In 2014, I co-curated an exhibition at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (March 14th – May 17th, 2014) that introduced the concept of Toriawase into our contemporary environment in the museum setting. The exhibition explored how Toriawase happens not only outside of a Tea Room but also outside of all tea related situations.
Earlier in my career, I took a voluntary detour away from Japanese art, design, and crafts. Soon I started to gravitate towards American modern and contemporary art. I was finding expressions of human feelings deep inside minimalist or abstract expressionist works that echoed some of my experiences with traditional Japanese art. I started to hang them together and investigated how they “communicated” with each other. Were their exchanges similar to those between the pieces selected for the Tea Room? After many attempts, I was sure that something very similar was taking place. One day, I spent an entire night hanging works until at 5am and the result brought tears of joy to my eyes. I realized then very clearly that what I had been doing all night was the very same “Toriawase” that my family had been engaging in when preparing for a tea event. The idea of an exhibition started to percolate in my mind. I kept hanging artworks borrowing the Toriawase concept and showing it to connoisseurs and clients. One day, Cathy Kimball, executive director of SJICA and I were looking at Japanese artworks that I have when I asked her: “What do you think if we juxtaposed these works with contemporary art?“ After I explained to her the essence of Toriawase and my idea of an exhibition, she readily embraced it. The exhibition was a huge success and the confirmation of what I had sensed all along.
Centuries old Toriawase concept can be effectively brought into our contemporary environment as a way to enjoy art or to collect art, in both museum setting and in our house.
In fact, curators have been doing it, and we have been doing it for as long as we remember without knowing the anatomy of Toriawase.
Toriawase is a centuries-old way of enjoying art works rooted in the culture of the Way of Tea – Tea Ceremony. The literal meaning of the word is: “pick up a few things and put them together.” When it is used in the context of the Way of Tea culture, it refers to the careful selection of all the tea utensils, scrolls, and flower arrangements needed for one specific tea event, or tea ceremony, according to a chosen theme.
Doesn’t it sound familiar? You do it always before your parties, gatherings, or events don’t you?
The object of Toriawase is to bring harmony between these elements of beauty. It means carefully paying attention to the calls and responses exchanged by the various objects of art, design and craft chosen specifically for the event. It is different from any scholarly interpretation of these works. The interpretation can only cloud your instinct and muffle the voice between the art works. To create harmony between all the different elements that compose a tea event is part of the essence and joy of “way of tea.” It takes mastery to orchestrate and achieve this level of harmony. To illustrate how my family approached Toriawase, I will share a story from my childhood.
( if you want to search “toriawase” on internet, be careful not to go to –moriawase. Toriawase and Moriawase are two totally different words.)
At the core of the exhibition “Toriawase” (Institute of Contemporary Art in San Jose, March 14th – May 17th 2014) lies the importance of detaching works of art from their original environments to bring them together in a neutral, almost aseptic setting. We now look at them from the outside; we let them stand alone and let them interact with each other. The exhibition revealed relationships taking place between art works beyond time and space.
For this to happen, it is essential not to look for physical similarities between the works of art nor to try connect the dots with historical or anecdotal explanations (such as: “This artist saw the prints of that other artist and TaDaa!”) but to search for the esthetic common ground buried deep inside the works. Then we listen to how their communication resonate in us, how they awaken our feelings and ideas independent from any previous knowledge or received ideas.
Now you have a collection connected to your senses, your heart, and to your soul, beyond your head. Now you have your own sophisticated and unique collection,
or, you have prepared for one evolved gathering.
Toriawase: to select and combine elements of beauty and enjoy the harmony that results from their coming together. It is the underlying thought process governing the building of an exceptional collection.
With a glass of wine in your hand, look around your house. Walk around it as if you would see it for the first time. Listen to what you put on this wall or on that shelf.
Are they happy together?, Are you happy to be with them??
This is an excellent place to start.
Listen to what you already have.