Tea Seas

Fluid Dynamics
Exhibition Catalogue Text

Claire Pendrigh - Tea Seas
Bunbury Regional Art Gallery
8 August - 20 September 2015


"I’ve just woken up, my eyes are still full of sleep, but I am perfectly aware that this gesture I’m performing to start my day is a decisive and solemn act, one that puts me in touch with both culture and nature together, with thousands of years of human civilization and with the birth pains of those geological eras that gave our planet its shape."

–Italo Calvino

Calvino’s words in The Call of the Water fittingly frame the ritual of taking a cup of tea, as it is cast in this exhibition. While Calvino’s text spoke of bathing, his words seem to perfectly express the sublime paradox that shapes Claire Pendrigh’s work in Tea Seas: that is, the discovery of the lastingly monumentous in the fluid and transitory, the elusive and diaphanous.

Tea Seas is made up of paintings, drawing and animation created during Pendrigh’s residency at Studio Kura in Itoshima, Japan. In Japan, more so than Pendrigh’s home of Bunbury, water is at the heart of life. Visits to the onsen, the public bath house, are considered of social importance and this, as well as the ritualized, secular practice of the tea ceremony, is symbolic of a shared intimacy with water. The starting point of Pendrigh’s work is the function of tea in society, its role in hospitality, community and social ritual.

The central series of works in the exhibition are the Tea Seaspaintings. These long scrolls of paper hang like sentinels in the gallery, each bearing a circular whorl of colour – plum, pink orange and vermillion discs, which seem to ripple from the surface of the painting. The paintings depict a cup of tea as seen from directly above, though with a scale and gravitas that imbues them with a greater sense of powerful cosmological forces.

We are reminded that the hydrogen and oxygen atoms that make up the water in a cup of tea was formed in interstellar gas clouds and delivered to Earth 4.4 billion years ago. For the most part, the water we drink and the vapour we breathe is the same water that sustained ecosystems on this planet since the origin of life. If we could read the encoding of cells in a cup of tea, its water could act as a palimpsestic archive of history.

The paintings are executed in accordance with traditional Japanese artistic techniques and materials, using traditional powdered pigments on rice paper. To create the work required patience, repetition and restraint; the pigments mixed with a water-based binding medium and layered in monochromatic washes to produce subtle gradations of tone, and the hanging scrolls of rice paper subsequently stretched onto rigid panels.

From these repetitive processes, so intertwined with and sensitive to the presence of water, patterns and visible regularities arise, reminiscent of forms in the natural world. Pendrigh’s paintings of teacups remind us of undulating oceans, geographic formations and the foaming patterns of living cells. To make explicit this connection, in 24 Cups of Tea, Pendrigh has scored spiralled lines onto wheels of colour to mimic the shape of proto-cells, the theoretical stepping stones to life. Her Split/Pour drawings show these cells in the mitotic phase – in the process of splitting into two daughter cells.

It is from chaotic systems that patterns arise in nature: from zigzagging patterns of whirling vortices resulting from the unsteady separation of flow of a liquid, to complex structures arising from simple cells. This idea of spontaneous order forming from chaos lays the foundation for Pendrigh’s work Abiogenesis. This simple animation refers to the theory of the origin of life whereby living organisms formed from inert organic compounds. In the animation cups of tea transform: from limpid pools, to simple cellular structures, to Japanese kaomoji – simplified faces made up of characters and punctuation.

Between the Tea Seas paintings and Abiogenesis, this exhibition creates a productive tension between the two ways in which we perceive water. In the first sense we recognise water as constant and resilient; a colourless liquid with no form of its own but taking the form of its container. From the blood of dinosaurs to the cup of tea in our hands, Tea Seas describes water as an ancient and immutable liquid, unchanging throughout history.

This perception is ruptured, however, by the reminder in Abiogenesis and 24 Cups of Tea that water is a chaotic and productive agent. From this ostensibly inert liquid sprang forth the enduring complexity of all human life and interaction. It is this jarring dissonance that gives power to Pendrigh’s art. Her quiet meditations on human relationships shake off the anaesthetic of familiarity, revealing to us the wonder of life in the small intimate acts of our daily existence