Updated: Sep 15, 2021
The current climate crisis marks a fundamental break from the relative climatic stability enjoyed by human cultures throughout the Holocene, instead ushering in a future of uncertain change. While the degree of anthropogenic global warming is still yet to be determined by actions taken in the coming decades, there is nonetheless the guarantee that many communities – human and nonhuman alike – will suffer as a result of climate change and associated ecological losses. The uncertainty and fear over what is at risk, compounded by the knowledge that further destruction is guaranteed (however unevenly distributed around the globe and across lines of gender, class and race), gives rise to a heavy psychological burden. The weight of this nervous anticipation of catastrophe – advanced, for better or worse, by individuals like Greta Thunberg – commonly leads either to despair and burnout, or else a fatalistic exasperation that (more often than not) involves turning away from the reality of current and future losses.
Respite for a forgotten future, a work that encompasses both a material structure and embodied performance, is intended to serve as a foil to that response. Drawing from the traditional practice of Japanese tea ceremony, I constructed a space in which individuals could, over a shared bowl of tea between host and guest, sit with such deep-seated feelings of personal and collective precarity over the current crises.
The performative work was exhibited as a site-specific installation at a gallery located within the former Japantown of Vancouver, Canada. Upon entering the grounds of the gallery, visitors were invited, through subtle signalling, to enter into the dim tea hovel placed in the centre of the courtyard of the gallery. After settling themselves on the reed mats and adjusting to the semi-darkness of the intimate space, visitors would attune their senses to the ethereal scent of the incense, the warmth of the burning charcoal, the sound of the boiling water, and the simultaneously dilapidated and carefully finished textures of the room. After allowing time for visitors to perceive the space as embodying a profound sense of stillness-in-motion (in conjuring a sense of the flux of past, present, and future), I – as host – would appear from an adjacent entrance and offer guests to join for a bowl of tea.
One primary motive in using the tea ceremony lies in how this traditional practice bases its aesthetics and ethics on the premise that there is a deep beauty in the intrinsic ephemerality of things. This principle – wabi-sabi – is derived from the Buddhist precept affirming the fundamental impermanence of all phenomena (anitya). Accordingly, the normative function of the tea ceremony is to cultivate an affirmative disposition towards the world and of life that emerges not in spite of its evanescence, but instead precisely because of the elegiac nature of things.
In the context of ecological change, responses to grief or uncertainty that lead to despair, burnout, or avoidance are conditional upon a fear or pain over losing things one has attachment to – whether to oneself, loved ones, or things in/of the world. By embracing the ephemerality of things, the intention is to cultivate a practice of non-attachment, so as to inhibit the formation of such negative responses.
To take a position of non-attachment however is not to advocate a disinterested attitude towards present and future calamities, nor to justify a retreat from the world in the narrow interest of psychological self-preservation (for those who have the climate privilege to afford willful ignorance). The affirmative quality of this orientation instead lies in the other implication of the key Buddhist tenet that all is suffering (dukkha): that of the intrinsic emptiness of all things (śūnyatā). That because of the very transitoriness of everything (i.e. there is no absolute substantial quality of things that persist), relations between things constitute all that which exists in reality; which is to say, that all things are interdependent (pratītyasamutpāda).
It is through that deep, ecological apprehension of fundamental interdependence among all existents that a sense of community, duty and obligation can persist in spite of the comprehension of the inevitable death of all things. This is why the tea ceremony, in spite of promoting an aesthetics of pathos and existential solitude, is conducted as a celebration – as communion with and through others.
Taking this fundamentally nihilistic orientation to heart is not to suggest that it is naive to maintain a vision of a positive future (as a conventional understanding of existentialism might imply). There is clear value in drawing from a deep optimism as a motivation for taking action. But the ideas provoked by this work, in asserting a counterintuitively proactive nihilism, propose a spiritual technique which allows for action to be sustained even after the end of the world takes place.
This preemption of eschatological ruin is far from hyperbole. Indeed, for indigenous, enslaved and diasporic communities across the globe, the world has already ended many times – through waves of genocide, disease, cultural alienation and ecological displacement. But perhaps more appropriately, I should refer to ‘world’ in the plural. In contrast to modern, Western orientations, indigenous and other non-monotheistic cosmologies are grounded upon the understanding of a multitude of worlds – where the destruction of one instigates the birth of another. This cyclicality – in contrast to the idea of a single world being birthed and being destroyed – provides a possibility of living consciously and in communication with(in) ruin that the Western orientation is not particularly equipped to provide. This disposition forms the basis for the degree of resilience found within many indigenous and other aforementioned communities in the face of such stark histories.
This approach, which finds life within the ruins of past, present, and future destruction, is central to my utilisation (informed by the aesthetic of wabi-sabi) of materials which allude to such ruin – through using wood paneling previously suffocated by toxic lead paint; through incorporating driftwood that washed ashore in the Pacific Northwest in the wake of the 2011 tsunami in northeastern Japan; through using original tarpaper from the shacks that housed incarcerated Japanese Canadians during their forced internment throughout and after the Second World War; through working with native wood species in acknowledgement of traditional Indigenous uses to highlight the buried colonial histories of the Vancouver region; and through serving candied salmon in accompaniment with matcha tea in anticipation of the species’ displacement and extinction from the coast of British Columbia due to the disappearance of the province’s glaciers.
The affective goal of constructing such an assembly, which is haunted doubly by buried pasts and spectral futures, lies in the understanding that by literally sitting within those histories and futures – seeing them, tasting them, feeling them, smelling them – a shift can take place in the interpretation of past and future pain. In such a setting of an embodied contemplation over the evanescence of things, the ritual exchange of the preparation and consumption of tea between host and guest then serves as a profoundly affirmative act in light of the fundamental fluvial nature of existence.
As such, the work stands – particularly in its dialectical nature, which evokes both experiences of refuge and refusal – as a site of meditation fit for the Anthropocene, where developing a comfort of place within the psycho-emotional sense of displacement and uncertainty of this era is just as much an imperative as combating the threat of physical displacement and loss. Cultivating that spiritual fortitude is critical in being able to sustain continued action in the face of the guaranteed losses, deprivation, and destruction that the future will bring.
Calder is a candidate for the MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at the University of Oxford. He is currently interested in exploring how ecocentric values can be incorporated within multilateral governance frameworks.