Lately, ‘tables’, as a topic, have come to the table quite frequently. When I was in Portugal, over Christmas and New Year, that happened again. Before heading to Lisbon to celebrate New Year there, I stayed in Alejento’s countryside, just north of the Algarve. ‘Almost getting lost finding the place’ was the way someone described the effort of finding the B&B of Dina and Walter. It couldn’t be truer. Nicely tucked away in orange groves, evergreen cork oak plantations as far as the eye can see, close to the beautiful beaches and amazing cliffs.
Dina worked in the Portuguese Foreign Ministry as an assistant diplomatic, serving in Washington and at the UN in New York. She is married to the artist Walter Rosso, born in Montevideo, Uruguay. In Washington DC he met Dina, and together they eventually moved to Portugal. As a young man, Walter received artistic guidance from José Gurvitch and Jorge Damiani. In 1970, he set up a studio with fellow artist Héctor del Castillo, and from 1981 to 1992 he belonged to the studio Taller de Puerto, in Montevideo. His paintings were on display in galleries in Uruguay, the United States and Portugal. Both Dina and Walter are amazing people with twinkling eyes that betray their inner youthfulness, full of wonderful stories.
I asked Walter, why he paints a lot of ‘mesa’, which is Portuguese for ‘table’. In fact, he does not only paint a lot of tables, but chairs are also part of his favourite subjects. The reason why I asked, is that I just shared the story of Barbara Soalheiro, that’s how I learned the Portuguese word for table. What followed was a great conversation about tables, the role they fulfil to create a common space for people, art and more. His answer to the question was quite straightforward: he used to paint a lot of still lifes, but at a certain point became captivated by the geometry of the objects carrying the those still lifes: the table and the chair. And thus that evolved to become a theme throughout his work.
When we were discussing the role of a table, he mentioned the work by Isamu Noguchi; apparently one of the twentieth century’s most influential and critically acclaimed sculptors as Walter told me. Through a lifetime of artistic experimentation, Isamu created sculptures, gardens, furniture and lighting designs, ceramics, architecture, and set designs. Walter was specifically referring to his table designs.
He tried to find a book about him, but wasn’t able to find it at that time, but was so kind to send me some pictures from the book by email a couple of days later. The book is called ISAMU NOGUCHI, SPACE OF AKARI & STONE (published in the USA in 1985 by Chronicle Books). He included a couple of paragraphs from the book as well, revealing the artist’s rationale for his work. It said:
I am excited by the idea that sculpture creates space, that shapes intended for this purpose, appropriately scaled in space, actually create a greater space. There is a difference between actual cubic feet of space and the additional space that the imagination supplies.
(quoted in Isamo Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 1968)
If my tables now suggest landscape, you must be aware that every garden is a landscape, and every table can be considered to be a garden, too, especially the Zen gardens. Some of them we call Kare Sansui, which means ‘dry riverbed’ because they use conventions of gravel and rocks. In my tables, I don’t use gravel or sand, but I use a flat area of stone which is more or less their equivalent. You can say every garden in Japan is an altar, in a sense, but an altar is a kind of table, too. An altar is specifically used for a ritual, having to do with the Godhead in Christianity. Then, there are other kinds of altars — the altar of Heaven in Peking was used for emperor worship. There are all sorts of correlations between tables, gardens, plazas and ritual. Every time we have a meal, it is used to be that people would invoke Thanksgiving of some sort. The Japanese won’t start eating without saying “I am partaking.”
(quoted in Sam Hunter, Isamu Noguchi-75th Birthday Exhibition, 1980)
Honestly, I never really thought about tables too much before I talked with Barbara in Brazil. He, in her way but very similarly speaks of the role of a table:
I always knew that tables are one of my favourite places. A table is a place where you share food and drinks with your friends, as a place of pleasure. But it is also a place of commitment. A place where you sign contracts, have brainstorms, where you produce stuff.
How Barbara Soalheiro creates space by bringing people together around the table
Happyplaces Stories (video)
Tables not only play a crucial role for Barbara, Tim Leberecht’s 15 Toasts gatherings also revolve around a table. 15 Toasts are dinners that give 15 guests the permission to be vulnerable, engage as human beings in an open and genuine conversation, and surprise one another and themselves, while breaking bread together. The dinners raise awareness of issues that might be too big and elusive to be captured by formal agendas but deserve deep reflection and meaningful exchange. They also are intended to build trust and create spaces where people are able to bring their ‘full selves’ to the table. The concept is simple, yet powerful: while these 15 people have dinner they all need to give a toast to the subject at hand. As a special twist — providing a strong incentive for keeping the round of toasts moving — the last one must sing his or her toast. This adds an element of playfulness that shifts the gathering from formal to informal. A safe place, in company of 14 others.
When I started to film people for Happyplaces, I always had the idea that at a certain point in time, I wanted to share the video’s within a small group of individuals. I named these moments Happyplaces Moments. I started filming all people up close since day one, to create an intimate, personal viewing experience for a viewer. With somewhere in the back of the head this potential idea: sharing a story at a table with a bunch of interesting people. This way, the intimacy of the recording stays intact, and at the same time, it makes sure, that the person I interviewed does not need to prepare a talk or a presentation. Obviously, the recording is not the whole story. It’s just a slice, at a particular moment in time. But because the subject of Happyplaces Project is timeless, it allows a possibility to continue the conversation, to widen and deepen it. Together with Tjeerd Veenhoven, I made a table setup that would turn any group of tables into an intimate, cosy setting, a safe space we all share for this purpose. Those conversations always happened so far, at the table. A lot of laughter, even people crying. Wonderful.
Last year, I organised a gathering with a simple idea. We’re all too busy doing all the things we have to, and we take too little time for exchange and inspiration by sharing with others. The principle was straightforward. Ten people sharing a story, and they could all bring someone extra. For that occasion, we borrowed the space of ADCN in Amsterdam, a nice place at a great location in Amsterdam. Big enough, but not big. Like any meeting where people don’t know each other, people came in and even though it was just 20 people, there was this typical behaviour. Instead of meeting new people, familiar people attract like magnets. So this resulted in like five small groups. But that instantly changed when we placed a table centrally in the space. Alle people washed ashore at the table. Where there is a lot of unknown, the table meant safety. Over the hours all people connected and relaxed shared their stories without any threshold, and left as new friends, not unsafe and unknown anymore.
When I worked at …,staat, I was in Berlin together with Jochem. We made a book, and its vernissage was in the Dutch Embassy there. We arrived early and were in desperate need of a good espresso. So we went to a coffee bar, ordered to espresso and sat at a table. Jochem sat down, faced towards the street and I sat opposite to him. He instantly said: ‘What are you doing?’ I honestly didn’t have a clue what he referred to. He looked at me, a bit upset and said: ‘Sit next to me so that we can laugh at the same things together.’ The table created distance between us, not only because of the actual distance but also in our shared experience. Since then, I always sit next to someone instead of the opposite side of the table.
The table as the central place to gather, altar-like, a place of rituals, sharing, exchange, bonding, pleasure, commitment. Something that we just see as an everyday life object is, in fact, a silent witness and facilitator for a lot of moments throughout our lives. It helps to make space smaller, safe even.
What are your table tales?