Bryan Mulvihill is working in an alcove at Centre A. He’s readying his custom-made tea trolley for the launch this Friday (February 12) of the 90th incarnation of the World Tea Party. Scheduled to take place at and around Centre A to February 28 and again from March 13 to 21, it is part of Bright Light, a midwinter series of public-art projects and events in the Downtown Eastside.
Mulvihill, who divides his time between Vancouver and New Delhi, has organized an extended tea-party program that includes a First Nations welcome with indigenous herbal teas, a Japanese tea ceremony, new music, digital art, performance, video projections, and live video Web links to gatherings in Montreal, Yokohama, Vienna, and Calcutta. As a founder of the art salon known as the World Tea Party, he will also personally be serving free tea to visitors throughout the run of events.
Clearly he’s a busy man, but as soon as I arrive, he pours us each a cuppa—his black, mine green—and we sit down to talk. In Centre A’s huge exhibition space, amid an expectant array of tables, chairs, and sofas, and adjacent to a wooden platform covered with tatami mats, we are having a two-person tea party devoted to the subject of”¦tea.
“Tea is universal,” Mulvihill says. “It represents the most widely practised human meeting ritual in the world.” Artist, calligrapher, Asian scholar, and tea historian, he talks about tea’s origins some 2,000 years ago in China. He describes its global journey, as a precious commodity, by overland trade routes and later by colonial sailing ships. He outlines tea’s crucial importance to the Industrial Revolution in England, the development of hygiene in Europe, modern ideas of advertising and packaging—and even the creation of an interior voice in fiction. And he talks again about its ubiquity and its everydayness. “Almost every culture, community, and family has a tea tradition,” he says. “Tea is the perfect medium.”
Described on its Web site as “an interactive, transcultural, art tea salon”, the World Tea Party has its roots in the correspondence art of the 1970s. As a participant in Image Bank, Mulvihill created an imaginary “floating tea room”—what he describes as “a conceptual teahouse”. It assumed its current tea-salon incarnation as a collaboration between Mulvihill and Montreal artists Daniel Dion and Su Schnee at the National Gallery of Canada in 1993. Since then, the trio has taken WTP across the country and around the world, from Kamloops to Calcutta and Tokyo, and from Winnipeg to Paris, Cologne, and Polson, Montana.
“The tea salon is a meeting place,” Mulvihill says, a site for the exchange of ideas and the expression of culture—and cultures. “The original Chinese tea garden or teahouse”¦predates any history of museums, art galleries, or concert halls.”
Through the World Tea Party, Mulvihill has served tea in a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice and in a greenhouse in Kew Gardens, London. He has served tea at international art fairs and local community centres, at Buddhist temples, Jewish synagogues, and First Nations feast houses. He has served tea to the glitterati of Beverly Hills and the homeless of Pigeon Park. To as many as 17,000 people (at the Hollywood Bowl during the World Festival of Sacred Music in 1999) and to as few as one (here, in Centre A, as we talk).
“For me, really, the tea room is the studio,” Mulvihill says. “And the tea party is basically a ”˜social sculpture’.” He’s alluding to the groundbreaking ideas of the late German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys championed an expanded definition of art that included human activity and the exchange of ideas, and that also had the potential to bring about positive change. The World Tea Party is—optimistically—about the same things.
“You can’t have a tea party alone at home,” Mulvihill insists. “You have to do it in public places, from the grandest to the most simple. They’re all part of this human meeting and understanding.” Then he adds, “At this time in history, when we’re so globally interdependent, we really need to find this common meeting place where we can appreciate each other in all our diversity.”