September 30, 2017

Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony

The artist shares his “flight plan” for the exhibition

“This whole tea ceremony is my Japanese obsessive midlife crisis project,” says Tom Sachs about his new exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center. “It’s the most pain in the ass thing I’ve ever done.”

That’s high praise coming from the conceptual artist, whose oeuvre reveals an exacting, rigorous, painstakingly detailed approach to every work or project. The experience of a Sachs installation tiptoes around pleasure and revelation. The attitude balances taking nothing seriously and taking everything very seriously. In previous projects, he’s colonized the moon and served up happy meals overlaid with Hermés logos. His interests range from Barbie to Hello Kitty to NASA; he’s collaborated with Nike and Frank Ocean.

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Inside the tea house

Tea Ceremony reflects Sachs’ methods of hybridizing cultures and bricolage. He has taken chanoyu, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and restyled it. When Sachs was in Dallas for the media preview of the exhibit, he walked through the ceremony’s “flight plan.” A small shack in the “outer garden” serves as first stop. There guests lock their cell phones in the “Faraday Cage,” warm their hands with a bowl of hot coals, and don lab coats, Nike mitten socks, and sneakers converted into garden sandals. In some versions of the flight plan this would be where guests smoke marijuana. This is not so at the Nasher.

From there, they enter the “inner garden” for the Purification Ritual in the tsukubai, or wash basin, with the option to use Purell instead. They admire the bonsai tree, which has bronzed toothbrushes, tampons and Q-tips for branches. And then they enter the tea house for sake, snacks, games, and, of course, tea.

Sachs first became interested in the traditional ceremony while he was in rehabilitation after a surgery. A friend invited him to attend a ceremony to see the way it related to the methodical coordination training they were doing in the gym. But it wasn’t until years later when he was working on his Space Program: Mars for the Park Avenue Armory he began to see the tea ceremony as the perfect metaphor for cultural appropriation.

“You know, the Japanese tea ceremony was taken from China and these tea bowls from Korea,” says Sachs. “You take that to modern times and how Canon and Nikon made better forms of Leica; the Japanese optics after the war made better cameras than the ones they imitated. And if you want a fancy pair of jeans now, you buy jeans made in Japan because they have the old looms from San Francisco, which were originally an Italian invention popularized in the United States.”

This project became a good place to explore globalization, changing cultures and exploitation. But he says more than anything it became a framework to make all the stuff that inhabits the exhibition. Sachs’ work demonstrates both a playfulness and a mastery. “I love control, I love chaos and entropy,” he says. “It’s finding a balance that’s the magic. Power in control, a mastery.” —Lauren Smart

The Details: Nasher Sculpture Center, 2001 Flora Street. On view through January 7. Tuesday–Sunday, 11:00 a.m.–5 p.m. nashersculpturecenter.org