Like coffee talk, but better

Tea for two: Artists puts an American spin on Chinese-inspired social time

Tea for two: Artists puts an American spin on Chinese-inspired social time

Teateria, tea, Weihong, artist, December 2012
Weihong is a visual artist who spends summers in China and snowbirds in Houston. Photo courtesy of the artist
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea
Teateria is her latest piece, on view at the Houston Arts Alliance Gallery through Jan. 20. Photo by Weihong
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea
Lining the walls of this pop up tearoom are more than 200 donated tea cups and accompanying tea leaves or tea bags. Photo by Weihong
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea
Weihong's visitors will be asked to pore over the collection and pick one that resonates strongly with them. Photo by Weihong
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea
The conversation ends with Weihong capturing a digital photograph of her visitor holding the chosen cup. Photo by Weihong
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea
Weihong's work delves into Chinese Taoist principles, Tai Chi philosophies and Yin-Yang polarities through installations and environments that facilitate conversation and interaction. Photo by Weihong
Teateria, tea, Weihong, artist, December 2012
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea
Teateria installation, December 2012, tea

Think of Weihong as the friendly bartender at a casual neighborhood watering hole, the type of amicable personality who hears intimate stories from guests who sip a relaxing beverage and reveal guarded secrets in hopes of solving personal conundrums.

Yet her role isn't about dishing out advice, although it does begin with a drink. Not beer, wine or the now-trending specialty cocktail potation.

It's tea.

Weihong is a visual artist who spends summers in China and snowbirds in Houston. She was born close to Beijing in Taiyuan, Shanxi, studied art in the capital city, moved to Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, to teach her metiér at South China Normal University, met her American husband and relocated to Houston in 1995.

"I'm part East and part West," she says.

Her work delves into Chinese Taoist principles, Tai Chi philosophies and Yin-Yang polarities through installations and environments that facilitate conversation and interaction.

Tea has been the medium by which she transfigures meaningful human interactions into permanent, digital imprints that encapsulate the essence of her guests, something that has suffused her oeuvre for more than 10 years. It's tea time, but not in the Japanese ceremonial tradition. Rather, her unique genre of this miscellany of performance art, visual installations and digital output mimics, records and dialogues with the American tradition of coffee talk.

 "Each tea cup is a portrait of the person who chose to contribute it. So when a guest selects one based on visual cues, the tea cup and the tea serves as a mirror between two people who've never met." 

Teateria is her latest piece, on view at the Houston Arts Alliance Gallery through Jan. 20. While the title suggests the informal ambiance of a cafeteria, Teateria is like a black-and-white fashionable, chic tearoom, a surreal spot where anyone can, with a reservation, visit with Weihong and partake in a tête-à-tête — what she dubs eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart get-together— as part of her "255-0+Tea" and "Tea 4-2" project.

The numbers zero and 255 nod to the RGB additive color model where the lower number represents no light and the higher number represents maximum light — black and white respectively. It's her process of further infusing Tai Chi fundamentals into her modern practice. "Tea 4-2" shouldn't need further clarification, and if it does, read it out loud a few times and it will naturally decode itself — get it?

Lining the walls of this pop up tearoom, otherwise a gathering place where artists administrators meet for business purposes, are more than 200 tea cups and accompanying tea leaves or tea bags donated by some of the more than 1,000 friends she's made over the infused drink. Her visitors will be asked to pore over the collection and pick one that resonates strongly with them.

"Each tea cup is a portrait of the person who chose to contribute it, because they have to think about what best represents them," Weihong explains. "So when a guest selects one based on visual cues, the tea cup and the tea serves as a mirror between two people who've never met.

"In a way, that makes me and present company guests of someone who isn't physically here. The interaction heightens to a spiritual plane, and my hope is for all these layers to portray balance and harmony."

The conversation ends with Weihong capturing a digital photograph of her visitor holding the chosen cup. She has thousands of these images saved as computer files. As such, her approach in Teateria is akin to a overarching retrospective that convenes many of her aesthetic fundamentals, though that may not be evident to her guests at first glance.

"Houston has helped me to love my culture more than if I had just lived in China."

"The moment of interaction doesn't repeat itself, like how you can never put your second foot on the stream of a running river for the first time," she elaborates. "The photo lives in eternity, a perpetual memento that recalls that one-on-one experience."

Weihong's clothing is always in black and white, and she encourages her tea guests to do the same. Moreover, her outfits echo the cultural tenor of her location. When she offered her work in Milan during fashion week, she wore the couture of a featured designer. In Portland, she settled on bohemian, funky attire. Next to a hotel, she could've been confused for a concierge. In Houston, she's hoping to find the appropriate cowboy hat, matching boots and a sun dress.

"I have so many memories, and every single one is important," she emphasizes. "I want to equalize all the people I meet. [Each] guest, whether it's a celebrity or not, has something beautiful and memorable to share."

She's shared tea with with people like Giorgio Armani, whose presence she describes as having the aroma of the wind of early springtime. She's shared tea with homeless people, editors of major publications, married couples, young children — the whole gamut of humanity. That includes many Houstonians.

"I've lived in Houston longer than I've lived in China," she says."It has become my second hometown. Houston has nurtured my art into new ways of thinking, leading to new expressive mediums. Houston has helped me to love my culture more than if I had just lived in China.

"I suppose that's Yin and Yang. Isn't it?"

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Weihong's Teateria is on view at the Houston Arts Alliance Gallery through Jan. 20. Guests can make reservations online to visit with the artist on Friday (4-8 p.m.) and Saturday through Sunday (2-6 p.m.).