I’m eating a single Ritz cracker, its underbelly embellished with a creamy wave of peanut butter. It arrived on a perfect square of painted plywood, escorted by an overflowing plywood cup of cold sake. One Oreo follows this course, then green tea, steaming in a handmade, fingerprint-pockmarked ceramic bowl emblazoned with four letters: NASA.
The refreshments were served by Tom Sachs — we’re perched on tatami mats, barefoot, inside a teahouse that appears unfinished: it’s constructed of more plywood and exposed insulation foam, with edges painted red and white like striped barricade tape and a roof of corrugated metal. This is Sachs’s tea ceremony, the American bricoleur’s take on the centuries-old and incredibly stylized Japanese social tradition of chanoyu, centered on drinking matcha. Providing the setting is the Noguchi Museum, where implements of the rite are also on display as part of the artist’s retrospective, curated by Dakin Hart.
During my private ceremony, I am not just a visitor but honored guest, and Sachs, the well-trained host. As the ancient ritual dictates, he — or another tea master, depending on the day — prepares, presents, and offers refreshments in a serene setting over a number of hours. The history of chanoyu, though, is likely devoid of tea masters who purify their utensils with a Zerostat anti-static gun, boil water in a Panasonic water heater with one-touch functionality, or egg you on to “suck it” as you feebly try to smoke from a handmade pipe packed with recreational drugs. I also wear a kimono in the form of a Nike logo-emblazoned lab coat and walk while wobbling on geta, which, here, are made of soccer cleats affixed to plywood blocks.
Yes, we smoked “ganja” — as Sachs calls it — and tobacco; no, that deed is most definitely not part of chanoyu. This new ritual is absolutely Sachsian, incorporating into the framework of the tea ceremony his longtime interests: branding and luxury, manufacture and hardware, travel and space, and US iconography. (Offering this context is a supplementary gallery showing the artist’s previous, non-tea ceremony works.) The Eastern tradition, too, has been his personal subject of study for years, and this iteration emerged out of previous ceremonies held at his Space Program 2.0: Mars installed at the Park Avenue Armory in 2012. If you dig much further into history, you’ll see that the Japanese themselves adopted the ceremony from the Chinese, altering and refining it over the years.
“It would be easy for this to be an example of cultural appropriation, but if you go all the way you become part of it,” Sachs said, adding that while some tea ceremony students were offended with his version, other Japanese masters have loved it.
And go all the way he (and his studio assistants) did: Noguchi’s entire interior garden — the first space visitors enter — now serves as Sachs’s tea garden, housing not just the teahouse but a similarly constructed waiting bench (here’s where guests pass the pipe along with coal-filled hand-warming bowls); a purification station featuring a hand-washing basin (equipped with a Purell dispenser); a plywood pond filled with koi and carp; and a recreation of a Boeing bathroom complete with an incinerating toilet (for those who over-saturate from tea or sake). Sharing the space, scattered throughout, are 12 of Noguchi’s elegantly balanced basalt works. Sachs contributes his own garden sculptures, though of bronze: a 10-foot-tall stupa, a Japanese lantern, and a large bonsai tree. Look closer, however, and the stupa was actually cast from a cardboard sculpture; the lantern, from a Rubbermaid cooler, plastic buckets, and industrial-sized peanut butter jar; and the gleaming shrub, from an assemblage of manufactured objects you would ordinarily stick in your body: toothbrushes, Q-tips, tampons, and one syringe.
Sachs has received the honor of being the first artist ever to have a solo show at the Noguchi Museum besides its founder. This tea ceremony realized from found objects, construction material, and calculated engineering may seem at odds with the organic stone forms for which the Japanese-American sculptor is known, but a love of hybridity and handicraft binds Noguchi and Sachs. Noguchi’s Akari Light Sculptures revitalized traditional Japanese materials (hand-made paper and bamboo) with an industrial and modern touch; the surfaces of his stoneworks reveal the traces of drills, chisels, and hammers much as many of Sachs’s sculptures expose their components and celebrate their rawness.
It happens Isamu Noguchi, too, hosted his own tea ceremonies: an especially notable one occurred in 1951 at the Charles and Ray Eames’ Case Study House No. 8 in California, with none other than Charlie Chaplin as the guest of honor. That occasion, too, edited aspects of chanoyu: meals were served on the Eames’s year-old Wire Base Low Tables and illuminated by Noguchi’s Akari Light Sculptures.
At Sachs’s ceremony, just as the Japanese tradition does dictate, his guests follow a specific path to navigate this setting of nature-meets-hardware store. At the entrance, after donning the branded garb and choosing a pair of shoes, I’m made to rid my person of material weight, from my bag to my iPhone, before being led to the waiting bench in what Sachs deems the Outer Garden. The entire journey is leisurely and serene, especially in Noguchi’s building: passage through a gate from the Outer to the Inner Garden — where the tea house stands — is meant to lure you into a deeper state of contemplation and peacefulness, although in Sachs’s world, these sensations are likely augmented by the numerous substances you consume along the way (don’t forget, matcha is a soothing but mild upper).
The main focus of the ceremony, the tea house, is where you’re able to best appreciate Sachs’s dedication to chanoyu and his reinterpretation of its rituals. As Japanese tradition demands, I stoop to enter the room through a small door in a gesture of humility. But inside, replacing decorative objects that usually fill the tokonoma, or alcove, is a wall of hundreds of fine-tip Sharpies (choice American markers); a painted scroll that would typically pay homage to the tea master Sen no Rikyu instead features Muhammad Ali, surrounded by his famed words, in Japanese, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” For the main course of matcha, the more efficient Panasonic brazier is thoughtfully adapted to cradle its wooden ladle (with a folding handle); the scooper for powder springs from its cove in a switchblade handle; and a milk frother with battery-powered propeller blades speeds up the task of a manual tea whisk. The thick, green liquid I receive in my NASA bowl is made in a fraction of the time it would typically take, but the process receives no less attention.
Chanoyu is already a performance steeped in precision. Sachs’s adaptations wholly embrace this meticulousness, from the obsessively crafted objects that introduce efficiency to his own gestures of pouring drinks or bowing on the ground as he slowly but deliberately distributes refreshments. Although absurdities abound in his tea ceremony, we execute them with utter reverence, treating them as nothing but convention. Over the hours I spent honoring Sachs’s customs, taking the lead of the tea master, each peculiarity became less bizarre and more natural in this constructed world. In fact, someone who knows absolutely nothing about chanoyu may feel a similar unfamiliarity that gradually dissipates after participating in or hearing about it for the first time. We all have our own self-crafted rituals that shape our experience of the world — from one as grand as hosting a tea ceremony to as trivial as choosing how to eat an Oreo.
Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony continues at the Noguchi Museum (9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City, Queens) through July 24. You may apply to be a guest at a ceremony with Tom Sachs or another tea master, Johnny Fogg, on the museum’s website.