Steep Prices

New York

Left: Artist Takashi Murakami with tea master So-oku Sen. Right: A view of the ceremony. (All photos: David Velasco)

As a fan of D. T. Suzuki’s beatnik classic Zen and Japanese Culture, I jumped at the chance last Wednesday to experience a private, traditional tea ceremony at Gagosian’s uptown digs “conducted by So-oku Sen, a descendent of Sen no Rikyu,” the legendary sixteenth-century tea master—who’s like the Baal Shem Tov of tea. I refer to the great Hasid mystic because the tea ceremony is like a Zen seder: each item is highly significant, but instead of contemplating the Jews’ suffering, we stick with the crockery. “Like in your home,” said the hakama-clad master (through a translator) as he deftly poured, wiped, and whisked for us. “Nothing that is not being used.” Clearly unacquainted with my clutter, the tea master was focused and gentle: a spiritual warrior of hospitality. I tried to get into the wabi-sabi-style groove—which reveres poverty, sincerity, and imperfection—amid the high-end retail “chi” of the gallery where Takashi Murakami was having his first New York show since leaving Marianne Boesky last June. The tea, along with a lavishly orchestrated “studio visit” to Kaikai Kiki—the artist’s Long Island City base (which was just like Warhol’s Factory, if it were a corporate office)—were the first waves of hospitality to market “Murakami ©,” the artist’s impending retrospective, opening in late October at LA MoCA, curated by Paul Schimmel.

Rather than a teahouse inconspicuously nestled in a bamboo grove, we sat at a low wooden table (“Specially made,” noted Schimmel’s assistant) splat in the middle of the Madison Avenue gallery, surrounded by pricey space and pricey pictures: Murakami’s cartoon-style tableaux (yours for about $1.6 million) of Daruma, the Zen legend who attained enlightenment by “meditating for nine years without blinking his eyes.” The mood was awkward and respectful, whether due to the ceremony (unusual in today’s modernized Japan, though people are rediscovering it), the translator’s mediations, people padding around in kimonos, or the sky-high price points of our “contemplative” mise-en-scène.

Left: Paul Schimmel with a representative at Kaikai Kiki. Right: So-oku Sen (right) and others photograph the setup.

Back in the waiting room, we'd perched on low stools after signing the guest book with an inked brush. Apparently, rapper Kanye West (who will perform at Murakami's LA MoCA opening) attended one of the other ceremonies held that week. I checked out my fellow tea drinkers: Collector Adam Lindemann seemed genuinely stunned I didn’t know about his recent book about collecting, “It’s great! Sold a lot of copies! It’s about developing taste and how to tell if a work of art is great, if it’s collectible, if it’s a good investment.” Entitled and eager to consume, his eyes were big blue marbles that seemed to appraise everything. His lanky partner, art adviser Amalia Dayan, another chic, artsy lady, and Guggenheim director Lisa Dennison teetered in crazy-high stilettos. (How do they go around like that?) Two young Japanese fashion consumers kept to themselves, one with a tote that said I HEART BR. (“Fashion blog,” he explained.) He didn’t take tea since he was already “on the ceiling from Starbucks.”

Like art collecting, the tea cult is about appreciating—and accumulating—nice things. Appropriate tea talk concerns the gear—tea etiquette, fondling it, “even sexually,” as Murakami helpfully suggested. Dennison obligingly stroked the tea canister, gazing at the tea master with the laserlike empathy of Barbara Walters, and the helmet-halo hairdo. In turn, we each touched the bamboo teaspoon. “Are you a full-time tea master?” Lindemann bluntly inquired. Murakami eased the cross-cultural weirdness with an anecdote we could relate to: a shopping mishap. When he had purchased one of the bowls, a striking “repair” job seamed with gold, for a hundred thousand dollars (this sum seemed to zing up the fuddled guests), he showed it off to the maven here, who informed him that he'd “been had.” The artist smiled with Zen-ish bemusement. “What was the flaw?” Lindemann perked up like a terrier. So-oku Sen detected from the way the parts were fired that they were discards never intended for use. The bowl was fab-looking nevertheless. The hardworking artist sported traditional costume, as did several helpers, who offered, then delicately removed, the exquisite mélange of costly wabi-sabi bowls, two of them four hundred years old (including the “mishap”) from Murakami’s private collection. From these, we sipped clear water (shlepped from Kyoto by the Master) and then the strong, green tea, so substantial that half a cup was plenty.

Rhonda Lieberman