The Ways of Tea with Johnny Fogg

Words: Johnny Fogg
Images: Maggie Shannon and Johnny Fogg

June 19 2016

There is a sound in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, the sound of water gently boiling in a cast iron kettle, poetically named “Matsukaze” (wind in the pines). It is one of the many subtleties that make the tea ceremony so captivating. Matsukaze becomes the background for many other sonic and visual moments within a tea ceremony: hot water poured from the tea bowl into the waste water container, Matcha whisked quickly and audibly at first, then lightly and gently to make a perfect cup, the polite discourse between the host and guests. This lull of the kettle fills the room, giving the guests a chance to depart from their normal lives, to enter a more simple, quiet and pure space.

My initial experience of Japanese Tea Ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, was a perceptual sensation of the world beyond the tearoom disappearing. I was invited to sit as a guest and was instantly mesmerized.  The host’s preparation of tea was filled with poise and grace, all of the items were useful and necessary, there was an equal weight given to each moment and movement; nothing was superfluous.  Since that introduction, I have formally studied the Tea Ceremony in the Urasenke Tradition of Tea, and have been a host and guest innumerable times. Urasenke is one of three main schools of Tea Ceremony, representing the three grandsons of Sen No Rikyu, the man who is credited with perfecting the way of tea over 500 years ago.  Each ceremony is an opportunity to give my guests that same feeling that my first host gave me, the space to let the outside world and all of its thoughts and concerns fall away.

The details of a Tea Ceremony are too numerous to explain concisely, and are only truly understood through years of formal study. The experience is a four to five hour event, which takes place in a garden and a tearoom. The guest observes the preparation of a charcoal fire, eats a delicious meal with copious sake, takes an intermission, drinks a thick Matcha blend known as a Koicha, watches a rekindling of the charcoal fire, drinks a thinner tea known as Usucha, and then leaves the tea room. The host watches the guests depart until they are out of sight.

Through Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, I’ve been able to offer a slight abbreviation of the formal tea ceremony – with a number of artistic liberties taken and additions made – to many people who have never before experienced it. Tom’s take on the tea ceremony layers moments of serenity amid irreverent fun. A shot clock — complete with a countdown and buzzer — is employed to insure that the guests “BE HERE NOW.” There is a consistent comfort for me in any tearoom, and while there is humor and absurdity in Tom’s ceremony — elevating the Oreo into a poetically named tea sweet for instance — There is the same space to practice being present as in a traditional Tea ceremony.

Beyond any jokes, Tom’s appreciation of the crux of the ceremony, and particularly his ability to create a transcendent experience through the lens of tea, shines through. When I asked why he included Tea Ceremony in his Space Program, Mission to Mars, he said, “The Tea Ceremony is my golden record…” alluding to the phonograph recordings containing sounds, music, images and brainwaves meant to represent the diversity of life and culture on Earth that Carl Sagan sent into space with the Voyager space probe. “If it’s a tradition from earth, and not just an artifact of how we fucked the planet physically and biologically, I’m going to pick the best of what we have to offer, I’m going to pick the Tea Ceremony, it represents the best of what we can achieve.” Tom’s Tea Ceremony is complete with sake cups made with his signature plywood and resin, a Makita drill battery-powered bamboo whisk, and a tea-scoop switch-blade mash-up.

 

Sen No Rikyu believed tea could be summed up in these Seven Rules:

  1. Make a satisfying bowl of tea
  2. Lay the charcoal so that the water boils nicely
  3. Provide a sense of coolness in the summer and warmth in the winter
  4. Arrange the flowers as though they were found in the field
  5. Be ready ahead of time
  6. Be prepared in case it should rain
  7. Act with utmost consideration toward your guests.

 

Likewise, Tom Sachs runs his studio based on the “10 Bullets”:

  1. Work to Code. “Creativity is the Enemy. Innovate incrementally.  Build upon what is there. Innovate as necessary. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
  2. Sacred Space.
  3. Be On Time. “Come Prepared and Commit yourself entirely.”
  4. Thoroughness Counts.
  5. I understand. “Give Feedback, Get Feedback.”
  6. Sent does not mean received. “Get Confirmation.”
  7. Keep A List.
  8. “Always Be Knolling.” Everything organized.
  9. Monetary Sacrifice to Leatherface. “Responsibility or pay a fine.”
  10.  “Press on…*” quote by Ray Kroc

While he is regularly dismissive of the formality and propriety of a Tea Ceremony, Tom’s irreverence towards the Way of Tea is exceeded by his appreciation and respect* for the endurance of the tradition and everything that it encompasses culturally, artistically and spiritually. Most of his 10 Bullets could easily be found in the traditional Ceremony, and it’s been a pleasure to help knit these two disparate schools of thought together.

As part of my own tea-art practice I prepare a variety of teas for people with the aim of creating an atmosphere reminiscent of a formal Tea Ceremony, an oasis for people in an unexpected context. To help create this atmosphere, I have designed the Baisao Tea Room, a nine-foot squared-six-foot tall mobile and modular wooden structure with white muslin fabric walls. I set up my tearoom in public spaces and welcome in anyone with the curiosity to look under the fabric wall. Inside I use beautiful objects and implements to share delicious tea. The sound of a camp-stove is strangely similar to the Matsukaze of the kettle in a traditional tearoom; the serving of tea is punctuated by pouring a ladle-full of cold water into the kettle to silence that sound. Guests of the Baisao Tea Room often remark on the purity and clarity of the silence after the water has boiled, camp-stove turned off, and tea enjoyed.

Since I began studying tea I’ve asked each of my teachers if there is a name or word or phrase for that silence; that moment between where the kettle stops and all other sounds in the world come back into focus; I expected the Japanese phrase to be something untranslatable, but for that concept there are no words.

Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony will be on view at The Noguchi Museum in New York City until the 24th of July.

Johnny Fogg is a photographer and practitioner of The Ways of Tea. You can find his work online or follow him on instagram.

Maggie Shannon is a photographer based in Brooklyn.