The secret life of green tea

FILIGREE and delicate disorder. One of the works on show in Leora Farber’s installation ‘Intimate Presences, Affective Absences (or, the snake within). Photograph courtesy of Leora Farber.

A FRISSON OF sacredness mixed with a patent sense of physical uncertainty accompanies you as you enter the hallowed space which contains the result of three years of fine art research by Leora Farber. Her installation, Intimate Presences, Affective Absences (or, the snake within) is on show in the downstairs space of the FADA gallery on the Bunting Road Campus of the University of Johannesburg until the end of November.

Flying in the face of commercial demands for visual easiness, this body of work is a lot like performance art. Only it is you, on the receiving end, who does the performing and who is at once swept into the power of the work’s premises. The room is painted black and features a constructed floor which creaks. The intensity of the light boxes casts a tight but seemingly floating spotlight on each piece, evocative of precious pieces of geological specimens in a natural history museum. But here you don’t find yourself looking for genus labels. It’s more like visiting Rothko’s chapel, where the spirituality of the experience deserves a credit of its own.

As you enter the space, you realise you cannot see your feet. You cannot see how the stands holding the works balance on the floor. You cannot know whether you will entangle your feet in the stands’ legs and topple over. You have to be careful. You approach the work gingerly, respectfully.

As you look, if you breathe too hard, these gossamer pieces will flutter. They’re not pinned down. They are not behind glass. Constructed from the skin formed by fermented green tea and sugar – of the kind used to derive kombucha tea – these pieces are both wild and sedate in their approach. As they are supremely transient.

Evocative of the kind of plasticity of shedded snake skin, the medium is like tissue paper, but it has a sheen to it. Organic, yet not organic, it holds its shape with precision and uncontrollability. The works are moulded on mostly tea-related objects: teaspoons and cake forks, tea cups and tea pots. There is a doily here and a butter dish there. There is a small carpet, intensely detailed under several of the pieces.

But there’s no containable sense of order here. These works are exploded with a sense of intimate fragility. The fermented bacteria is like a skin that wrinkles and enfolds the idea, the ghost of the original objects. They’re touched with a brush bearing ink, water colour or oil-based pigment, and oft moulded on the embossed textures of commercially accessible serviettes or the filigree of a piece of cutlery with bone handles.

Ultimately, however, these achingly vulnerable pieces are deep and rich, robust and monumental commentaries on the colonial history of tea. They’re a wise and beautiful reflection on what it means to reflect on the myriad complexities of appropriation, and they reflect poetry in their utter uselessness. You cannot purchase these objects and cherish them in your collection of art, dusting them occasionally. They’re labour-intensive gestures balanced precariously on the quiet magnificence of being able to invest hours and hours in a thing which doesn’t have pragmatic value in this hard-edged and oft insensitive world in which we live.

Farber’s work is like a forbidden whisper. It segues wonderfully with Eugene Hön’s exhibition in the upstairs part of the gallery, commenting astutely on the power of craft and the wisdom in beautifully made objects.

  • Intimate Presences, Affective Absences (or, the snake within) is an exhibition of moulds made of fermented green tea by Leora Farber, at the FADA Gallery off Bunting Road in Auckland Park until the end of November. Access to the gallery is by appointment only, due to the ongoing lockdown. Contact:

5 replies »

    • I wish you could too, Mariss. It’s a real treat. Do you remember Leora’s exhibition at the Festival in 2007 or 2008?

Leave a Reply