Relational Aesthetics: Is Tea an Art?
Tea is a process, pouring water into a kettle, heating it, placing dry leaves within a cup, pouring the water into the cup, the subsequent steeping, and then finally: the drinking. Tea is associated with solace for many of us.
There is nothing like watching a curled Jade Oolong unfurl before our eyes to then create a wonderful journey of flavor for our mouths.
For others, tea is a way to get a boost of energy like the rejuvenating experience of drinking a caffeinated Hazelnut tea. Others might use tea socially, I have many long conversations with peers over a pot of tea, slowly consumed over a lengthy discussion. These examples demonstrate the many ways tea provides all of us with meaningful and intimate experiences, enriching our everyday.
Relational Aesthetics is a philosophical term coined by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud in an article written in the late 1990s by the same name. This term is defined as a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context.
Without all of that complex jargon, Bourriaud argues that art is not necessarily about the actual object or material, but it is actually about the experience or social world created.
A great example of this in the art world is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled show where he served Pad Thai within a New York City gallery. Viewers could sit in the gallery and converse while eating a scrumptious meal made up of Pad Thai. This social event and the interactions between the viewers attending the show question the idea of the object being central to art. The shared experience is what Bourriaud considers art, that even when one goes and views art within a gallery setting, the artist and the viewer exchange information and knowledge. This sort of social experience, according to relational aesthetics, is what art is.
If tea is a fundamentally social experience, then according to these ideas about art, isn’t the act of making a cup of tea art? By making an acquaintance through a cup of tea, or a barista pouring you a hot cup of herbal tea, or your mom bringing her child chamomile for bed, aren’t these all experiences that make a difference in one’s life, things that leave one changed? Many artist’s goal is to leave the viewer, or the person encountering their work, with an experience or a newfound knowledge.
How are these everyday experiences with tea any different than an artist creating art outside of label? As tea drinkers (and makers) we are all artists, crafting experiences for our viewers (ourselves, friends, or family) that change their present.
Ying Le, a tea garden owner in Germany, says when she serves tea “It makes everyone instantly shut up, every time.” I found this quote relatable and amusing; when I hand a cup of tea to my friends or family, a sense of calm, or at the very least silence, ensues for a second, as all of the participants trepidatiously try to sip their hot tea. All of their focus is channelled into not spilling this carefully crafted concoction a friend made.
Looking back to the long and multi-cultural history of tea, we see in Japan the creation of formalized rituals around tea culminating in the tea house or even the Uzbekhistanian tea houses creating a social center in various communities. Even the personal act of purchasing, making, and consuming tea is a social act. By buying tea, one connects and supports a tea grower. Specifically on MastersTeas, Adagio’s sister site, one gets to actually understand where their tea comes from. One can read the tea grower’s testimonies on their day to day lives and what tea means to them. These testimonies allow us to recognize the numerous examples of tea synchronously forming meaningful social rituals across the world.
The communiTEA is another prime example of the social connection and the art of tea. Members come together each day and talk about what they did and did not enjoy with each new tea they experience. They even can share pictures of their cups and create literal tea art!
The social rituals surrounding tea have continued to be a source of meaning, a way for an individual to provide a valuable experience for themselves and their community. Tea is something that facilitates communities and cultures to converse and, in turn, disseminate knowledge, stories, and feelings to those around them. Through this lens of relational aesthetics, I hope the average tea drinker can understand that their actions, within their everyday life, are delightfully artistic.