Chawan at Salon 94: what would Sen no Rikyu say?
Sachs was born in New York in 1966, grew up in Connecticut, and moved back to New York City after a stint in Los Angeles. He holds a BA from Vermont's Bennington College and studied architecture for a time in London, though he never completed the degree. With a proclivity for consumerism and cultural fetishisation, Sachs describes his work as "Cultural Prosthetics" and is best known for his bricolage and installations relating to the space program. Sachs is a contrarian and provocateur, whose humour and convictions are decidedly Postmodern. There is sincerity in his ruse to pantomime, as he does, consumerism, leaving the viewer to either suspect or admire it. Is there in reality a 17th century black Raku-ware Japanese national treasure named 'Kanokomadara' and does Sachs actually believe in the pursuit of a universal chawan?
What is the allure of the tea bowl? Sachs offers some perspective, "When you look at iPhones, there is no evidence of them being constructed by a human being. There are no seams. They appear to be completely robot made. As an artist, I find it difficult to produce something of this quality by hand with the same intent and appeal. Yet the advantage the artist has over industry is his ability to proudly leave his fingerprints for eternity." The chawan is handedness par excellence. One of the most famous chawan is the Kizaemon Ido (Joseon Dynasty, 16th century) whose constructed identity foretells Sachs' own chawan--the proto-cultural prosthetic. A haggard tea bowl scarred from centuries of fondling with a yellow glaze covered with imperfections, Kizaemon likely came to Japan with the Koreans who were kidnapped in the invasion of 1592. A mere rice bowl's escalation to Japanese national treasure highlights its dual narrative. Just as Kizaemon is reinvented from a simple vessel into prized tea bowl, so too is Sachs' chawan, a tea bowl to re-imagine the tea ceremony.
The tea ceremony is a polarising and dizzying spectacle with a tumultuous history that Sachs appropriates with aplomb. A revered Japanese tradition, the tea ceremony is not even Japanese, but rather an interpretation of a Chinese custom. Buddhism and Zen Buddhism were also adopted during that same period from China. Reframing the tea bowl has been problematic throughout the development of a Japanese cultural identity. Yuko Kikuchi calls this phenomenon "Oriental Orientalism" (the quest to fashion a Japanese identity through the lens of the Occident). Soetsu Yanagi, the unwitting lead proponent of "Oriental Orientalism," curated an exhibition juxtaposing Kizaemon with the tea bowl collections of Charles Freer and Edward Morse, undermining the system of authentications founded by authorities and constructing an identity of Japanese tea ware through the lens of Westerners.
Sachs makes spectacular chawan. But are they chawan or simulations? Overly handed and self-conscious, Sachs forgoes subtlety and nuance in favour of fervour and expressionism. Mimicking handedness into an expression of ego is un-Zen. Attempting to overcome nature, he brutalises it, a stark contrast to humility and tranquility--porcelain over earthenware, high-temperature gas reduction over raku and mannerism over muscle memory.
Sachs embraces the stereotypes--wabi-sabi, perfection in the imperfect, yin and yang, purity in the impure. His chawan is a departure from formality turning austerity into consumerism--Zen mass-produced. Sachs' work appears as a critique on society and he questions whether anything truly exists behind the facade. The emphasis on surface undermines any attempt to extract deeper meaning or symbolism. What better authentic experience to replicate than the traditional tea ceremony via chawan? Sachs simultaneously questions experience by evoking it.
Is Sachs a mannerist believing art and ritual are mere pretenses? Have we become so cynical that we no longer know what substance is or find value in the attempt to experience it? Sachs' chawan highlight the disparity between the absolute and reality. The tea ceremony, and by extension the chawan, is a performance focused on preparation and presentation, to live in the moment exhibited through harmony, respect and tranquility. Sachs believes in what he makes, embracing the complexity and contradiction of existence. His wit and aloofness in the face of propriety makes his chawan all the more magnificent. Chawan, like the space program installations, is a vehicle for Sachs' mythologies. Cultural prosthetics are not quite so fractured from tradition as one might think; they are the expression of where contemporaneity meets necessity. So, what would Sen no Rikyu say? He just might ask Tom Sachs to instruct him.