In its US debut, Sonic Blossom by Lee Mingwei invites MFA visitors to receive the personal gift of song from an opera singer. The first extended exhibition of performance art in MFA history, this participatory installation has previously toured South Korea, China, and Japan.
Sonic Blossom is funded by the Museum Council’s Artist in Residency Program Fund, and will be presented each hour that the Museum is open from 10 am–9:45 pm Wednesday, March 11 to Thursday, April 9 in the William I. Koch Gallery (https://www.mfa.org/programs/performance-art/lee-mingwei-sonic-blossom).
The following is a Q&A with the artist and Jen Mergel, Robert L. Beal, Enid L. Beal and Bruce A. Beal Senior Curator of Contemporary Art:
1. What should people know about your work?
I create scenarios of gift giving that prompt transformative experiences between strangers. I want people to have the chance to do something for other people if they choose to. I have faith that they will involve themselves in the experience and see where it goes.
2. What is "Sonic Blossom”?
“Sonic Blossom” was originally created for the inaugural exhibition of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, and I used five of Franz Schubert's Lieder (art songs) as a transformative gift to visitors who encounter these moving songs. Each singer has to learn three of the five chosen Lieder. During exhibition hours, the singer meanders in the gallery, finds a visitor that s/he thinks might enjoy receiving this sonic gift by approaching them with the question: May I give you a gift of song? This is when the song is sung. This happens sporadically both in time and location--the folding and unfolding of a "Sonic Blossom".
The inspiration for the project came while I was caring for my mother as she recuperated from surgery a few years ago. We found great comfort in listening to Schubert's Lieder. These songs came as an unexpected gift to us, one that soothed us both and clearly helped with her healing. At another level, seeing my own mother weak and ill made mortality suddenly very real; aging, disease and death were no longer abstractions to me, but immediate and present. The songs are in German, but I was touched by the beauty of the songs beyond the lyrics. They remind me that the beauty of humanity lies in our fleeting existence.
3. Was there a reason(s) that the MFA was chosen to be the first US presentation of “Sonic Blossom”?
I have a very strong connection with Boston, having created the project The Living Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1999. The European collection of the Koch Gallery and grand scale resonates with Schubert’s Lieder, as both are integral cultural elements of 18th century Vienna--and I am still in awe of how beautiful the piece is in the space. Jen is also a close friend of mine, and her team has been wonderful and supportive in bringing “Sonic Blossom” to life. It has been great fun!
4. Aside from Sonic Blossom, please share with us your choice to create art that is participatory in nature?
A lot of participatory works are instructional and didactic, and I rarely choose to participate in them. So I try not to be instructional in my own work and am very careful with the language I use. I am interested in personal everyday rituals like eating and cooking because they are natural parts of our “self-constructions” as human beings. I like getting strangers involved in these private rituals because it is challenging. Something curious might happen and the elements of the unexpected are most interesting. But the element of intention also exists in my work. Connectedness is a key idea in Buddhism and Hinduism, where everything and everyone is understood as somehow connected. We do not know what may happen due to our random actions—in that way, I would like for our random acts to be beautiful and thoughtful in nature.
5. Your past projects (http://www.leemingwei.com/projects.php) seem to have a very personal theme, and usually are the result of something in your life. For example, in The Letter Writing Project, your maternal grandmother passed way, but you felt you still had many things to say to her but it was too late, so for the next year you wrote many letters to her, as if she were still alive, in order to share my thoughts and feelings with her – what else influences your work?
A lot of the inspiration for my work comes from personal experience. For many years, I find myself going back to the book The Gift by Lewis Hyde as a source of inspiration. The Gift talks about two different kinds of gift giving in our society. One is the gift based on money: you buy something and then give it to somebody. The other type is the transformative gift: You make a gift, and actually create something, give that to the recipient. This act of gift giving with its exchange of creativity and gratitude, transforms both the provider and the receiver. Sometimes it doesn’t happen right away, but over a span of time.
Above: Lee Mingwei, Sonic Blossom, 2013. “Lee Mingwei: Sonic Blossom” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, March, 2015.