The Japanese noun for "human" is written with two Chinese characters -- the first represents "people" and the second represents "space" ( 人間). Lee Mingwei's work emblematizes this concept that the space between us helps to define our relationships with others, and in turn defines ourselves. Mori Art Museum's Lee Mingwei and His Relations; The Art of Participation--Seeing, Conversing, Gift-Giving, Writing, Dining and Getting Connected to the World is a show that re-enacts many of the artist's works from the past 20 years. Creating open-ended participatory installations, Lee Mingwei invites museum visitors to explore day-to-day interactions and dwell on how quietly magical the mundane can be.
Take, for example, the artist's The Moving Garden, first conceptualized in 2009. In Mori Art Museum's iteration, a rectangular granite structure installed in the middle of the gallery space contains colorful blooming gerbera daisies. Visitors are asked to participate in the work by taking a flower with them on two conditions: (i) to take a different route when leaving the museum than the one used to arrive; and (ii) in that detour, to give the flower as a gift to a stranger. With these directives, Lee Mingwei not only permits visitors to interact with the work, but also sets the scene to create tangible relational effects outside of the museum walls. The artist has facilitated an unexpected exchange that creates kindness and a connection between strangers.
As I walked about the structure, I noticed other visitors hovering around, enjoying both the unexpected surprise of seeing beautiful fresh flowers installed in the museum, and tentatively deciding whether to participate in the work. A pair carefully selected some gerbera stems, carefully inserting the flowers into plastic sleeves complete with hydrating gel and the name of the exhibition printed on them available for taking the flowers away. I myself decided to choose an orange gerbera with a long stalk, later finding out that orange gerberas stand for patience and an adventurous spirit. (I did give the flower away to a then-stranger and now-acquaintance who I met at an appointment after my museum visit!)
Another piece that stuck with me is The Living Room, first created as a commission for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 2000. In the original iteration, the artist created a living room in the museum, allowing staff and others to serve as hosts who engaged in "show and tell" dialogues using objects of personal importance. As originally undertaken, Lee Mingwei created an environment where visitors could reflect on personal collecting and the significance of sharing objects with others -- some of Gardner's very motives for building her own museum. At the Mori Art Museum's iteration, hosts shared memories of the history of the Roppongi neighborhood in which Mori Art Museum exists. When I dropped by the space, Yumi spoke about her mother's connection to the Roppongi neighborhood; as a young woman, Yumi's mother worked for Nikka Whiskey, one of Japan's first whiskey distilleries, that had a business office in the area (and also happens to be the basis for an upcoming morning serial drama series). While the conversation first began as Yumi's storytelling, the dialogue began to flow as more people convened on the sofas within the space.
A section of the exhibition dedicated to works from Hakuin, D. T. Suzuki, John Cage and others served as an interesting interlude to Lee Mingwei's participatory works. Following a more traditional format, this section of the exhibition posited Lee Mingwei's practice with relational art and happenings, and across history and different cultures. Seeing the powerful calligraphy and ink brush paintings of 17th century Zen Buddhist painter, Hakuin, and hearing the recorded voice of 19th century theorist, D. T. Suzuki (who was seminal in spreading Zen tenets in the West), I was reminded that one aspect of Zen philosophy is "mindfulness" or the acceptance of one's being in the present moment. Lee Mingwei's work most certainly helps make visible invisible relationships and connections, and in doing so, aids the visitor in achieving self-awareness within one's environs. And perhaps that is what it means to be human.
Lee Mingwei and His Relations is at the Mori Art Museum until January 4, 2015.
With gratitude to Ms. Mami Hirose, Senior Consultant at the Mori Art Museum, for graciously allowing me to see the show and for sharing her perspectives.
These photographs are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Sebastian Masuda is a tastemaker and leader of Harajuku culture. Originating from its namesake neighborhood in Tokyo, Harajuku culture cannot be easily defined, as it is a conglomeration of youth cultures that each expresses their ideas, in-group attitude, and what members of the group consider to be important by their mode of dress, and that co-exist within the Harajuku ecosystem. These groups at various points in time included: the Take-no-ko-zoku (late 1970s/early 1980s) where youth were seen dancing to disco sounds emanating from their boom boxes; Gothic Lolita (1990s~), where girls dressed in frilly silk and lacy fashions reminiscent of European rococo attire with a hint of Addams-Family-goth; and Cyber (late 1990s), where ravers dressed in futuristic science-fiction styles. The sensational kawaii subculture (kawaii is the Japanese word for "cute") and its various incarnations is perhaps now most recognized as representing Harajuku culture throughout the world. Known for its explosive bursts of color, and its appropriation and interpretation of a first world conspicuous consumption attitude, it has become mainstream to the point of being adapted (not without its own sets of essentializing problems, of course) by the likes of Gwen Stefani in Harajuku Girls and Nicki Minaj with her idea of Harajuku Barbie.
Masuda has seen almost all that is Harajuku, and most certainly lives to tell. Having worked in avant-garde theater and art, he has been based in Harajuku since the 1990s, first opening his wildly popular 6%DOKIDOKI store in 1995. Since then, he has continued to serve as an original ambassador for Harajuku culture (for example, acting as concept and artistic director to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), and has now finally made his debut in New York with his first solo art installation, presenting his own interpretation of the Seven Deadly Sins.
In Colorful Rebellion~Seventh Nightmare (2014), Masuda's installation takes up almost the entirety of the project space. Upon entering the room, the visitor notices a vintage bed. Surrounding the bed are the various zones of sin: desire; the future; delusion; fate; wound; and reality. Each zone features wall panels of protruding objects of visual material culture layered, glued, taken apart, and re-mixed. While this might appear to be visually chaotic, the experience of the work is strangely calming, as the viewer feels cocooned by the tonal layers of color and texture. The work is apparently a self-portrait of sorts, as Masuda has interpreted six mortal sins he has committed or experienced. Masuda also mentions that the work is meant to be experienced by one person at a time, lying down on the bed and letting the visual explosion of color flood the viewer's senses. In this way, the seventh sin is left for to the viewer to interpret, requiring the viewer to complete the experience of the work.
Art is created with imagination and skill and...expresses important ideas or feelings. Here, Masuda has attempted to make evident the process by which people are "attracted to, and become dependent on, kawaii things." However, through the title of the installation, Colorful Rebellion, Masuda also appears to hint at the revolutionary possibility of positive action through this very process of developing dependence. In this way, Masuda--using an aesthetic that is reminiscent of Mike Kelley's stuffed animal installations and Yayoi Kusama's colorful infinity patterns--represents a uniquely Japanese vision of culture-as-revolution. But in doing so, he provides his viewers with the courage to celebrate and interpret culture as a fantastical, but very real, form of free expression…which is universally applicable and extremely powerful.
Does this all sound too theoretical for you? If so, I would encourage you to read this Tumblr post (with 2,405 comments and counting) from someone reacting to Masuda's installation.
Sebastian Masuda's Colorful Rebellion~Seventh Nightmare is at Kianga Ellis Projects until March 29, 2014. The installation will be activated at specific times with performances during Armory Arts Week--details are available here.
© Sebastian Masuda. Images courtesy of Kianga Ellis Projects; photography by GION.
Ai Wei Wei is currently (yet again) a trending topic. On February 16, 2014, Dominican-born artist, Maximo Caminero was arrested at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) after smashing one of Ai's painted urns from Colored Vases to pieces. Caminero has alternately said that his action protests PAMM's choice of displaying international (rather than local) artists, and that his performance shows solidarity with Ai's dissident stance. Apprehended by police, Caminero was charged with criminal mischief and released after posting bail.
Here's an installation view of Ai's work:
Here is an example of a painting by Caminero:
Ai himself is no stranger to run-ins with the law. Undertaking performative acts that are deeply steeped in political messages, Ai almost appears to be challenging the authorities to censor him or restrict his activities. For example, after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Ai became a vocal critic, calling for an acknowledgment that a lack of solid infrastructure may have lead to the increased number of school children deaths in the area. In 2009, he was allegedly beaten by the Chinese police in Sichuan while trying to testify on behalf of Tan Zuoren, another Chinese activist.
With respect to the incident at PAMM, Ai has been reported as stating that he does not agree with Caminero's strategy: "You cannot stand in front of a classical painting and kill somebody and say that you are inspired" by the artist.
At issue, here, is whether what is legally defined as an act of criminal mischief can be considered an artistic act with a political message that is worthy of protection. Under Florida law, a person commits criminal mischief if "he or she willfully and maliciously injures or damages by any means any real or personal property belonging to another, including...the placement of graffiti thereon or other acts of vandalism thereto." Therefore, according to this specific definition, just as much as Banksy cannot paint one of his iconic graffiti works on the side of a building he does not own if he intends to do harm, Caminero is similarly not permitted to break one of Ai's painted urns out of intended spite. However, Ai drawing a Coca-Cola logo on a Han dynasty urn or smashing a Han dynasty urn to pieces and creating artwork out of such actions is permissible, as long as Ai rightfully owns the urns. This being the case even if Ai's very act of purchasing and defacing cultural antiquities in the name of creating new art is impudent, co-optive and destructive.
It will be interesting to see whether criminal charges against Caminero continue to be pressed. Upon a plain language reading of the law, it appears that Caminero most likely committed criminal mischief, unless there is not enough evidence that he maliciously intended to damage Ai's work. In my view, though, the situation is a bit more nuanced than just proving whether a criminal act was committed. If I were PAMM's in-house lawyer (and of course, I'm not, and views in this post and throughout this blog are my own, made in my personal capacity, and not the views of any institutions with which I am affiliated), I think it would be important to discuss with PAMM's management the various risks involved in pressing criminal charges against an artist from the local community. While what Caminero did was disrespectful to the exhibited artwork, does it serve the interests of the general public to prosecute criminal charges? Would it not make more sense to hear Caminero's thoughts, identify his reasons for his actions, have him issue a public statement or apology--ideally, voluntarily-- and then document the event in a legally and art historically appropriate manner? Simultaneously, management should alert the insurance company that was covering the display of Ai's Coloured Vases, have an appraiser determine the value of the damaged urn (in relation to the composite whole), and make Ai financially whole.
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is a well-curated group exhibition of work by contemporary Chinese artists from the 1980s to the present. Choosing to use, or focus on, the medium of ink painting--at times for its formalistic qualities, and at other times to signify the long history of the traditional art form--these artists create thought-provoking works with a wonderful variety in output.
Some artists appear to deliberately use the traditional medium in a confrontational manner by depicting modern imagery. An example of this is seen to the left: Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo (1995), by Ai Weiwei (b. 1957), perhaps one of China's best-known contemporary artists. Displayed in a gallery even before the exhibition space, Ai has branded an ancient Western Han jar with the ubiquitous Coca-Cola logo, alluding to the complex nature of modern China as it moves on its path towards globalization.
Another such artist is Yang Jiechang (b. 1956). Yang's Crying Landscape (2002) is a set of five triptychs in which he paints beautifully detailed man-made structures, alluding to a portrayal of modern society and its progress. While depicting structures that appear infallible in grandeur, however, Yang implies that these interventions are artificial and thereby have the possibility of being toppled.
Other artists interpret the traditional medium using newer media. For example, Yang Yongliang (b. 1980) uses the horizontal hand scroll format to present a traditional-seeming Chinese landscape of mountains with pines and lapping oceans in View of Tide (2008). Up close, however, one notices that Yang's medium is photography. Yang has printed a composite photograph where the mountains reveal themselves to be skeletal crags of high-rise buildings and the pine trees are actually power lines. As a format, ink hand scrolls have been used to tell a story as the narrative progressed through its unfurling. Here, Yang tells a story of how the effects of industrialization have affected the venerated Chinese landscape.
Reminiscent of German artist, EVOL, Duan Jianyu (b. 1970) appropriates some of China's best-recognized landscape images and paints them onto small pieces of cardboard in Beautiful Dream, 2, 3, 4, 7 (2008). Using a silhouette style, Duan signifies how trivialized some of the most iconic images of China are, especially because she uses the quotidian material of cardboard as her canvas. In doing so, however, she also succeeds in creating small intimate scenes that make good use of the texture of the recycled cardboard.
The highlights of the show were, perhaps as expected, the works by Xu Bing (b. 1955). Known for his expansive works that examine the significance of the written word, the selection of Xu's iconic works proved to be the show's climactic end. In the early 1990s, Xu had begun to experiment with the representation of English words in Chinese calligraphic forms. Known as "square word calligraphy", Xu created a system by which each English word was composed into a Chinese calligraphic-like square structure. Xu allows non-Chinese-character-readers the opportunity to understand that each Chinese character represents not just a sound, but also a concept, and that each character is composed of different parts. Seen to the left is a detail from Xu Bing's 'colophon' to The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats (1999), a pair of hanging scrolls on which Xu has transcribed the Yeats poem using square word calligraphy.
Xu's Book from the Sky (ca. 1987-1991) fills up the last room of the exhibition. As an installation of hand-printed books and scrolls that cover the ceiling and the walls, the printed material contains invented Chinese characters that cannot be interpreted even by a Chinese-character-reader. The characters were created by Xu and then hand carved into wooden printing blocks to create the printed material. The mass of black marks on the page cannot be decoded, posing questions about the linkage between language and culture.
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until April 6, 2014.
James Turrell: A Retrospective at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an expansive show featuring works by James Turrell from over five decades. Using a variety of techniques, Turrell has attempted to elucidate the "seeing that occurs within"; in creating an environment where reality collaborates with the visitor's subjective perception, what Turrell refers to as the "thing-ness of light…itself becomes a revelation." LACMA's show spans light projections (such as Cross Corner Projections where Turrell projects light onto corners creating the semblance of objects, Space Division Constructions where light creates a sense of surface across an actual opening, and Wedgeworks that use architecture to frame light), prints, drawings and models of his Roden Crater project, holograms, as well as immersive environments. I had the wonderful opportunity to experience three immersive environments (Light Reignfall, Dark Matters and Breathing Light)--each contemplative, revelatory and mind-blowing in their own ways.
Light Reignfall (2011) is essentially akin to an Aten Reign (2013) on fast forward for one. Not for claustrophobes, the work is from the Perceptual Cell series, which are enclosed structures that provide single-viewer experiences. From the outside, the structure looks like a globular MRI apparatus. A white lab-coated attendant asked me to choose between a "hard" or "soft" program (I chose the former), and handed me a very detailed (but extremely comprehensive and well-written!) waiver to sign. Having taken my shoes and spectacles off, and given a "panic" button lanyard and headphones, I was slid into the chamber. In the next 12 minutes, a light program enfolded before my eyes, while a constant noise emanated through the headphones. I initially panicked, as I perceived the intensely hued blankets of light layer onto my eyes like multi-colored blindfolds. Eventually, however, I settled into letting the pulsating light wash over me. While I kept my eyes open at all times, the experience of seeing in the Perceptual Cell was similar to the experience of closing one's eyes really tightly and seeing colorful bursts--a phenomenon that is apparently known as phosphenes. Strangely enough, the experience felt extremely short, and of course, singular and unique.
After coming out of Light Reignfall, I experienced an entirely different kind of perception experiment through Dark Matters (2011). This work is from Turrell's Dark Space series (which Turrell describes as facilitating the difficulty of
"[differentiating] between seeing from the inside and seeing from the outside"). Directed by a wonderful guide with a calming voice, I was led through a snaky unlit corridor into a pitch black room and asked to sit down. After what seemed like a few minutes of staring into complete nothingness, my eyes adjusted to focus on a faint glow far off in the distance. Contemplative yet still unnerving, the experience allowed me to focus on how my eyes adjust to the environment around me.
The last work I experienced was Breathing Light (2013), an entire room. In fact, you need to line up in an external corridor, then wait in a corral area, and then ritualistically enter the temple to light that is the work. It's a Ganzfeld--the German term for "entire field"--where being inside the space deprives you of all clues as to any sense of direction or depth. In comparison to the other two immersive works, Breathing Light was extremely calming and peaceful. Having experienced an afternoon of Turrell, I was reminded that Alain de Botton commented in Art as Therapy that Turrell is a "choreographer of experience [we] might have" and not a recorder of an experiences he once had. And master choreographer he most certainly is.
I was reminded that one of Turrell's Skyscapes is installed very close to home. Open during certain afternoons, it's Meeting (1978), created in MoMA PS1 since 1986. A parting image from my experience of the work in 2012:
James Turrell: A Retrospective is on view at LACMA until April 6, 2014.
All images (except Meeting) by Florian Holzherr, courtesy of LACMA
All works © James Turrell