On Age, Infusion and Narrative Texture : Encountering Marie Ma’s performance with Chinese Tea and Ceramics

Marie (Li Ma) brought the hot, wetted leaves of the winter flower tea to her nose, and breathed in. Before a cup was handed to each of us in our circle, she motioned to a large, ceramic jar with geometric patterns in bands. She told us how those banded patterns represent flowers, and that the jar was produced by the Neolithic Yangshao culture.


So began a series of unique performances, held in intimate gallery settings around London. Through the techniques of poetic drama, storytelling, and the trained movements of an accomplished tea master, Marie Ma recontextualises the essence of the ancient Chinese tea ceremony for the modern day; and in so doing, she draws on modern methods to confront her audience with profoundly Chinese questions on the ephemeral and the eternal.


Tea was historically seen as an indispensable product in China, on a par with grain, oil, and salt, yet it was simultaneously the focus of spiritual and aesthetic admiration. In Marie’s performance work, the tea encompasses all these aspects, from the ‘earthy’ to the near-divine. They involve far more than merely the process of making the tea, or the stiff, elegant manner of preparation seen in classical tea ceremonies. Through her storytelling and the comparison of that winter flower tea with the Yangshao ceramic jar, Marie tells her guests how both tea and jar are the product of artisans capturing the essence of wild flowers. Both are material worked from the earth, both formed by hands, and both transformed from fluidity to permanence by firing at high temperatures.

For Marie, tea, the tea wares, artefacts, the ceremony, and her small audience are the media. To those who are unfamiliar with Chinese tea culture, it may not be immediately apparent that Marie is subtly adapting the standard forms. Typical contemporary tea shows in China adhere to a performance style that was developed during the 1970s for exhibitions and trade promotion. Such ‘Gongfucha’ practice, requires substantial skill, and is the segue during the conventional ceremony for a relatively lengthy discussion of the tea’s qualities, its cultivation and production methods. In all these cases, the focus is on the tea, and not on art more generally. In between, such shows can be relatively unstructured social events.

Marie’s performance practice subtly breaks these norms, and introduces the synergistic allusions arising between teas, poetry, and objects of contemplation into her work. Her performances express how tea is, and always has been, a soothing meditative aid under which simmers continual aesthetic, spiritual, and anthropological discourses. It is appropriate in her view that fuller stories are told, while leavening these with an acute attention to allusion and multisensory experiences.

Water is fluid in its movement, whilst the wares possess their brittle stillness, and tea binds these. Water and its freshness are crucial to tea and its quality. This was historically the case in China, where tea water was preferentially collected from white water rapids high in mountains. Marie stylisation of the ‘gongfucha’ method highlight this conceit: In the meeting of ware, tea, and water new spaces and movements are fleetingly created before they are lost in the narrative flow.

Marie also reworks the classical repertoire of preparation gestures that form the mainstay of the chinese tea ceremony, using moments of stillness, or the sudden draining of the wetted leaves as a prompt for contemplation, punctuating the narrative. Marie spends as much as 3 minutes in stillness and silence, allowing the murmur of the rolling water in the kettle to become audible. She thus recreates for her guests imagery and experiences which were recorded in the Song dynasty poems which she shares, “First with the autumn insect’s murmur, then came thousands of chariots carrying crops, finally when hearing about the sound of wind and streams among pines trees, one shall bring the bronze teapot away from the bamboo stool. When everything becomes silent again, we have prepared the water.”

Just as water and movement evoke the mood, the wares, especially the ceramics, are the prompts for Marie’s performative narrative. Marie’s background in the assessment and cataloguing of chinese ceramics has offers her a profound insight into the historical and tactile qualities of the small pots and beakers used to serve tea. Most of all, the tactility of the ‘gaiwan’ where the loose leaves are brewed, and the collection of cups in which the tea is poured. Her performance highlights the immediate symbolic qualities of ‘pure’ porcelain against rougher stonewares: their heat to the touch, and their sensitivity to hot water.

Marie’s particular interest is in dark, iron rich ‘jian’ ware bowls. On one hand these are a prompt to tell the story of how powdered green teas were whisked and served like matcha in Southern Song (c. 12th century) China; but outside of the cultural exposition, Marie tells stories of their unique hare’s fur like properties, and how these bring to mind river silt drifting over dark earth. She will tell her own experience of a small town in Fujian where these wares were traditionally produced. There the soil of the nearby hills is full of shards of ancient jian wares. In this, Marie explores the brittleness and permanence of ceramic shards in contrast to the elusiveness of the perfect brewing water.

Marie has notably conducted a seven-part live storytelling performance, taking the Tang dynasty poem ‘The Seven Bowls of Tea’ by Lu Tong (written 795 AD) as its starting point. The poem itself relates the poet’s change of spiritual awareness whilst drinking of seven cups of tea. The last cup brings Lu Tong riding through the clouds to an immortal mountain.

The gallery setting (W. SHANSHAN Gallery in St. James, London) on the 26th Mar 2023 was ideally suited to the project. It specialises in early Asian art artefacts, and their capacity to enhance contemporary settings. Over the course of the performance, Marie introduced six ancient Chinese artefacts that were made around the time the poem was written, before revealing a final contemporary tea set made of in rough brown stoneware which represented the immortal mountain. Each piece served as a metaphorical aid for the interpretation of the poem and the appreciation of each cup of tea that was served.

Marie frequently explores differing conceptions of femininity in her work. In the ‘Seven Cups’ repertoire, she contrasts two highly stylised Chinese tomb figurines with two teas.

The first of these depicts a slender, severe looking dancer from the Han dynasty with a black tea called ‘zhengshan xiaozhong’ (Lapsang Souchong) which has a pine-like smoky aroma. The second is a stouter, sweeter looking figurine from the Tang dynasty, with a large flower in her raised hairstyle. She is paired with another black tea, ‘miru hong’, which has a sweet, almost honeyed aroma, as the Chinese name suggests.

In telling the story of each of these — how they were intended to be kept permanently in a tomb, yet both capture a very special, ephemeral beauty in their form. With their chosen tea and the aromas, Marie makes a space for each figurine and makes an effective appeal for an uncomplicated appreciation of them and their beauty.

Marie’s work is a unique experience, the combined used of many traditional art forms in China are skilfully woven into a narrative that offers a fresh perspective of the sensory qualities of history, and the interplay of cultures. The use of ancient artefacts, and their introduction with a strange sense of irreverence and exactitude, sets the scene for many meditations on the nature of fluid imagination against brittle history, the difference between material and essence of the stories we create in our own lives. In her conception therefore, lived art is the only way to reconcile these disjunctures between permanence and impermanence, and to confront her audience with an intuition of a Chinese ways to address these.

Yet this may overstate the introspection in Marie’s art. She sees the tea trade as living practice as much as it is an art, and in her conversation, reveals a profound interest in the boundaries of ‘art’, ‘craft’ and ‘trade’. According to Marie, tea is, and should be a lived experience and practice with which performance and artistry can powerfully synergise. She plays with the role of artist and artisan. In Marie’s outlook, the poet, the exhibitioner, and the salesperson have to coexist, as otherwise it would not be true to her interest.

Tea was historically seen as an indispensable product in China, on a par with grain, oil, and salt, yet it was simultaneously the focus of spiritual and aesthetic admiration. Thousands of unique teas are produced in China. Each product brings with it a story: the place it was grown, its grower, its tea maker, its trade history, and its appreciation by tea connoisseurs from the deep past to the present. Many of the forms and aesthetic principles surrounding tea are the result of tea’s near continuous cross cultural trade after it became ubiquitous in China. Accordingly, Marie is seeking to bring better quality Chinese teas into Britain. Not only are these materials for performance, but a means to attain novel stories.

Between continued one-off performances over the intervening months, leading up to the upcoming exhibition, ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’ at Gallery Bookstore IMPRESSIONS in Paris (13th June 2024), Marie has developed a narrative which surpasses her media. She considers the essence of her tea ceremony to be akin to the practice of live poetry or storytelling. Each tea and teaware that is presented in the tea ceremony is bestowed with a hidden life and voice by the craftsman and the tea master. Marie succeeds in letting them meet.











专注于早期亚洲艺术品及其与当代环境交互,位于伦敦圣詹姆斯的 W. SHANSHAN 画廊便非常适合该项目。在表演过程中,麻利介绍了在卢仝诗歌创作期间前后几个世纪中制作的六件中国古代文物,最后展示了最后一套用粗糙的棕色石器制成的代表蓬莱山的当代茶具。每一件器物都起到了赏析这首诗和赏析每杯茶的重要的隐喻性帮助。







在巴黎印象画廊书店即将举办的展览“Le Rouge et le Noir”(2024 年 6 月 13 日)之前,麻利不断进行即兴表演,期间她发展了一种超越她本人的媒体的叙事。她认为茶道的本质类似于现场诗歌或讲故事的实践。茶道中呈现的每一件茶和茶具,都被工匠和茶师赋予了隐藏的生命和声音。而麻利创造了让他们邂逅的场景。

Edited by Rinka Fan

Posted on 16 April 2024


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