I’m pure i tea, curated and performed by Cirilo Domine, presented by Artist Curated Projects and the Mak Center at the Schindler House, West Hollywood, June 6 and 9, 2010

I honestly think that I’m living in the best place and the best time for contemporary artmaking. There is a steady, percolating production of work happening in Los Angeles now, and much of it is done without a lot of fanfare or hype. Much of it is also good, engaging, and put together in surprising ways.

Such was the case with Cirilo Domine’s I’m pure i tea, presented in the form of four separate ceremonies held on June 6 and 9. A native of LA currently living in Japan, Domine returned to his hometown to collaborate with Artist Curated Projects and the Mak Center on a unique presentation of the Japanese tea ceremony. The austere modernist sensibility, quiet sliding doors, and green gardens of the Schindler House provided the perfect setting.

The framework of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony actually offers an interesting opportunity for presenting and contemplating works of art. The host must choose a scroll that sets the theme of the tea party. The objects that are used in the ceremony—from the stoneware water jar to the ceramic tea container—are sometimes one-of-a-kind, handcrafted creations. The ceremony includes time for guests to admire the objects on display and engage in discussion about the entire presentation.

Domine’s ceremony hewed closely to tradition in many respects, particularly in the strict formality of the tea serving process, respectfully performed by Domine and his assistant host. Other details, however, revealed meaningful deviations from or expansions of the norm.

The title itself, I’m pure i tea, is a sly pun on the word “impurity,” making reference to the Japanese belief that tea represents a pure spiritual world that is removed from the harshness of the physical world. As Domine relayed to me in an email, “There are four main themes in a tea gathering: harmony, purity, respect and tranquility. I wanted to explore this idea of purity and open it up and also problematize it. In an ideal tea gathering, one is supposed to have a pure mind before entering. But the flip side is really a denial which relates to other aspects of Japanese society like racial purity and xenophobia.”

The customary pre-tea cleansing ritual for host and guests was skipped, so everyone simply “came as they were.” Domine took care to explain the origins of many of the objects in the room, which turned out to be filled with the conflicts, tragedies, and mixed heritages of this world. The scroll that hung on the wall was Jenny Yurshansky’s Projection (I have a dream) (2009), a rendering of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech via its punctuation marks only. A tea scoop called Negro Sunshine (2010) was specially made by Domine and Glenn Ligon for the Schindler House—it takes its name from Gertrude Stein’s story “Melanctha,” which uses heavily racist language to describe a relationship between two mulattos.

Ube hopia cakes served with the tea reflected Domine’s own Filipino culture, whose violent colonial history inspired the Japanese to close their doors to the outside world for over 200 years. The picks used to eat the cakes were carved from a fallen tree branch found at Germany’s Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which was used primarily for political prisoners. Yoshi Makino, who is half Japanese and half Swiss, created Root (2010), a lid rest, out of a manzanita root picked in Ukiah and inscribed with the names of her relatives. Maryrose Mendoza’s thin tea container, titled The heart opens and closes (2010), was made in honor of her husband, who recently suffered a stroke.

Mak Center director Kimberli Meyer contemplates a thin tea container crafted by Maryrose Mendoza

These and many other pieces were carefully listed in a program and checklist that was made available to everyone. Domine’s ceremony was quiet and pristine, closely resembling the ceremonies that take place in Japan. But in the thoughtfulness and inclusiveness of its details, it exploded with the turmoil that is inherent to the world we live in and became, in Domine’s words, a “celebration of the impure, hybrid, mutt, and mongrel.”

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