Gallery Review | Japanese tea gallery sheds light on an ancient custom
Published: Friday, September 14, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 14, 2012 12:09
The “Unspoken Dialogue with Japanese Tea” exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston is not for a Lipton fan. It transcends the ordinary Celestial Seasons and Mighty Tea Leaf fare, and makes Teavana’s porcelain wares seem like weekend crafts. The exhibition’s collection of ancient and modern pieces of ceramics, incense, cast iron teapots, lacquer ware, baskets, sake cups, kimonos, teacups and other tea-making paraphernalia highlights a centuries-old tea ceremony tradition in Japan that has been re-conceptualized and reconfigured the world over.
“Unspoken” is comprised of artifacts from various MFA collections that celebrate Japan’s traditions of ceramics working, bamboo sculpting and weaving relating to tea ceremonies and the preparation of drinking tea. The focus of the show is less on the actual consumption of the tea and more on tea’s intricate preparation. It is about creating an experience and a mindset in which you can enjoy a silent dialogue.
Utilizing pieces from several MFA collections, including the Bigelow collection of Japanese Art and the Mores Collection of Japanese pottery, the show and its handcrafted pieces call into question the functionality of Japanese tea ceremonies and the concept of conspicuous consumption.
A quote featured near the entrance of the gallery sets the tone for a patron’s interaction with the exhibit. The quote, from 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu, describes the tea ceremony — chanoyu.
“Chanoyu is nothing but this: boil water, infuse tea and drink. That is all you need to know,” says Rikyu.
The actual exhibit is organized in a small gallery on the first floor of the museum, and its light brown wood floors and eggshell-colored walls feel foreign amongst the museum’s heavy stone facade and interior. The walls themselves are lined with the kimonos and preparation pieces. As a patron walks the perimeter and navigates toward the middle of the exhibition, he sees the rituals unfold in unexpected ways. The exhibit is set up to make you move inward physically, but it turns viewers’ focus outward, as the focus is on the guests to both enjoy the tea and savor the company simultaneously.
Curator Anne Nishimura Morse accomplished an unspoken dialogue between the viewer and the art — not about tea but about personality. The show highlights the importance of the small elements and how we interact with our surroundings through function.
The older 17th century lacquers and preserved stoneware pots merge seamlessly with 21st century pieces, thus helping to bridge centuries of traditions that have been reworked. Several of the 18th century kimonos were gifted to the museum from the Bigelow collection and are among the MFA’s thousands of Japanese kimonos in various collections and archives. According to an MFA tour guide, the museum houses over 40,000 woodblock prints.
Of the dozens of artifacts and kimonos, the standout art pieces were modern ones in the Henai style, like Morigami Jin’s “Red Flame,” a basket made of bamboo and rattan. Jin, 57, has been hailed as a Japanese master artist. The thin bamboo fiber makes the basket an unlikely choice as a water container, but it is still appealing and attention-grabbing. The struggle between the functionality and beauty at the root of this piece is also at the heart of “Unspoken,” and showcases the tension between classifying art as either a product or a process.
Nagakua Kenichis’ “Woman,” a sculpture composed of 2000 bamboo stalks, is one of the most complex pieces in the exhibit. The artist’s creation invokes the Woman of Willendorf. When viewed from the front, its careful concaves and subtle lumps and dips seem inconspicuous, but when examined from multiple angles and from a side-view profile, the bamboo structure begins to take on the shape of a woman’s body, subtly at first, before emerging as a stark figure that looks like hips, breasts and an elongated frame. The piece, in a functional sense and in the context of the exhibit, would be used to store fresh water for boiling tea.
Admittedly, in some instances, the exhibition felt disconnected. This is the unsurprising result of the exhibit’s pieces being drawn from several different collections, including the John D. Weber and the Mary Ann Snider collections. This perceived lack of continuity, however, ultimately strengthens the exhibit’s ability to take an act of “boiling water and infusing tea” from a simple act to a connected and significant experience. One must choose to approach the exhibit with that in mind, so that he or she can embrace all the accoutrements necessary to turn a drink into a ceremony.