and not precisely controlled. People on deck let the pigeons out of the coops and then wave big flags in the air, which seemed more like gestures that would keep the birds aloft than specific ‘pigeon signaling’ technique. The birds tended to fly in one of two small flocks, but I certainly saw rogue pigeons breaking from the generally cyclone-esque formation of the others. It is both an ambitious and modest approach to nature: ambitious to control so many live animals for a light show and modest in that it does not seek absolute control but allows the birds to fly according to their natures. That is, Riley cannot truly control how each bird will fly. I wonder if he can really know if they will all fly home when the whistle blows at the end.


Fly By Night recalls in its title the night missions of birds used as messengers, and the project as a whole recalls the history of raising pigeons on city rooftops, which Riley has done for some time. It’s easy to forget several things about this teeming, dirty, built-up city–and the ever-present nature in the form of pigeons and the water encircling the boroughs is certainly part of that. Overlooking the East River on a summer night one sees the lights of city buildings rather than stars. But the pigeons’ shifting, live constellations of light bring a semblance of the night sky to anyone willing to pause and look. Sentimental? Maybe a bit. But fundamentally enjoyable and worth being reminded of.


This is the last week of Fly By Night–check it out this upcoming Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night either by showing up early to wait for a stand-by ticket, or viewing the performance from the rooftop vineyard Rooftop Reds or any other roof you can gain access to in the Navy Yards, or from Manhattan’s East River Park Amphitheater.

Warped Histories: Goshka Macuga at the New Museum


Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

What do a snake, curators of an international art biennial in Germany, and a destroyed Afgan palace have in common? Historically, very little. Goshka Macuga is known for weaving such disparate motifs together into photo-realistic tapestries that present semi-fictitious, complex narratives. “Goshka Macuga: Time as Fabric” at the New Museum presents several tapestry works, as well as the stage set from a video work, that highlight the performative and archival threads that undergird Macuga’s body of work.

Installation view

Installation view of theatrical environment of Preparatory Notes

The first thing the viewer sees stepping off the elevator at the New Museum is a quirky stage set featuring over-sized elements of pastiche, riffing on art history and politics (not unlike Jim Shaw’s Labyrinth... installed on the 5th Floor of the New Museum not so long ago). Like the tapestries, these backgrounds and props are largely black and white. Retaining this somber grey-scale palette from its photographic source makes an implicit claim to verisimilitude yet the objects and characters are blown up to absurd life-size proportions. Branches carefully prop up faces from a cast of characters ranging from Angela Merkela to the artist. Macuga has reinstalled this theatrical environment from a performance at the 8th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, Preparatory Notes (2014). Video documentation of it is screened in the basement theater every Wednesday.


Tapestry based on Tadeuz Kantor’s The Letter (1967)

Around the rest of the space, tapestries line the walls. They bring together intensely complicated visual–and thereby historical–manipulations onto a large scale. The tapestries, made in Brussels from large composite digital files manipulated in Photoshop, invoke a rich history. For example, Macuga, who was born in Warsaw, recreated Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor’s 1967 performance in Warsaw, then documented it, and made it into an enormous tapestry. As a medium, tapestries are outmoded wall coverings that once acted as important symbols of prestige and power, often used by rulers to tell stories about themselves. Here, Macuga uses the antiquated form to her own ends, shaping a story from the documentation of the recreation of a performance. This implicates her, and us of the contemporary moment, in the original performance. For the viewer, there is the additional pull of the fine weave and how artfully the collage registers as verisimilitude, almost seeming to be a large print rather than a woven textile until seen up-close.


Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

Macuga’s Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not is one of two tapestries that the artist created in 2012 for dOCUMENTA. She showed one in Kassel, Germany and one in Kabul, Afganistan for the duration of the exhibition. The composition reflects these two strange dueling contexts. The destroyed Darul Aman palace in the background resembles a building in Kassel. Standing people in Western clothes (the dOCUMENTA curators) look at the sitting or reclining Afgan people in front of them. The Afgans seem to look toward the center, where an enormous snake, out-of-scale but convincing, raises its head and looks out a the viewer. If tapestry has a history of filling an political function, here the series of gazes points accusingly at the viewer. This vast panorama and impossible history laid out for the viewer suggests the warping of time and historical currents created through art to bring Afganistan and Germany, past and present, art and conflict into uneasy, unsustainable relation. Only through art can you attain that suspension of disbelief, or collapse of distinction, and I would say that the tapestry argues to questionable end.

Detail, The Lost Forty

Detail, The Lost Forty

Macuga creates thoughtfully warped views of history. For more information, a great article about the making of The Lost Forty on the Walker Art Center blog details the complex production of the composite image used as the basis for the tapestry. The Walker invited the artist to spent time in their archives, which led her to the position figures from throughout its history from its founder to herself in 40 acres of pristine forest nearby, the lost forty acres of the work’s title. The article gives a sense of how carefully Macuga creates these fictional scenes with such verisimilitude and historical perversity.

“Goska Macuga: Time as Fabric” is on view through June 26, 2016.