Sonic Blossom (2013– ) continues Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei’s interest in the economy of gift exchange between strangers. As an international artist raised in Asia and living and working between North America and Europe, Mingwei’s gentle, poetic practice enacts gestures of connection in a way that reflects a powerful desire to belong – to traditions, cultures, places and to others.
As with many of the art projects he has conceived and undertaken in a career spanning over 20 years, the artist has drawn on personal history – time spent at his mother’s bedside during a bout of serious illness and convalescence, listening to Austrian late classical composer Franz Schubert’s Lieder (song for voice and piano). The experience brought forth a memory of his mother frequently playing Schubert’s music while Lee was a child.
Love, fragility and the impermanence of life hover over the performative encounters of Sonic Blossom. In the gallery, visitors are invited to take a seat in a single chair positioned in the centre of the space. A singer – there are several who rotate during the course of the day – stands at a distance of several metres and, facing the seated person, sings their heart out.
Originally created for the opening of Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2013, Sonic Blossom has since played to audiences from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Centre Pompidou in Paris and Museum MACAN in Jakarta.
For the Adelaide iteration curated by Director Rhana Devenport for the Art Gallery of South Australia (presented with support from the OzAsia Festival and Contemporary Collectors, until 1 December), Lee has commissioned Japanese-Australian fashion designer Akira Isogawa to create a costume for the singers. The resulting piece is a deconstructed ceremonial, architectural and intriguing garment that recalls the majesty of mayoral robes.
Like all gift exchanges, acts of generosity are not without tension and the acknowledgment of mutual obligation. Will the seated visitor, now the object of the collected gaze, display gratitude or pleasure or will they squirm in discomfort? Will they enjoy the gift or resent the attention?
I was present for two Lieders, including the participation of a young father holding a baby. Those of us present were enchanted by the baby held on a lap in this colonial building filled with the sound of a clear, strong, sonorous voice. Singer to seated guest, gallery visitor to state institution: it was a gift well received.
Anna Zagala, Adelaide