national gallery
Japanese tea ceremony performance artist Mai Ueda looking out from a wooden tea house, part of a bamboo maze installation display by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, on the roof of the National Gallery Singapore. Photo: AFP

Dressed in a 100-year-old samurai outfit made of Japanese hemp, performance artist Mai Ueda serves organic tea mixed with iced watermelon juice to four visitors at a time in a tearoom on the roof of the National Gallery Singapore. The small, air-conditioned bamboo enclosure – designed by Argentina-born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija – on the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery is the heart of a new art installation commissioned by the National Gallery.

The work, which is named untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness), will show here until Oct 28. To reach the tearoom, viewers first walk through a 4m-high, 15m-wide and 19m-long maze made of bamboo poles lashed together. It can take a minute or an hour to reach the centre. The twisting path made by browning bamboo poles invites visitors to interact with one another and take plenty of selfies on the rooftop space.

national gallery
Visitors walking through the bamboo installation, by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, on the roof of the National Gallery on Jan 23, 2018. Photo: Dios Vincoy Jr For The Straits Times

Tiravanija, who is 57 this year, said at a media preview on Tuesday (Jan 23): “I like to make work where I don’t have to tell people what to do. I want people who come to just be themselves.”

The artist blurs the lines between art and everyday activities in his practice. An early work in the 1990s saw him cook and serve curry to visitors. In 1992, he constructed a teahouse stocked with leaves, so viewers could brew their own tea.

In 2013, Ueda performed the tea ceremony in a mirrored tearoom created by the Thai artist. She will serve tea at the rooftop tearoom to visitors this weekend and then train volunteers who will hold tea ceremonies in the installation on the first Sunday of every month, until October.

Tiravanija says: “I look at tea and coffee as a medicinal elixir.” He cites a legend where a monk’s robe was used to create an enclosure to shelter the Buddha as he served tea to followers.

national gallery
Mai Ueda performing a tea ceremony inside the art installation named “Untitled 2018”, on the roof of the National Gallery Singapore, on Jan 23, 2018. Photo: Dios Vincoy Jr For The Straits Times
national gallery
From left) Tea master Mai Ueda, curator Silke Schmickl, National Gallery director (Curatorial, Collections and Education) Low Sze Wee and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija speaking at a media event on Jan 23, 2018. Photo: Dios Vincoy Jr For The Straits Times

Alongside this spiritual theme is the use of an everyday construction material, bamboo, which the artist sees used for everything from floor mats to building scaffoldings in Thailand. About 2,500 bamboo poles were flown over from his home, Chiang Mai, to create the installation. “It’s a material I feel is part of my own structure,” says the artist. While designing the installation, he considered its location: a rooftop exposed to sun, rain and humidity. “So I thought of how to make a shelter for whoever will come and spend time there,” he says. “The exhibition is in a public space and needs to be made in a way that the public can spend time with it.”

Book It / Ng  Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission: Rirkrit Tiravanija

Where: Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery, National Gallery Singapore, 1 Saint Andrew’s RoadWhen: Until Oct 28, all day

Admission: Free

Tea Gathering By Mai Ueda

Where: Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden GalleryWhen: Jan 27 & 28, 2 to 5pm, 30 minutes a session

Admission: Free

Sunday Tea Ceremonies

Where: Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden GalleryWhen: Feb 4, March 4, April 1, May 6, June 3, July 1, Aug 5, Sept 2 and Oct 7, 2 to 6pm

Admission: Free

Like this? Check out National Gallery Singapore’s first travelling exhibition in Paris, the exhibitions at Singapore Art Week 2018 that anyone can enjoy and the must-try food offerings at Laneway 2018