‘If you think of Tom as a 21st-century Zen monk, setting up to build a tea garden retreat, and you think of Noguchi as the natural landscape, that’s the kind of mindset being established here,” explained Dakin Hart, curator at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, as he passed through the glass doors separating the entrance vestibule from the outer garden of the exhibition “Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony.”
As glimpses of Sachs’s signature style blossom into a new-age sanctuary—fitted with bricolage works (crafted predominately from plywood, Con Ed barriers, and powder-blue foam core) set against Isamu Noguchi’s basalt and limestone sculptures—it becomes clear that Hart has a point.
“Tea Ceremony” is the first solo exhibition to be held at the museum since it opened more than 30 years ago as a site to house and exhibit Noguchi’s work. Sachs—known for his witty cultural appropriations, his interest in precision engineering, and his boyish fascinations—might seem an unlikely choice for this project.
Despite the ostensible differences between Noguchi and Sachs—Noguchi focuses on the sublime, Sachs on social systems; Noguchi celebrates the majestic, while Sachs leans toward the satiric—“Tea Ceremony” establishes a correspondence between the artists that seems to push conventional interpretations of their work.
The exhibition itself centers on Sachs’s adaptation of chanoyu—the Japanese tea ceremony. Sprawling through four jam-packed galleries—including a large tea garden (fitted with a real koi pond and a model of Mount Fuji), two additional rooms dedicated to handmade artifacts (one specifically for tea tools), and a miniature Sachs retrospective (to provide context)—“Tea Ceremony” makes it evident that this isn’t the first time Sachs has tackled tea. In fact, Tea House (2011–12), the architectural space where the chanoyu is held, was literally excised and recycled from “Tom Sachs: Space Program 2.0: Mars,” a tea ceremony–based exhibition that opened at the Park Avenue Armory in 2012.
For those wondering what might connect a tea ceremony to a fictive Mars expedition, as seen in the video A Space Program, or why the artist would choose to meditate on chanoyu again, let’s just say that it’s a long trip to the lonely red planet, and a tea ceremony is an ideal way to resolve tensions between anxious crew members. Matcha—the signature drink—is both a stimulant and a relaxant.
“Tea Ceremony” then takes off from where “Mars” left off—a literal launching point for Sachs’s next chapter, an imminent trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
When the show travels to this distant moon—or the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco—later this summer, the exhibition will be modified and retitled “Space Program: Europa.” However, when it moves to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, the subsequent year, the exhibition will return to its earthly “Tea Ceremony” state.