Lee Mingwei: Intimacy Online and Off
Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei's first European mid-career survey at Berlin's Gropius Bau, 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals (27 March–12 July 2020), shifted from offline to online as Covid-19 pushed Germany into lockdown. With the country reopening, the exhibition is now on view in both realms, fully engaging with the internet to expand on the physical exhibition, connecting places and people by providing a space for intimacy.
Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand (2006/2020). Sand, wooden island, light. 11 x 23 m. Exhibition view: Lee Mingwei: 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals, Gropius Bau, Berlin (27 March–12 July 2020). Courtesy Gropius Bau. Photo: Laura Fiorio.
Invitation for Dawn, conceived as a digital alternative to 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals, derives from Sonic Blossom (2013), in which a singer performs a song from Austrian composer Franz Schubert's extensive collection of Lieder to a single sitter. The work has its roots in the artist's experiences: listening to the songs with his mother as a child, then later as an adult, while she was recovering from surgery. Occurring between strangers, the gift of song and the act of gifting are charged with unfamiliarity: made more so now that a plexiglass screen stands between performer and audience. As Lee told Ocula Magazine in 2015, 'when you give something to a stranger it's seemingly a very easy gesture, but actually it's hard and full of different nuances.'
Sonic Blossom was digitally reborn as Invitation for Dawn (2020). With set time slots, the Gropius Bau placed open calls for members of the public to meet with professionally trained opera singers on Zoom. The performers—hailing from Germany, the Faroe Islands, France, Iceland, Italy, South Korea, Spain, and Russia—chose a repertoire of three songs, including their countries' respective folk songs. Taking place across the world and in multiple time zones, the performances extend 'an invitation for dawn'—the anticipation of a new and hopefully better day.
While the physical exhibition has reopened, Invitation for Dawn continues online (details are provided on the exhibition website). Another digital project that remains open is Fabric of Memory (2006/2020). First initiated in 2006, the project draws inspiration from Lee's first day of kindergarten, when the young artist was reluctant to leave home and his mother told him to imagine his jacket as her embrace. Such memories of love resonate in the fabric items and their accompanying texts submitted to the Gropius Bau and presented in the exhibition in wooden boxes; just a few examples include a kindergarten apron sewn out of a young mother's wedding dress, and an unusual wedding blouse made by a groom-to-be. Their images and stories can be viewed on a dedicated page, with some testimonies read aloud in specially produced videos.
Letter to Oneself (2020) similarly elicits personal contributions. Announced as part of the launch of the exhibition's shift online, members of the public were invited to write letters about their worries and hopes and send them to the museum, so that they would be included in the physical exhibition once it reopened. Letter-writing in Lee's work dates back to The Letter Writing Project, ongoing since 1998, that began from his maternal grandmother's death and the letters that he wrote to her for the following 18 months. When presented in physical shows, such as his retrospective exhibition Lee Mingwei and His Relations at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 2016, letter-writing takes place in semi-enclosed booths with a small sitting desk. Participants can leave their letters sealed or not, to be read or to be posted.
Many of Lee's works necessarily take time, unfolding over the intimate acts of sharing, gifting, and storytelling. Participants are often expected to make offerings in return, be they physical items or emotions, stories, and thoughts. In The Mending Project, ongoing since 2009, people are invited to bring old clothes to repair, while for The Sleeping Project (initiated in 2000), select visitors spend the night in the gallery with the artist or a gallery personnel, contributing personal items to the installation in turn. (Under post-lockdown conditions, the latter work is taking no overnight guests at Gropius Bau, but museum staff are adding to the installation with items from home.)
Lee's ability to cultivate intimacy by creating the conditions to share and unfold personal experiences is once again demonstrated in Our Peaceable Kingdom (2020), which was commissioned for the Gropius Bau exhibition. Under his invitation, 11 painters made their own versions of the American folk painter Edward Hicks' 'Peaceable Kingdom' series (c. 1820–1849), which draws from a passage in the Book of Isaiah about a harmonious coexistence between different species; Lee then invited other artists to copy them. The result is an eclectic range of expressions of peace, each one unique and different, but all imagining a better future. —[O]