This vision would later take on a deeper meaning as Hiroshi Senju, my studio mate, called from Japan and left a message. He had been travelling, finalizing the plans for a historic commission at Daitoku-ji Temple, the most significant birthplace of Japanese culture and the art of tea. His was among more than ten messages from Japan. Towers collapsed at 10 PM Tokyo time, and many in Japan were watching the news, stayed up through the night, concerned about us.
Hiroshi’s message was simple and direct; “I realize that everything now has changed. You now have a responsibility to minister to heal. You have my support in this.” I was bit surprised that he used that word “minister.” It was the first time that he had used this word to describe what I do in the over fifteen years of our friendship.
Back in August, we had decided to secure a smaller studio next door, partly to help Hiroshi complete the enormous commission of over 80 screens for the Daitoku-ji temple, but when he returned, he told me that he wanted to pause working on his commission for a while. “I cannot paint in the same way for a while, …after looking at Ground Zero.” We decided instead to dedicate the space for local artists to exhibit, to dialogue, to hopefully find healing in the process together. We designed the space called TriBeCa Temporary, to create a “oasis of collaboration by local ‘ground zero’ artists.” For a temporary project of six month, I was able to secure, almost right away, the help of very significant artists and writers such as James Elaine (curator and artist at the Armand Hammer Museum, LA), William Basinski (composer), Tiffany Bell (critic) and Denise Green (Australian born TriBeCa painter, and the last student of Mark Rothko). And the history of Daitoku-ji, therefore the history of Japanese art of tea, will still be woven deeply into our efforts.
Sen-no-Rikyu, the 16th Century tea master who is most responsible for development of distinctively Japanese way of art of tea, lived and died at Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto. His tea house still stands there. Tea was a form of celebration during a banquet in China, but in Japan, Sen-no-Rikyu and his predecessors refined tea as a unique form of communication and the tea house as a minimal conceptual space. In a war-torn period of cultural flux, Daitoku-ji became the center of activity, and Sen-no-Rikyu became this new culture’s main voice.
His tea house had a distinct entry called “nijiri-guchi,” build so small that a guest would have to bow and take his sword off. It is no coincidence (but a historic fact ignored by most in Japan) that one of his closest confidants, one of his wives, was one of the first converts to Christianity, the fruit of an influx of missionaries into Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries. He went to observe a mass being celebrated in Kyoto with his wife. There he saw the Eucharist being celebrated, with a cup representing Christ’s blood being passed around. This experience affirmed his vision for tea. His tea would be an art form: and this art of communication equalized any who would stand in his presence, whether a shogun or a farmer, male or female. As a cup filled with green tea was passed, his tearoom would become a place of Shalom. Five of his seven closest disciples were Christians. They were exiled by Shogun Hideyoshi who gave power and prestige to Sen-no-Rikyu, but who later hardened his heart. Hideyoshi realized, quite correctly, that the egalitarian nature of tea would be dangerous to his power, and he became, by no coincidence either, one of the greatest enemies of Christianity in history, ordering the execution of thousands of believers, and closing the country for several centuries. He ordered Rikyu to commit Seppuku at the end, the most cruel art form of suicide, at the very tea house of Shalom.
For Hiroshi, a practitioner of tea as a modern artist, often representing the Japanese aesthetic of today (he represented Japan at the Venice Biennale), bringing the ancient tradition into the present means finding innovation in today’s context. He will, in fact, be exhibiting his 80 screens at Asia Society and Japan Society before they are installed at Daitoku-ji Temple in an exhibit called “New Way of Tea.” I, as a friend and a colleague, will have the privilege of carrying this mission out as a “minister.”
TriBeCa Temporary will be a small conceptual space, then, a ‘ground zero’ teahouse. In such a space, incomplete gestures are acceptable, and even preferred. Perhaps being temporary and indefinable is the most honest statement that can be made about our Post-911 expression. Such incomplete gestures must be made, because the reality of the present darkness beckons us to respond.