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..”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.