The New Haven tea party

Lightness. Weightlessness. Every bowl, tea scoop and scroll is gravity-resistant, resting contentedly against elegant tatami mats, fine-grained wood planks and cream-colored walls. All is still, every piece perfectly placed: Rearrangement, the perturbation of a single object, is sacrilege. Chanoyu, the spirit of 16th century Japanese tea culture, seeps through the walls and drips from each utensil. This is not New Haven, neither Gothic nor brutalist — this is another world.

Visually stunning and artistically comprehensive, “Tea Culture of Japan: Chanoyu Past and Present” at the Yale University Art Gallery explores the development of wabi, the clean-lined, simple and reserved aesthetic of chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony.

Sadako Ohki, exhibition organizer and the Gallery’s Japan Foundation Associate Curator of Japanese Art, emphasizes the internationalization and openness of chanoyu.

“I want the visitors to see clearly that the Japanese chanoyu tea culture is neither dead nor exclusive,” Ohki wrote in an e-mail. “Wabi is more of an attitude than a code of practice. It can be practiced and enjoyed today in this country or anywhere in the world once they adopt the tea culture as a part of their life.”

Pre-Wabi tea culture, presented in the first of three sections, displays ostentatious artifacts from the medieval warrior-class tea service, in which revelry and opulence were paramount. A lavishly colored No robe, worn by actors at warrior tea parties, displays a lightning zigzag pattern overlaid with clouds and suns, embodying the heavenly power such warriors coveted. Further on, two six-panel screens, one depicting a maple and the other a cherry tree, expand outward as blossoms and leaves overwhelm the confines of the paintings. One feels assaulted, accosted by the indelicate attention-hogging style of the medieval Japanese aesthetic. The perfect austerity of Hokusai and Hiroshige had yet to come.

Every revolution needs a revolutionary: Rikyu, the grand tea master of the 16th century, democratized and purified Japanese tea culture. Hand-shaped pottery replaced perfectly symmetrical Chinese bowls, and bamboo tea scoops took the place of imported ivory scoops of the medieval era. The humble, misshapen tea bowl and non-descript bamboo scoop ordained a new spirit of aesthetic purity and inward, contemplative ceremony in which spatial arrangement gained particular importance.

Ohki finds value in such rough, handmade implements.

“I want [visitors] to see the beauty in the individual expression, in the impoverished and the imperfect, for example, in thin bamboo tea scoops carved by tea masters themselves,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Each has its own unique character just like hand-written brush writing.”

The full-size tearoom is masterfully arranged to demonstrate the role of Zen in wabi. A scroll hangs in the tokonoma alcove, narrating the tea service with calligraphic poems and stories. Scoop, whisk and water pot huddle together near a paper screen, while the black and gold-flecked tea bowl, named Kaedegure (Twilight by the Maples), sits askance under the scroll. Japanese tearooms are confined and distinct spaces; they have small, almost child-sized portals such that, upon entry, even the most boastful warrior must bow his head in respect.

Korean artist Lee Lee-Nam’s meditative video of bamboo leaves gathering snow, modeled on an 18th-century painting, addresses the continuity and innovation of chanoyu in modern times. Television is inimical to the spirit of the Japanese tea ceremony, yet, through Lee-Nam’s film, an elegant scroll intersects the dynamism of nature. The technical and the cultural can, perhaps, coexist.

Japan is ceremonial. Tea reflects the wildly elaborate Japanese cultural labyrinth that so slyly, simply and beautifully eludes comprehension. Appreciation, however, is easier, and “Tea Culture of Japan” inspires it in droves.

The exhibition runs through April 26.

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