MG’s Back: Lee Mingwei at Martin Gropius Bau
(Berlin.) Having been closed for nearly two months “on account of the current situation”, Martin Gropius Bau reopened in May, extending the interrupted show of Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi, and introducing without further ado Li by Lee Mingwei that had once been announced for April. For the rest, they’re still busy adapting their exhibition schedule, it’s all “postponed, new dates shortly”. Of course, MGB has adopted all new safety measures, enforcing face masks and the reservation of a time slot on every visitor while also putting disinfectant spray at our disposal everywhere. ... ... ... Sorry, but I just cannot help it – Once again: a droplet infection is not a smear infection, that virus can not enter your body by the skin pores, and seeing those sprays pop up everywhere now, in museums, restaurants, shops, and handbags, it’s easy to predict serious issues with hitherto innocuous germs developing resistances for the near future, not to mention a further increase in allergies. Disinfectants should have been banned from private use a long time ago. But we’re digressing, here’s art:
Not pronounced the “lemming’s way”, nor “Ernest”, Lee Mingwei (Western: Mingwei Lee) from the Republic of China a.k.a. Taiwan (Chinese: this needs to disap- be discussed), is an artist, people without a degree in art history won’t hesitate to call “conceptual” (-azy: he likes to let others do the work for him). His art is as participative as it gets, with a degree, or only some interest in contemporary art, you’ll say “l’art relationnel”, and maybe call him the “Formosan Tiranavija” - a little less focused on convivial feasting than his famous Thai counterpart.
That approach obviously poses a problem “in the current situation”, a-hem: social distancing... And indeed, certain works could not be “activated”, others not as planned, but rest assured: There’s still more than enough to satisfy your play instinct, better wear slippers/flip flops/Birkenstocks, as you’re regularly asked to get not bare-, but “sock-footed” in order to participate. For example, when writing a letter to the artist or another person of your choice, to express your “apologies, gratitude, or an insight”. Then go ahead and post it – literally: like a Post-it - in one of several “voting cabins” for all to see, or if you prefer, in a closed envelope protected by the secrecy of correspondence (well, more or less). Perusing the open letters, you might feel surprised, how many patrons take the exercise dead serious (or maybe, MGB only keeps the serious messages for more than a warden’s shift).
Move on, step into a provisory living room that, should you reside in a proper metropolis instead of Berlin, is probably bigger than your actual one (any art collectors excepted), and take your time discovering what this is about. ...: The artist put objects from the collections of random people under the coffee table’s glass plate, and not necessarily art collections in strictest sense: On our visit, it was angel figurines. A residency at a museum named for its main donor, as American museums have always tended to be, and Europeans increasingly too, is said to have inspired the installation. Over the course of the exhibition, MGB staff regularly changes the collection on display, and the amateur collectors will occasionally leave their anonymity to talk about the objects – as far as travel restrictions allow “in the current circumstances”.
A second artwork in the same room is notably untypical for Lee, namely a diary on posters written by a person who shares his life, table, bed, and all, with a not further identified “Lily”: “Day 14 20:31 Showering with Lily” “Day 38 10:20 Talking with Lily” “Day 88 16:06 Shitting with Lily” (it gets even more explicit), ... . Hard to tell, if this is about any human Elizabeth, a pet, or a Japanese Peace Lily. Wait: did we just say “Japanese”?! We might be “On” to something there, influence-wise. It’s a rather repetitive work.
Don’t worry, we won’t mention every work in show, but some more examples might be interesting: Lee asked people to send him clothes with a history, fabrics that in the eyes and mind of the giver bear a connection to a beloved family member or his proper childhood. We may contemplate them in open gift boxes, read the attached stories, step onto their platform – no shoes! a maximum of three visitors at a time! –, unwrap another similar box of choice, find one more similar work inside, then tie it up again with a traditional Japanese knot (instructions are provided on a paper sheet, I almost failed). Some Christo vibes here (RIP)? Social interaction most definitely, also the inscription – and communication - of memory and meaning to an object and its CV.
Three made beds with the personal belongings of – not random people as originally intended, but “due to the current situation”: - MGB employees on the nightstands (come on, there’s also other stuff, and if only less canonical books, on your actual ones, there must be!) at least implicitly address a certain image of yourself, that you’d like to share with the world. It feels a bit like the gallery version of Instagram (oh come on, influencer-influenza jokes are stale).
If you’re lucky, you might also happen upon more traditional performances here, be it a dancer sweeping the floor in a deliberately meditative manner, or an opera singer offering to sing you (to bed with?) a Schubert song. If you’re unlucky in the latter case, and your visit ends without “the fat lady singing”, you might do as we did, and observe a municipal dustman meditatively sweeping the parking lot outside instead (don’t worry, they all wear orange in Germany!).
In a less performative work dating back to the 1990s, Lee folded ten dollar notes to Origami shapes, then gave them to various people, some unemployed, even homeless, others professionally programming, managing, &ct. Three “group photos” (collages) feature each person with his gift at different points in time, first when receiving it (t0), then six months later (t+6) when several notes have been exchanged for goods or services - those now taking their place and the place of the person’s name in the photo, and, finally, a year later (t+12). The homeless person counts among those, who kept the artwork all the time, and good luck interpreting this: Is it because he felt particularly fond of this gift that a stranger gave him, paying him attention and even respect (even though he should be used to receiving change...), and moreover: a work of art that brightens his day, that lightens his struggles, indeed an item that represents like nothing else a regular, (at least!) upper middle class, lifestyle – or is he a speculating capitalist, who firmly believes in the artist’s future, hoping that one day, Lee will make it big, and then his day will have come too, this will be his lottery ticket, his way out, into a home, the best - and only – (free) investment he ever made?! Your interpretation could tell something about you here, but more generally, the artwork raises questions about the (assumed) value, meaning and relevance of art (and) objects.
Art and collecting are similarly referenced in another work, when we find pebbles side by side with a replication from the artist’s hand (/after his designs). Whenever a collector buys a set from Lee’s gallery, he's forced to decide which one will be destroyed: One or the other must go, immediately. But that should be easy, or can you seriously imagine a collector keeping the natural creation instead of the artistic one? It’s nature vs. nurture, gathering and artistry, geological vs. human creation (and don’t you dare saying “readymade”!). ... Wait, something's fishy here: MGB's image credits say "from the collections of..." - Now why have these guys been allowed to keep both parts of their acquisition?!
For another project neither involving the patron as recipient-performer (not a patron of MGB’s!), Lee visited people around the world, and asked them to show him around “their” city, collecting souvenirs alongside stories and photos for a slideshow, everything from both perspectives: the resident’s and the stranger’s. Somewhat linking to Air B’n’B and their “experiences”, the project talks about tourism and the consumption of alien cultures (theme park restaurants and databases might be the only chance of survival, cultures face in global “equality”).
And ever so on, there’s much to see, and read - even to think about! - in a large, and fascinating, show! Oh, not to forget: The title, Li, refers to a concept in Confucianism dealing with “rituals and gifts”.
Lee Mingwei, Li, 27 March (virtual exhibition)/11 May (physical exhibition)-15 July 2020, Martin Gropius Bau
World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism
P.S.: Don’t step into the last room behind a black curtain, one of those that usually limit off film screenings in an art show: Nothing to see here, except an empty room with some crates and a ladder, and not even the remains of another project, aborted “for the –” you know the song.