If there’s one thing that’s underappreciated in our work in film, it’s poverty. Poverty in the sense of a sackcloth canvas next to some silk cloth,
in the sense Mozart meant when he wrote - I’m reciting this from memory - about some of his concertos:
‘They are perfectly poised between too difficult and too easy […] They are brilliant but they lack poverty.’
As sad as the current state of film is, it’s clear that the cinema will not stop being brilliant and that it will be the art that - paradoxically,
and I don’t know how - helps revive the other, tired arts.
- Robert Bresson, Le Monde, 1971
At his death a page of a work in progress devoted to Stendhal was found in Barthes' typewriter entitled:
'One Always Fails In Speaking of What One Loves'
Infusions as stories
Coffee is a savage consolation for waking up And tea?
The same, but like a sun
Its savagery is only metaphysical
I spend a lot of time around books and I’m often thinking about how the book as object relates to how its experienced - how it feels to hold
or the weight of the pages when you turn them. In 1952 the Swiss designer Emil Ruder wrote an essay on tea drinking and typography, linking
the printed and unprinted areas on a page to Taoist ideals of emptiness and fullness. In Kakuzō Okakura’s Book of Tea infusions are likened to stories.
I like to think that an attentive reader is someone who would also make a great cup of tea.
From the books on my shelf a whole host of ways to appreciate tea emerge: it’s an atmosphere of faded elegance, an architecture of beautiful objects,
an opportunity for gossip, a gesture of care, or perhaps something less tangible - a space in parenthesis.
I return to my cupful gazing out of the window as the day begins. Thinking about tea as the brightening, warm consolation
somewhere between the everyday and the metaphysical.
I’ve been enjoying Science of the Secondary again recently. This is a beautiful, smart journal devoted to aspects of ordinary experience. The last issue was about socks.
The second in the series Cup considers what it means to drink. The weight of the cup, the diverse shapes of handles, the saucer as a kind of table,
the ‘postures’ of drinking, of sips and slurps - everything is examined right down to the last drop.
Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers is a classic on the tea ceremony and the rough beauty of tea huts.
The author Leonard Koren is a bit of a hero of mine. Koren is founder of super cool WET- The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing
and writer in all areas of Japanese aesthetics from gravel gardens to Tokyo fashion. As a teenager he built a full-scale tea house out of scavenged materials.
My favourite of Koren’s books is Undesigning the Bath, a publication that searches out the most obscure and idyllic bathing experiences including a bathhouse suspended on a crane giving bathers a sea view while they wash. Books and tea are great companions in the bath so I feel this is worthy of a mention.
Imagine ordering tea with a cherry-topped dessert whilst seated in a plush velvet booth surrounded by murals of hunting scenes.
Die schönsten Tea Rooms der Schweiz (The Loveliest Tea Rooms in Switzerland) is ‘a picture book and a slightly strange guide’ from Edition Patrick Frey, who publish exquisitely designed books. It’s a collection of photographs of the interiors of Swiss tea rooms from the 1960s and 70s that were mostly beloved by an older generation. I hope the idea of tea as a social occasion, and a romantic one at that, is not consigned to the past.
My favourite Jane Austen novel is Emma, which incorporates a particularly lavish picnic tea scene on a hilltop at Box Hill. Austen’s world seems one in which teatime is always comfortingly near, all events seem punctuated by it. The occasion of tea is just one instance in which the sharp psychology of Austen’s writing really shines. Teatime is a particularly good moment in which to observe her characters’ etiquette and interactions; to sustain gossip, humour and romance.
Noriko Smiling is a book-length essay by Adam Mars-Jones about my favourite film Late Spring directed by Yasujiro Ozu starring the incredible Setsuko Hara. Tea is a recurring ritual in Late Spring and a subtle symbol to question rituals themselves. The writing here reconstructs and savours each small moment in close up - the focus on a vase maybe, or the armchair versus the tatami mat as a seat at teatime. The vision of Ozu’s camera work appears to leave nothing out of place and yet its mood is profoundly reticent, leaving you longing. This little book does that too, its interpretations won’t necessarily wrap things up but instead keep you inquisitive and thirsty. Ozu’s later movies were filmed in gorgeous soft colour and a domestic scene would often show a cheerful glimpse of the Director’s own bright red teapot.
Roland Barthes, The Neutral. The Neutral was the subject for a series of lectures given by Barthes shortly before his death. The transcriptions contained in this book convey a vast, invigorating scope of ideas; meandering through sleep, love, drugs, silence and tact (to name a few) with numerous notes on Lao-tzu, tea ceremonies and Zen philosophy. In the space of one paragraph we move from Charlie Chaplin, to a cup invented by the Sophists, to the aesthetics of drinking and comfort via the melodies of a bubbling kettle. These themes are described as ‘twinklings’ or things that ‘baffle the paradigm’. I love the idea of tea being such a ‘twinkling’ moment somewhere apart from the structures of language. After all, really good tea is just like that.
‘the young bicyclist carrying a tray of bowls high on one arm; or the young saleswoman who bows with a gesture so deep,
so ritualized that it loses all servility, before the customers of a department store leaving to take an escalator;
or the Pachinko player inserting, propelling, and receiving his marbles, with three gestures whose very coordination is a design;
or the dandy in the café who with a ritual gesture (abrupt and male) pops open the plastic envelope of his hot napkin with which he will wipe his hands
before drinking his Coca-Cola: all these incidents are the very substance of the haiku.’
It’s the first day of the year and I’m at Richard’s place while they’re in Wales. Melanie’s book is there on the shelf cover side out.
Today I go to pick it up and there’s something that feels appropriate about picking it up on the first day of the new year.
I know this book well already but I also know that each time I spend with it feels new. Actually almost like a holiday.
The title is contrary. It is not immediately inviting and yet all the more inviting for that.
The word ‘dank’ or, in fact, a new version of that: d_a_n_k
The roominess given to the letters doubles the atmosphere of the word and makes it a name.
Underneath the italics ‘away to go’ are jauntily moving somewhere, almost turning the cover for you.
Describing the pages that unfold feels all wrong. Because like the title, you want to be taken somewhere, even if you know what the journey is already.
I might choose to say that it’s a little like smoke. Which of course isn’t describing at all. There’s a dense pattern, a tightly coiled texture.
I think of incense or a design you’d see on a kimono. It’s seductive and also a bit claustrophobic.
I want to say something about leisure to describe the place where I’m taken. Or exoticism.
All the expectation, surprise, pleasure and disappointment of those ideas are there in an image tightly wrapped around two pages.
This image isn’t entirely clear either and I’m still confused by it. I’m drawn to the stance of a man with his leg resting against a cage craning his neck forward
to look at something we don’t see and meanwhile his hands are in his pockets as if to look nonchalant.
It’s the most awkward posture, but I feel it sharply. Because looking and being looked at are awkward.
The book opens and closes on a very pale image of a frosted plant, perhaps a fern, with icy tendrils.
I imagine it’s a beautiful image but a bitmap grain interrupts any certainty of what’s there.
A brief text describes a windy draft and the drip of a leak, echoing the ‘dank’ title.
Hypnosis is mentioned which somehow makes sense and the short passage ends with the word gratitude.
The writing is brief but feels generous; its crisp, like that icy fern.
These moments are encountered and then repeated.
A mirroring gesture is simple in itself but there’s a deftness to it that could otherwise fall flat in a small book.
I’m subtly aware of pacing and rhythm, of different atmospheres and intervals; of each page as a material.
A sense of time and spaciousness accumulate as you move through, opening up a place where repetition feels its opposite, perhaps surprising even.
It’s like what happens when you tell someone your dream.
COUNSELL (Melanie). d_a_n_k / away to go.
First edition. 12mo., unpaginated [168pp.], illustrated artist’s book risograph printed and perfect bound
into heavy card black wrapper with titles in white.
An edition of only 50 copies.
London, The Artist/ Matt’s Gallery, 2017.