TEA TIME: Artist Thomas Jeppe Investigates The Great East-West Tea Divide
“When we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.”
In his seminal 1906 essay, The Book of Tea, art theorist and scholar Okakura Kakuzō laid out the impact of tea culture on Japanese life, its reach stretching as far as the fields of art and architecture. A concept which remains virtually unknown to western audiences, teaism – the synthesis of Taoism, Zennism, and tea – is above all a tradition of simplicity.
In search of such simplicity in contrast to the subjectivity of the art world, German gallery director Florian Baron traveled to Taiwan, participating in local tea traditions in the East Asian state. Upon his return to Germany in 2012, artist THOMAS JEPPE, alongside fellow artist and friend Thomas Baldischwyler, sat down with Baron to discuss his experiences. The conversation prompted Jeppe to investigate further, traveling to Taiwan to research the context in which such tea cultures exist. The result of his travels and discussions is Asiatische Adlernase, an exhibition of original artwork by Jeppe, accompanied by a published appendix of the original interview. In its entirety, the conversation, research, and exhibition form a comprehensive case of the artist’s confabulation of abstract journalism. An excerpt from Jeppe’s discussion with Baron and Baldischwyler follows. The full interview from Asiatische Adlernase (Edition Taube, 2012) is available in an edition of 250 via our online store.
BALDISCHWYLER: The novel À rebours (1884) by J.K. Huysmans was one of the most important books for Dandyism in the end of the 19th century. His protagonist created a liquor organ, sitting in his house, playing this organ and every type of liquor comes out. When I saw your tea shelf, it appeared to me like this: a ‘tea organ.’
BARON: Indeed, the Dandyism from the 19th century was always about sophistication; to bring things to the highest point. Unlike China, the foreground was not craftsmanship or tradition but more an idea of to be hysterical at its best. It was the time of the hysteria, followed by Neurasthenia which was the mental sickness of the 19th century in Europe. Now we have the time of bore out and burn out. Time for tea again!
JEPPE: This is an interesting chronological connection. Tea perhaps began to have this treatment of prestige and refinement at the tail end of the Decadence movement at the beginning of the 20th century, for which The Book Of Tea (Okakura Kakuzō, 1906) would be the catalyst.
BARON: A very important book. But everything in this book is about Japanese ideas of tea. The Japanese world of tea is completely different. The Japanese are crazy about freshness. For Sincha, the earliest picking in a tea year, they pay money like hell.
The finest tea you can have in Japan is called Gyokuro, “shadow tea.” It’s one of the most expensive teas there, but it’s not easy to produce. After a period of sun, they put shade cloth over the complete plantation, and they try as long as they can to leave the leaf under the protection without dying. Because the sun is missing, the tree has to produce chlorophyll, and the leaf is getting more and more green and intense. When you open it again, the leaf is picked and processed. This has a super high chlorophyll content.
Another very popular one for them is Matcha. I drink this every morning. It’s a tea powder made out of good quality green tea and pulverized into dust. In the Japanese Chadō it’s very complicated; to drink it in the traditional way it can take hours. If I do it, it takes twenty seconds. [Laughs.]
The Japanese way of tea, Chadō, is completely different. In Chadō, tea is like a tool to make it easier to get in the zen idea. It would also work without the tea, but tea makes it a little bit easier to have something to talk about in zen. I did the Chadō also, but for me it’s not really the way. There’s something in it that I don’t need.
JEPPE: I was reading The Book Of Tea about tea rooms in Japan. They would build a room, it would be very stripped back and parts of the room would be unfinished so that, in a way, your imagination takes over in finishing the space. Very sparse, very simple, and seemingly very impoverished. Always the smallest room in the house, ten square feet. But they also say that there’s as much effort and thought put into constructing this room as there is in any mansion.
BARON: This has to do with the idea of the Japanese culture, and the Chadō. When you start the ceremony, first you have a waiting area in the garden. You wait, and you sit there, the master’s assistant gives you a light green tea, you drink it and feel a little easy and calm down. Then you have this door that is not really a door, it’s very low so you have to stoop to get in. Then you are dropped in this “tea room” world, where you lose every connection with the world outside.
JEPPE: This quote from The Book Of Tea – “The greatest pleasure is to do an act by stealth and to have it found out by accident”; the culture of tea being “the art of concealing beauty so that you may discover it, suggesting what you dare not reveal.” So really, rather than a direct statement, it’s a quiet and almost hidden gesture.
BARON: This is the art in the tearoom. I went, and I couldn’t understand a word but they translated some of it to me, and it was in a way a boring discussion always. The tea master brings his pottery, so there are some very important things in the tea house. At one special moment he shows this tea bowl to you, for example. And you look at it very carefully. You are on your knees, which after 30 minutes hurts very much, but you have to smile all the time, and say, “Ah, this is a nice tea bowl. Where did you find it?” And the tea master says, “Ah. I remember it was a nice day in Kyoto. A neighbour of mine said, ‘Look at the sun; isn’t it nice?’ And at this moment, I saw the bowl, shimmering somewhere…” [Laughs.] Always like this. Then after a couple of minutes, you say, “Thank you master for explaining me this wonderful story, I won’t forget it in my lifetime.” And he says, “You’re very welcome. But have you seen this one…” [Laughs.] One hour later, the show is done.
BALDISCHWYLER: Drinking is how much time, in this procedure?
BARON: Not really much time, maybe ten percent.
JEPPE: Is there an understanding of how funny this is?
BARON: No it’s not funny for them. For them it’s really a kind of honor, to see these super things. For me it’s in a way funny, but of course it’s not funny at all. It’s the same for Kendo: I try to understand. They say, “Okay, in this moment you make a move, and you move until he or you is dead.” This is always the idea – taking responsibility for your behavior and being present. If you take the tea bowl, in this moment, you have it here, so there is nothing else, just the moment. If you drink, you drink. There is nothing else but drinking. If you draw your sword, be ready to fight. It is always the idea of doing exactly what you do in this moment and nothing else. It’s hard to learn for a European.
With this, Japan will always be a mystic thing for me. In Taiwan and China it’s easier to understand the ideas of tea. They are more about hedonism, in a way. They love eating, they love good tea, they love all these things that I like too.
JEPPE: The Japanese way of tea is very aestheticized, but I’m really interested in this Taiwanese form, where despite the fact that it is an expert culture, there is less focus on the physical appearance of the surrounds. In Taiwanese tea rooms, where people might drink under fluorescent lights, no attention paid to the interior, perhaps this situation makes it more about the social event. In this photograph of you having lunch with your tea teacher in Taipei, I saw that they had newspaper pages instead of a tablecloth?
BARON: Yes, to cover the table.
JEPPE: Is that normal there?
BARON: Well, in the tea masters house they do it every day. If you do the same tea study trip to Japan, you would get a different image. It was never like our idea of “nice” in Taiwan. Except for the very high places for tea, but they were very expensive and not the normal places for tea. It’s a different idea of cosiness.
JEPPE: It is seemingly not an idea of cosiness.
BARON: No – the cosiness happens between the people. But everything surrounding the people is not something that we would call nice. But if you are in these rooms together with them, you don’t have the feeling that something is missing there. Trousers are trousers, that’s it, they are good for two legs. They don’t have the idea of style like here. Their fashion is obviously not influenced by international design standards.
JEPPE: Why not?
BARON: I don’t know. Of course, there are some style-conscious people, but mostly you don’t see it.
JEPPE: So it sounds like a place where the framework for a contemporary culture of aesthetics and a sense of idiosyncratic personal style are missing in a way.
BARON: I went searching for this. I visited a super underground club in Taipei to see a punk concert. I arrived and it was really like a student club here in the smallest German town. There is no real subculture in Taiwan.
BALDISCHWYLER: Like what I had with Breakcore music before I visited Australia: I knew there were people who make Breakcore in the strangest countries, and I thought this spread of subculture was everywhere, that something like this in Taiwan would exist.
BARON: It does not. I’m quite sure. I tried to find the punk rock idea, and even the handmade subculture in a way, and even the club culture. This one club was run by Americans who lived in Taipei for a couple of years, Americans with a typical ideal of gold chains and baseball caps. The club usually played Jungle music and these guys would MC in the baddest way I ever saw. “Hey, Taipei, Taipei! Everything cool here okay!” What is up with these guys? But the Taiwanese locals came in and they took pictures of the “event” to show their friends in school, to say, “Ah, I saw the coolest party in Taipei last night.” Nothing happens in these places. It’s really not fun, it’s not cool. Just drinking for the ex-pats, who try to copy their culture, but it always fails a little bit.
BALDISCHWYLER: But it is a good feeling to be in such an uncool place.
BARON: It was an incredible trip because different things are getting more important. First the super gentle people. Of course this really high tea level and the superb food.
JEPPE: This is a crucial point, because these are the conditions in which tea culture is developed and maintained. These conditions are not in Europe, and the tea culture is not in Europe.
BARON: But they started with tea culture a long time ago in Asia.
Jeppe: Yet there has been tea in Europe for some centuries. So tea becomes a symbol of this very complicated situation. It comes from a place that is fundamentally different to our own, and the question is whether there is a way of making the core elements of this culture relevant. Because it seems that in this form, which Florian is talking about, the conditions that make Taiwanese tea function are not present in Europe. Or anywhere else but the East. What can we take from it to make it work, for it to be meaningful for us?
BALDISCHWYLER: So we have this cultural context in which the tea ceremonies are held, and this cultural context is totally without any prestige, etc., but the long singular culture lineage that they have is this tea. The tea is something like the ritual to structure the days with history.
JEPPE: So how do you start a ritual where there isn’t one? How do you build it in Europe?
BALDISCHWYLER: You mean, when you are inspired by this ritual from another culture, how can you transcribe the ritual to your culture?
BARON: I don’t know; this is something I thought a lot about. Because of course it’s artificial to celebrate tea here like there. This ceremonial equipment I normally don’t use. I use tea a lot less formally in my daily life. But it’s more complicated to put it in your daily life because you don’t always have the right hot water, then getting the materials in this country is not so easy. If you know where you can buy it, you could get one hundred grams of this super tea, but it’s not really normal like Taiwan. You saw the farmers there, with garbage bags full of tea being scooped out. This is normal. It’s not pretentious. Over here, everything is very quickly pretentious, because we pull it out of its context. The hardest thing is to bring in a tea culture in Germany or somewhere else in Europe and to make it normal. For us it’s normal to take out a teabag from the Rewe supermarket, Rooibos Vanilla, put it inside your cup with hot water, and you drink this. The boys say, “I don’t like tea, I drink coffee.” The girls say, “I love tea, it’s so cosy.” And this is what you think about tea. This is it.
But I did take some steps to bring tea here properly. My first idea was to open a tea bar here in Hamburg, like the Starbucks coffee concept in Asia. Let’s found it, we’ll do tea drinks with green and black tea, very fancy for advertisement people and art guys and so forth. It can work, I’m quite sure. In the end we didn’t make it because I had problems with the business partners after half a year. But I continued thinking about bringing tea into our society in a new way. We asked people about this, but not many of them understood it. You have to break a lot of rules, and a lot of ways people are stuck in.
I met some tea freaks from Frankfurt, young boys maybe 24, 25, and they looked like typical “It-Boys,” very slick. Their tea dealer does very high class Japanese teas, and they told me they are very in this Frankfurt Elektro music scene, and they do tea parties in the summer time in the River Main, drinking highly concentrated Matcha powder tea – the drug idea, where you’re really flashing and hysterical in a way – and then they dance. After I met these people, I thought if these people do it, I can make it so everybody is doing it. Maybe. But this is a long way. This will never make it to German daily life; I don’t know how to bring it in.
Even when I went back to the lady who introduced me to tea twelve years ago, I went there and we talked about tea again, and now I’m completely different and know more than her, and she’s completely closed. She doesn’t want to talk to me about tea. I don’t know why. The people who are a little bit more into tea in Germany for their tea knowledge, they think they have the secret and it’s impossible to be better than them. Which is stupid, because this is a culture of talking, and comparing, and living tea, in a way.
BALDISCHWYLER: But this is the competitive society problem, when you come together with people with the same interests, you always have this sense of competition. It’s good to meet people where it’s not competitive, where it’s not about, “I know more than you know.”
What you said about the guys who always keep it a big mystery – it’s something against progression.
BARON: Not a good ground for tea parties.
JEPPE: It’s not good for business, but perhaps in the end it is good for the culture.
BARON: That you don’t exchange knowledge? I don’t think so.
JEPPE: More the broader implication, that tea culture can only exist under certain conditions. It thrives in Taiwan, but it can’t work here. It has a really intense locality that cannot be broken.
BARON: This is really anti-global, and this I think is really good. You have to go to the source. It’s too hot for me there, it’s too humid, there are tiled floors even in the bedroom, I don’t like it, it’s ugly, but this is the best place for tea. So I have to go there. And this is in a way okay.
BALDISCHWYLER: Be happy that you are not into Gammelfisch from Sweden. The only place that you can eat it is Sweden because it is forbidden everywhere else. This old fish, and it’s stinky, and they have tents where they give the fish to the people, because all the flies would come and they would not be able to eat the fish. They eat it in a tent, and part of the people have something on their noses because it’s stinking so massively.
BARON: You tried this?
BALDISCHWYLER: No, I saw a documentary. Good that it was not a “smelling-TV.” And it was no joke. So it’s really nice that there are regional traditions that only exist in certain parts of the world. We have this time where cultural globalisation is not a bad concept, because it helps to tear down prejudices, etc. This is what I think of when I come from an idealistic point of view. But on the other side, it’s really beautiful what you just said, that it’s just possible to have this tea in Taiwan, that it’s just possible to eat the stinky fish in Sweden. There are these two sides.
The full interview from Asiatische Adlernase is available in an edition of 250 at 032c.com/store.
Asiatische Adlernase is published by Edition Taube (2nd edition, Stuttgart 2013).