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Zen, Tea, and Digital Flowers: A Transient Art Experience
[2017.12.15]

An art installation at a Paris trade fair combined the latest digital technology with naturally produced tea. The two Japanese groups involved in the collaboration offered visitors a brief but unforgettable Zen-inspired experience.

In a pitch-black space, visitors stand waiting. When green tea is poured into drinking vessels in front of them, bright flowers appear on the surface and begin to blossom. Lift the cups to drink and the flowers transform, scattering in all directions accompanied by sound. Put them back on the table and new flowers form. When they are empty, no more flowers bloom. The moment is over.

The digital flowers are not formed through endlessly looping video footage. Instead, precise graphic programming has them change shape in line with the drinkers’ movements. Unique images directed by chance, they are like living organisms. These brief blossoms are fresh and graceful. The combination of green tea and a dreamlike setting fosters a sense of peace and gives greater depth to the flavors enjoyed.

This digital art installation, called Flowers Bloom in an Infinite Universe Inside a Teacup, was created in a collaboration between the design firm TeamLab and tea producer En Tea. In September 2017, it went on display at Maison & Objet Paris, Europe’s largest design and interiors trade fair.

A Universe in a Teacup

TeamLab assembles digital specialists from a wide array of fields, including programmers, engineers, CG animators, artists, mathematicians, architects, web and graphic designers, and editors. It picks a team for each project from among its roughly 450 members.

Kudō Takashi, TeamLab.

“I had the idea for a work existing only in a cup of green tea,” says Kudō Takashi of TeamLab. “Seasonal flowers bloom in the bowl. Then when you drink the tea, the flowers sparkle and make a sound as they scatter and vanish. This is no ordinary background music, as it adjusts to match the flowers’ scattering and the visitors’ movements. Each moment can never be repeated. It makes you think about life and how you take it in. It’s the taste of transience. The appeal of this work may also be in how the shared experience of watching petals dance and fall in a darkness without boundaries leads naturally to communication with people standing nearby.”

In the center of the exhibition space, a Zen-inspired ensō artwork—a circle drawn with a single brushstroke—is digitally displayed.

“The ensō is a symbol of the Zen world and can be freely interpreted by the viewer as representing enlightenment, the universe, the human heart, or something else. The artwork undergoes continual transformation as it changes its speed and orientation, and fills the same kind of role in the space as a hanging scroll. It expresses a sense of the seasons, transience, tranquility, and unique encounters. I think it is infused with the spirit of the tea ceremony and the world view of the tea room.”

Visitors line up outside the digital installation exhibition (left); next to the event space is an area where visitors can sample four varieties of tea from En Tea.

Shared Pleasure

The power of tea is at the center of the artistic concept. En Tea is a recently launched brand from Saga Prefecture grown using natural farming methods. One of its makers, Maruwaka Hirotoshi, talks about how the company has worked to bring traditional Japanese techniques to life in the modern world through a series of projects.

“I believe tea has the power to connect and express many things. In this project, we wanted people to experience its potential as more than a simple drink. If it were only about the tea, we would display more color, choose the vessels carefully, and be particular about the flavor. But these aspects are for another occasion.”

Maruwaka Hirotoshi, En Tea.

In this case, the aim was to heighten the beauty of the images and offer a delicious tea in harmony with the special setting for its consumption.

“We produced this cold-brew green tea after repeated trial and error with TeamLab. To present the show’s images to good effect, we had to ensure that the foam from whisking remained on the surface of the matcha until the last drop was consumed. The flavor also had to be reliable. And this time, we had to prepare 2,000 cups each day in a venue without water facilities. Under those conditions, it was really hard to ensure we could make high-quality tea. Luckily, it turns out that French people have a greater knowledge and level of taste when it comes to Japanese tea than we Japanese are aware of.”

This collaboration brings together cutting-edge digital art and naturally grown tea, expanding the possibilities of these wildly different worlds. Some visitors were transfixed for long periods, while others spoke energetically. Smiling couples nestled together as they watched the flowers bloom on the surface of the serving area. Some people were even moved to tears.

In a trade fair where decorative interior products vied to catch the eye, the black box-like booth stood out for its extreme simplicity. What TeamLab and En Tea offered there was a merely temporary experience. Even so, there was a line outside all day. It must have been a truly unforgettable visit.

“While continuing to make tea for everyday drinking, we also want to create these one-of-a-kind tea experiences in many different locations, for people all around the world,” says Maruwaka. “Sharing pleasure is what tea has always been about.”

(Originally published in Japanese on September 26, 2017. Text by Hino Hato. Photographs and video by Sawada Hiroyuki.)

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  • [2017.12.15]
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