One teabag at a time

When I lived in New Orleans, I worked mostly in the late afternoon and evening, and had a lot of daytimes wide open for exploration. I spent many an afternoon at the Contemporary Art Center, which was free on Thursdays. I visited the city last weekend and was delighted that the Center was open on a Sunday and still $5 for a nonresident to get in.

The first room I entered was strung with cascades of teabags.

a thousand threads

“a thousand threads” by Luba Zygarewicz

The image doesn’t convey the scale and shape of the space, so imagine: the installation is centered in the white oval space at the center of a circular ramp up to the second level. Sunlight pours into it from windows above and makes the white walls glow; it’s a little like stepping into an egg. From the floor at the center of this oval, thousands of threads soar up and out, anchored to the gentle slope of the ramp far overhead. (Likewise, if you go up the ramp you can look down into the web of threads.) The threads are weighted with hundreds of used tea bags stained a variety of soft colors: the sepias and rusts you’d expect, along with some soft yellows and greens and deep floral reds and pinks. The variation of color and heights give the impression of some kind of cheerful holiday dressing, like multicolored Christmas lights or balloons.

No one else was in the space, so I sat on the floor (which felt wonderful on my sunburned legs) and looked up at the multitude of threads and teabags. It was a little dizzying to think all of the days that passed and cups of tea that were consumed for this project: each tag has a date written on it, and I couldn’t help thinking of J. Alfred Prufrock measuring his life in coffeespoons. I’m not sure how much time was represented by all those strings spinning out around me. But at the same time, it was so bright and sunny in the room, and the gentle cascade of floral-toned teabags was pretty at a distance, so it was comforting and restful to sit among them. As a teadrinker myself I can appreciate that many of these cups were drunk to calm, comfort, or warm the drinker. I’m sure it’s some combination of sitting on the cool floor and thinking about tea that caused me to feel less hot and tired when I stood up to leave.

The used teabags, stained from their steeps, reminded me a little bit of the winestains in the art by Amelia Fais Harnas and Scott Gunderson. Perhaps even more than those examples, Zygarewicz evokes an aura or trace of an artist’s touch on an object of ritual. The winestain art is arranged in the shape of human faces; there’s nothing anthropomorphic about “a thousand threads,” and yet the used and dried teabags allude to the presence and movement of another human being.

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