by Sukanya GargJul 31, 2020
The exercise to participate in the artwork is not confined to the idea of having an understanding of it in a better light. Equally crucial is the sensorial experience around the creation that could bring about a shift in the perception of both the inside and the outside world by the visitor. Playing upon these ideas is the art practice of Taiwan-born Lee Mingwei, who is known for his experiential and participatory conceptual performances. The heightened sense of awareness that dawns, as and how the visitor interacts with Lee's work, consequently leads to a change in its form and meaning. Rare to find an artist who is poised and assured to pin an open-ended enquiry to the work.
Lee, living in Paris and New York City, had his European survey exhibition Li, Gifts and Rituals at Gropius Bau, Berlin in May last year. This year the exhibition opened at Museum Villa Stuck in Munich in May and is on till September 12, 2021. The exhibition at the Gropius Bau saw the convergence of American folk painting, Buddhist philosophy on peace, and classical Chinese literature. For Lee, the historical significance of the venue serves as an appropriate backdrop to the exhibition since, “Germany and Gropius Bau are at the centre of much European history, for 28 years the front door of the building which sat in West Berlin was blocked by the Berlin Wall.”
To explore the theme of peace in the times fraught with binaries, the project Our Peaceable Kingdom comprised 27 artists who creatively reflect on the artwork Peaceable Kingdom by Pennsylvania-born Quaker minister, Edward Hicks (1780-1849). The series displayed along the original work of Hicks', in the exhibition, reinforce the artist’s idea of peace that is inclusive to the variant translation of cultures and beyond. The act of reinterpretation in the hands of the participating artists for Lee becomes the starting point, in his words, “to present Edward Hicks' vision of peace from the 1800s alongside the views of contemporary artists”.
The work Guernica in Sand (2006–present) was also part of this exhibition. Building upon the concept of impermanence, of which mandala is the ideal personification, Taiwanese artist Lee uses sand as a material to recreate Picasso's Guernica. The artist mentioned, “I used sand to symbolise these processes, since its ‘life span’ includes being ‘born’ from the erosion of rock by the action of water or wind, and being reformed into the rock by the action of pressure or heat. My goal was to draw attention to the creative power of transformation rather than to the pain caused by clinging to things as they are.” As Lee is creating this performative artwork, one of the visitors is allowed to walk barefoot onto it. Rest of the audience watches this process of construction and deconstruction through a safe distance from the work. The performance for the day culminates when the four visitors are requested to “sweep the sand toward the middle of the installation.”
Perceptive to the art of listening to the sound, as an extension to discover the minuscule details of the surroundings, Lee's art practice is punctuated with the sensitivity towards music. The artist was exposed to learning through melodies at an early age. He would spend summers in a mountain temple in Puli township and visit bamboo forest only to listen to its silences. Later he attended the Western classical music conservatory too. Irrevocably, the music serves as an integral part of his practice. The Sonic Blossom, an ongoing performance, exemplifies this sensitivity towards the presence of lyrical harmony.
The seeds of participatory performance installation, Sonic Blossom, were sown when Lee's mother was recovering from surgery. Listening to Franz Schubert's Lieder acted as a soothing balm which aided the healing process. Watching her mother from the close quarters during this period, reconfirmed the reality of mortal selves. Lee espouses, “Like Schubert's Lieder, our own lives are brief, but all the more beautiful because of this.” Created for the inaugural exhibition of National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, the singer learnt three of the five chosen Lieder. At the time of the exhibition, the singer walks through the space to ask the question to the visitor, “May I give you a gift of song?”. With a music stand, chair and costume, the singer opens this performance, Sonic Blossom.
Lee's experiential conceptual performances thrive on the diversity of thought, to call upon a world that is inclusive to the presence of the other, not an outsider, but an equal contributor to the making of a peaceful world.