A Ceramic Fairytale: Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan
Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan at the Princeton University Art Museum
October 11, 2014 to February 01, 2015
Princeton, NJ, 609 258 3788
This extraordinary exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum vividly updates our understandings of chanoyu, popularly called the “tea ceremony,” and in doing so illustrates not just the truism that every aesthetic is a construction, but raises provocative and timely questions about the very nature of art making. Originating early last year in a larger version at the Freer Sackler Gallery, Washington DC, the Princeton show runs through February 1.
At the core of this exhibition is a ceramic fairytale. The show illustrates how an ordinary brown storage jar made by a team of workers in southern China in the late 14th century, was transformed through a complex process of seeing, naming, owning and displaying into one of Japan’s most revered tea objects. Chigusa, the jar in question, arrived in Japan along with many others just like it and managed to survive the shipping and use as a storage jar for about 200 years. That is until one day when a tea connoisseur discovered the jar, probably at a market, but possibly at a temple auction and saw in its brown glaze and strong sloping sides, the qualities much admired by tea masters and acquired it. Soon after the jar was named Chigusa, a poetic allusion meaning “myriad things,“ which immediately infused the jar with semantic power for with this naming, the jar referenced a revered medieval poem.
That moment of selection and naming would lead to a 4-lugged storage jar becoming a coveted work of art. By the end of the 16th century, Chigusa, traveled like a racehorse, accompanied by boxes of accumulated belongings – ornamental ropes and Chinese textiles to seasonally adorn it, documents of pedigree, ownership and admiration, as well as with Chinese scrolls. The jar was the Elvis Presley of medieval world of tea, one of the highest traditional arts forms in Japan. References to Chigusa appear in the diaries of the major tea chroniclers, who wrote of the awe they felt in having had the chance to view it. The military warlords who ruled Japan during the 16th century vied to acquire one of the few recognized meibutsu (tea treasures) such as Chigusa; to own Chigusa was to possess some of the power and prestige of shoguns.
The creative act that turned a brown jar into Chigusa was an act of selection. If you are now thinking of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, and his famous 1917 prank Fountain, you are on the right path. At its core this show challenges us to think hard about the nature of art; not just about the ways in which art is a commodity, but as in the case of Duchamp’s readymades, the ways in which the creative act can shift from the making of an art object to the selection of an object to be classified as a work of art. The story of Chigusa is fascinating example of how an object accrues value as a work of art and the power of narrative to create our perceptions of what art is. As the show details, by the end of the 16th century, references to Chigusa in tea diaries had so increased its value that eventually a letter written by the most famous tea master, the mythic Sen No Rikyu was included in the grouping of Chigusas many accessories, even though Rikyu had never seen the jar.
Walking into the show, which covers three small rooms, each of which is designed to look both into the next room and out into the larger collection of the American wing, one immediately encounters Chigusa, the simple brown jar at the heart of the story.
Captions surrounding the jar detail the qualities that made Chigusa superlative as a tea object, the flow of glaze, the urazame or quail feather pattern of the glaze, the slight grooves at the base of the neck created by being turned on the potter’s wheel. To the right is a replica of a 5 mat tatami room such as one that tea men would have used for preparing and serving matcha complete with a beautifully chosen array of tea utensils. To the left is a case holding Chigusa’s impressive Pawlonia wood nesting boxes. In the second room is one of the most surprising elements, a video of a tea master ritually “dressing” Chigusa in a complex process of adorning the pot with ceremonial blue ropes and a silk mouth cover.
Viewers unfamiliar with chanoyu will gain an excellent sense of the art of tea through the range of tea objects, each accompanied with captions that both provide context and challenge viewers to look anew at these historic objects. In a wonderful touch, the final room of the exhibition displays a scroll of the famed tea master, Sen No Rikyu, but when you view the scroll, you can also see over your left shoulder out into the larger American wing where a white marble statue of Diana and iconic landscape paintings such as Alfred Bierstadt’s Mt. Adams, Washington (1875), enable one to connect this exhibit with Western traditions of art making. In this context, the exhibition makes the art of tea seem less remote and exotic.