A Cup of tea and a fort under my bed
- thoughts on ‘mental shelter’

-- Sam Bachy

Anytime I go abroad I make sure to take a packet or box of tea from Ireland with me. Anytime I skype with my parents, or they come and visit me, they ask if I need a refill of Lyons tea.

It connects me to home, connects to safety. The act of making a cup of tea is a ritual, a sacred thing. It is also something to calm down over, to think over, no doubt to consider my worries over. But mostly it is a constant in a sea of change. A way of connecting to a ‘home’ when without. A psychological refuge, different from a physical space of shelter, but having a similar mental effect.

In 2016 I explored this notion of mental shelter through the project Kota, created during a residency in rural Finland. The project used the harsh environment of the Finnish winter to explore and contrast the physical need for shelter with our mental need to situate ourselves in places of familiarity. I wanted to find where basic shelter and the domestic, and it's associated rituals, could connect. An important aspect of the work was researching the forms of traditional Sami structures as a basis for the installation.

The project resulted in a structure that only suggested a shelter through it's form, and objects that suggested domestic life through their symbolic arrangement within the structure and our familiarity to them. This ‘shelter’ was completed through the enacting of mundane activities such as the making and drinking of tea, within the perceived boundaries of the installation that created an inside and an outside.

Kota (2016) video still. ‘Making tea in the shelter’

This binary result of shelter, the creation of an outside through having an inside leads me to consider earlier forms of mental and physical separation from the ‘outside’. When I was a child the refuges were more literal. They were forts under beds and desks. As a child, even the safety of inside could become alien. All it could take was for the light to go out, for a strange sound to be heard during the night. Then the room, the house, which during daylight hours was the refuge, became strange, unknown, ambiguous full of dark recesses and shadows. Unhomely.

It’s curious, paradoxical even, and yet somehow still logical that my response to this would be to seek out one of these shadowy unknown recesses and immerse myself within it. Without light the room could become many rooms, every corner becoming another space. There were no more borders anymore. In order to re-establish a connection I had to move further in , find a new space within the space, a room within the room. A cavity. The dark spaces, the source of the unknown, of the unhomely, would then become homely, become familiar. The strange, unfamiliar spaces, positions and perspectives become spaces of safety, needed to guard against a familiar turned upside down. The forts allowed me to escape fears, the tea to rationalise my worries.

The tea is a psychological security blanket, a sensory space. Just as I could not allow myself to be left outside in the ‘unhomely space’ by building forts, I drink tea, particularly black tea from Ireland. But just as the homely spaces of the first could only exist with the unhomely outside, the calm and connection to home of tea is only truly evoked when in a space of worry, when exposed, outside, out of place. Scientifically this is primarily due to the presence of L-theanine in tea leaves. This amino acid helps reduce anxiety, and this, it can be assumed, becomes most tangible when in a state of anxiety to begin with. The effectiveness of a shelter becomes most apparent when there is indeed something to be sheltered from.

When the lights were out and the room became unfamiliar, it was not that I was in another room, but in no room. It became a space without clear meaning, without connection. A liminal space, between being what it was before, and being something else. It becomes unsettling, uneasy, abject. And so it must be escaped, through finding a part of the now unfamiliar and making it familiar, taking part of the liminal space and making it steady, stable, controlled. But form there, worrying takes hold. While the tea offers some comfort, it highlights what I was worried about, allowing it to take hold.

In 2016 I created a tea-bag installation that explored Tea as a sensory entrance to a ‘timeless’ space (not quite of memory, but similar) that can be a constant in the face of entropy and change. While any and all physical shelters are still subject to the
second law of thermodynamics, such a sensory space is not. It can be revisited over and over, requiring only the tools and ingredients to make the tea for consumption.

Again this brings me back to the seemingly inherent duality created through shelter, both physical and mental. Creating the fort under my bed may have offered a stable refuge, but it highlighted the space outside as ‘other’. The feeling of abjection of being in between space may be avoided, but the division has created a clear space that is ‘elsewhere’ and so not here, and so somewhere to worry about.

Tea -Bag (2016) Mixed media Installation.
Tea -Bag (2016) Mixed media Installation.
Tea -Bag (2016) Mixed media Installation.

As i’m sitting here, thinking what to write, I’m drinking a cup of tea.
Lyons tea, from Ireland. The whole family drinks it.

I always have some with me, my mother makes sure of that. It’s a nice, strong black tea.

But I’m not drinking it because of that.

I’m drinking it because it soothes me, makes me feel at home. I’m also drinking it because I’m worried.

Worried about my writing, whether I’m making the right choices, saying the right things. I’m worrying about doing it all wrong.

So I’m drinking some tea.

Sam Bachy (1991) Is an Irish visual artist and scenographer based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. His work primarily translates through mixed media installations and durational processes as participatory setups with the audience. Sam’s research is invested in questions of homely shelters and fragmented memories, situated in landscapes of global anxieties and psychological relations between time and place.