Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Lee Mingwei - Generation 1.5 artist

Lee Mingwei initially emigrated from Taiwan to the Dominican Republic, spent summers in a Chan monastery and attended High School in California. In his piece, Quartet Project (2005/2007), the visitor's movement dictates how much or how little of Antoine’s Dvorak's American String Quartet in F, Op. 96 can be seen or heard as the gallery space transforms into an audio-visual mechanism of desire and frustration.

1 comment:

QMA said...

Returning Home: Lee Mingwei’s Quartet Project

Sometimes, people who leave their homeland can no longer find their way home again, even when they return. The place has changed and so have they. At the same time, they cannot recreate abroad what they have given up–whatever they brought with them merges with the new culture around them. Their world then becomes something else, a new way of life woven from different traditions, rituals, people and memories. Is that home? It is certainly not where they came from, that unique place of childhood which allowed them to experience the world for the first time.

This may or may not be true of Lee Mingwei, who moved from Taiwan to the Dominican Republic at the age of 14 and then one year later went on to the United States, first to California, then to New Haven and on to New York, where he is currently based. One important thing he brought from Taipei was his love for Western classical music. He and his siblings were all trained to play classical instruments, for Mingwei it was the violin. The family listened to Brahms, Beethoven, Bach and Dvořák; there was no television in their home. Also, when Mingwei went to school in the morning, he had to clean and prepare the classrooms first. While doing that, he enjoyed listening to classical music – it was a daily ritual. Ironically, when he left Taiwan for the West, all these Western symphonies, sonatas, and quartets kept reminding him of his Asian homeland.

Lee’s biographical detail does not have to be present when one encounters his installation Quartet Project. But it can be read as an expressive longing for home—for the world that one traces one’s cultural roots to, and for a home in the present. Even more, Quartet Project can create such a coveted place, at least for the duration of its experience. In that way, the installation fits neatly with other interactive environments by Lee, which explore topics like personal expression, vulnerability, memory, and social interaction (such as the Letter Writing Project (1998) or the Sleeping Project (2000)).

Four monitors are placed behind stations at the corners of four different walls. Each of them plays one instrument of the American Quartet by Antonίn Dvořák. The sound can be heard, but the screen showing the player is hidden to the spectator and only visible as a reflection on the wall, similar to the way one can see TV lights flickering through windows when passing by houses on a street at night. When a person approaches a station, motion sensors that check the space around the boxes trigger off both the sound and image of that particular instrument. The sound and image are restored as the participant withdraws from the station. The only way for a person to listen to the piece uninterrupted is to stand in the middle of the room.

This complicated arrangement is the facilitator for a unique experience. Its main element is the music itself. While the Czech composer lived from 1892-1895 in New York as director of the National Conservatory of Music, he spent the summer of 1893 in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa. It was there that he wrote American Quartet. An often quoted comment by Dvořák about this work and another popular symphony, From the New World, states: “I should never have written these works ‘just so’ if I hadn’t seen America.”

What does he mean? There is debate among musicologists about the degree to which Dvořák adopted specific local idioms that he encountered during this stay in the United States. But on a more general level, one finds more pentatonic themes (i.e. scales formed of five notes) and melodies in minor keys in his compositions from this time (including the American Quartet), which are due to his preoccupation with African-American spirituals and Native American music. Evidently wrapped in a European harmonic cloak, a homesick Dvořák managed to forge a unique coalescence of his Old World identity and his temporary home in North America.

In the Quartet Project Lee invites the audience to make a similar search for a spiritual home–even if only on the comparatively microscopic scale of an afternoon’s visit at the Museum. When entering the installation, visitors learn that they cannot habitually inspect the stations from which the music emanates like a sculpture in order to see what it is. The installation appears to resist any such attempt: Coming too close interrupts the music.

The refusal to be easily understood, asks the audience to take a different approach: to literally step back and to open up. Seeing just the colorful shadows on the wall, but not the image, the visitor accepts that certain things cannot be grasped. And so the music flows in. Consequently, one might be touched, amused, pleased, elated, as music does, or, in the Museum’s sterile context, even feel a bit uneasy. The intimate moments might also trigger memories, as fragile and fleeting as the easily disturbed sound. In so many ways, being there in the middle can calm one’s busy mind, merging it with the surrounding space. It is a ritual, created by the spur of the moment, echoing Lee’s–anybody’s–absorbed listening to classical music.

If one is lucky, as the artist hopes, it may even allow one to experience oneself in a different, yet very natural way: rejecting analysis of the artwork’s elements and being still, with oneself, in the space, enwrapped by the quartet. In a variation on a famous statement by St. Augustine on the question of time, one might ask oneself: “What, then, am I? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to give an answer, I do not know anymore.”

There is one catch though: This ideally asks of the visitor to experience the installation alone. More often than not, this will not be the case. When the installation was shown for the first time in 2005 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei, people entered the space with others already present there. At the beginning, they may have felt they were interrupting one another’s private contemplation. But then the visitors, in an unspoken agreement, started moving among the stations on the four walls, experimenting with turning the sound and the video on and off, before convening to the middle of the space to hear the piece uninterrupted. It was as if they were children, playing in the safe haven of their home.

-Hubertus Breuer
Hubertus Breuer is a German science journalist based in New York.