Tea and Throne

The presentation of art from Japan and China reveals a new world order.

Our guide Ulf Meyer took us to a virtual architecture walk to the Humboldt-Forum, a great cultural treasure chest in the heart of Berlin on 15 February 2022. The focus was two contrarian contemporary architectures that show the global political weights in East Asia. Mr. Meyer explained: “Chinese Culture is depicted with imperial splendor while Japanese art is depicted with a reduced Zen aesthetics and post-war history". In the shell of the baroque castle, only a few of the 13,000 artifacts, which is the most comprehensive collection of Northeast Asian art in Germany, is on display. Two interventions by architects from Japan and China are: Jun Ura from Kanazawa who designed a teahouse as a room-within-a-room, and Wang Shu with his implementation of royal splendor. The different cultures, shown side by side, show the stages of their global importance and flowering in today’s new world order. The Middle Kingdom emerges as world power, in which communism took the place of the emperor, while Japan seems stuck in the post-war period. China got an 8 m tall, central hall while the Japanese collection is shown in parallel ways and never axially. Wang, the master builder from Hangzhou combines Chinese construction techniques and materials with modernity. A poetic and atmospheric power characterizes Wang's works. He salvaged two million bricks from demolished buildings during the modernization of the Hangzhou Art Academy.

The Japan exhibition seems close: The scroll paintings, ceramic and lacquer works are presented in sober metal cabinets not giving a hint of Japanese omotenashi culture. The emphasis is on secular Nihonga painting, but the auratic artworks are presented like butterflies impaled in a showcase. Ralph Appelbaum from New York, who designed the general exhibits, showed no affinity for East Asian aesthetics, Mr. Meyer criticized. He was very enthusiastic about the tea house as a place of spirit and art. The form is reminiscent of the pyramid tower ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (the hollow tooth) and is thus reminiscent of the experience of almost total destruction in the Second World War that Germany and Japan had in common. Ura wanted to create a tea room which "shows the beauty of the tea ceremony, taking into account man's imperfections", as Ura puts it. The tea house is made of corten steel, washi paper, lacquered wood and clay plaster. Its octagonal shape counters the orthogonal geometry of the eight tatami rice-straw mats in the room. The backward-looking design reflects the trauma of the history that had never been surmounted. However, the view through the window directs us to Lustgarten and Schinkel's Altes Museum.

We learned a lot during Mr. Meyer’s highly interesting lecture and the lively discussion. Everybody was eager to (re)visit the Humboldt-Forum, especially in person.