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.
While in Bhutan, back in May of this year, I also had the wonderful chance to visit Voluntary Artists' Studio, Thimphu, known as VAST. In operation since 1998, it has been run by professional artists as a space for artists to share and create, as well as to provide opportunities for Bhutanese youth to develop their artistic talents. In promoting the importance and value of contemporary art production, VAST provides vocational and mentoring opportunities for artists and artisans to share their knowledge, talent and skills to a younger generation.
When I visited the space, artwork from younger students who were taking classes at VAST was being exhibited. Works from students of all ages--some as young as junior to middle school students, all the way to those with training outside of VAST--skill sets and mediums were exhibited in one democratic, supportive space.
VAST's artistic and spiritual figurehead, Kama Wangdi, is respectfully and lovingly referred to as Asha Kama. He kindly showed us around the space, explaining to us about his studies in art and his path to becoming a professional artist, and describing the artists behind the work that was being exhibited. His paintings--powerful and extremely well-executed work that layered on textures and symbols--were also exhibited alongside others' works. Asha Kama's works often feature Buddhist iconography using a combination of modern and traditional techniques; his thickly layered three-dimensional painting of a dragon in swirling clouds was captivating. While the experimental pastiche of modern and traditional sometimes produces mixed results, Asha Kama's work manages to achieve a fine balance, in a way that directly emulates the warm strength that Asha Kama himself exudes.
In addition to serving as an incubator for creativity, VAST is also strongly committed to evidencing the power of art to effect social change. For example, Asha Kama and his colleagues are currently working on developing a park by the river bank across from VAST's spaces. Their hope is to eventually create site-specific sculptures all along the river bank.
At VAST, artists are permitted studio space for their own artistic practice. We met Maiyesh Kr Tamang, a master potter who had built his own kiln at VAST. His beautifully executed bowls appeared to look strikingly similar in texture and style to the pots created by the potter who we had visited in Langthel Gewog. Serendipitous as it may be, it turns out that Maiyesh had taught the potter in Langthel Gewog his skills.
Keep up with VAST's activities here.
Thank you to Asha Kama and to Kesang Chuki Dorjee for so warmly inviting us to visit VAST.
Images courtesy of Ibba Rasul Bernardo, Tania Hyde, Dhruv Kazi, Helen Zhai, and Tania Hyde.
Kara Walker is not a subtle artist. Perhaps best known for her cut-paper silhouettes, she often uses violent images that brazenly call forth issues of race, gender and sexuality to the fore.
Creative Time has commissioned Walker to create Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. While intricate sugar confections used as centerpieces for feasts are apparently called subtleties, Walker's work is anything but.
Walker has created a magnificent sphinx-like sculpture that is more than 35 feet high and 75 feet long, and installed it in the derelict remains of the old Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg. After years of community protest, the site has been recently approved by the City Council for developer, Two Trees, to demolish the factory and build a high-rise residential development. Using this site for her temporary installation at this juncture in its history, Walker and her team used white sugar, donated by Domino, to cover the sphinx which is sculpted with styrofoam blocks. She also created smaller boy figures made of molasses--and currently in various stages of melting--and installed them surrounding their snow-white mother figure.
The factory site reeks of its history, a raw syrupy smell of hardened molasses. Entering the vacant cavernous space, Walker's sphinx lounges at the far end, bathed in the sunlight and surrounded by her dissolving attendants. Her majestic presence evokes issues of the past and the present: the plantation economy of the antebellum south; relations between masters and slaves (particularly those between male plantation owners and female slaves); Brooklyn in the late 1880s when the Domino plant was said to have been the largest sugar refinery in the world; and gentrified "Wiliamsburg" (complete with scare quotes). In Walker's first three-dimensional artwork, she manages to hit the sweet spot (pun somewhat intended) to achieve powerfully evocative imagery through contemplative serenity.
ART21 documents the installation in-process here:
Walker's work is on view at the Domino Sugar Refinery until July 6, 2014. Catch it before her work and the refinery are removed.
Swoon is arguably one of the most well-known contemporary female artists working in the street genre. Known for her intimate and skillfully rendered wheat paste prints of figures, Swoon has been working on installations and inhabitable structures the world over that are simultaneously fantastical, yet warm and humane. Her immersive installation, Submerged Motherlands, currently fills the rotunda of the Brooklyn Museum.
Anchoring the installation is a large tree composed of natural materials, including delicate paper cut-outs and dyed fabric, serving as a powerful reminder of the pulsating energy emanating from and within life around us.
The installation also features a pair of teetering house-boat-like structures. Moored at opposite ends, the boats suggest a recent history, as if they have just washed up on-shore. In fact, these boats were initially created as a collaborative effort among Swoon and many others (all credited in a wall text to the installation); the boats had a maiden voyage down the Hudson River in 2008, and then were sent to Slovenia where they were re-constructed and sailed down the Grand Canal during the 2009 Venezia Biennale.
Throughout the installation, Swoon's signature paper cut-outs of women, children, shaman-like archetypes and abstract faunal patterns inhabit the environment.
While an absolutely stunning installation that is contemplative and awe-inspiring, I couldn't help but feel that Swoon's work is best viewed in a living, breathing space, where her work has the opportunity of being seen by all and perhaps weathers in its natural environs (cf, Moran Street in Detroit or Konbit Shelter in Haiti). Of course, I don't mean to imply that Swoon's artwork shouldn't be seen in a museum--anything but, given her singular world view and sense of scale and beauty. Hopefully, her show at the Brooklyn Museum will provide museumgoers an impetus to go see (and support) Swoon's work in the great outdoors.
Swoon: Submerged Motherlands is at Brooklyn Museum until August 24, 2014.
PS: Every large-scale installation that I see these days is somehow related to the brains and brawn of Doyle, who was one of Swoon's original collaborators on the boats. Thanks for showing us around!
For full disclosure, I am a fan of NotEqual, the brainy, drapy, androgynous brand conceptualized by Fabio Costa and Rebecca Diele. The pair creates garments that may appear a bit too conceptual on first glance, and yet, in real life, elegantly fit a variety of body shapes and sizes. Simultaneously methodological and innovative, NotEqual has developed ruler-like tools based on the golden mean--a formula historically used to create art, architecture and objects of aesthetically pleasing proportions--that serve as a mathematical basis for fundamental shapes that in turn become NotEqual's wearable pieces of art.
NotEqual is one of 13 designers featured in Folk Couture: Fashion and Art at the American Folk Art Museum. Each of the selected designers in the exhibition picked objects from the museum's collection to serve as inspirational source material for a new garment. While the displayed garments appeared to be mixed in quality, the relationships between the newly created work and the source material are all visually and thematically strong.
John Bartlett (b. 1963)'s whimsical creation is the result of one of the more interesting relationships between new garment and source material. Very sculptural--and perhaps because of this, entirely unpractical as a garment--Bartlett created a two-dimensional shirt-and-trouser ensemble for a disembodied, elongated figure. Known for his masculine, tight-fitting and often sexually charged designs for men, Bartlett apparently let his inner whimsy take over, playing with scale and proportion for his creation. A skinny male figurine, dressed in a green shirt, white suspenders and black trousers (ca. 19th century~20th century), served as Bartlett's inspiration.
The most successful pieces in the exhibition, however, are the garments that stand out on their own, show technical mastery and creative ingenuity, and also posit an interesting dialogue between themselves and their source material. Focusing on repetitive motifs and interpreting patterns, the garments by ThreeASFOUR and NotEqual appear to have succeeded in achieving these goals.
ThreeASFOUR's garment takes a Quaker friendship quilt created in the 19th century that features a repetition of six-pointed stars as its source material. While the Quaker quilt clearly did not associate the six-pointed star with Judaism, ThreeASFOUR has played with the iconography of stars and their religious connotations. In their garment, perhaps aptly titled Amity Dress, ThreeASFOUR has used patent leather in a multi-colored flower pattern. By piercing the leather in four-pointed, five-pointed, and six-pointed star configurations, and overlaying these stars, ThreeASFOUR newly creates an abstract, filigreed pattern that is used to shape the garment. In doing so, ThreeASFOUR has succeeded in harmonizing Christian, Islamic and Jewish stars into a singular whole.
ThreeASFOUR constantly invokes cross-cultural hybridity. Recently, the collective showed MER KA BA at the Jewish Museum, an installation that featured some of their 2014 spring/summer collection (many of which resonated with the garment shown at the American Folk Art Museum). The title of the installation comes from various spiritual and religious origins, all invoking the ability of the soul to achieve transcendence. ThreeASFOUR's laser-cut sculptural garments were installed in an installation space that featured two conjoined pyramids covered in mirrors. From the outside, the reflection of the pyramids created a six-pointed star. Within the cavernous mirrored space, reflections multiplied onto themselves in explosive star bursts.
NotEqual's garment also succeeds in being a combination of artistry, labor-intensive craftsmanship, reflection on source material, and originality. Taking as their source material, Tree of Life Whitework Quilt, a cotton and linen quilt (1796), and Sacred Heart of Jesus, a painted wood sculpture (ca. 1900), NotEqual created a garment titled Agnus Dame. Similar to the quilt, NotEqual has utilized the highly sculptural technique of stuffwork, where a coarsely woven fabric is first basted onto a surface layer, and motifs are then stitched through both layers, creating pillows which are finally stuffed through the back with small bits of cotton. The religious wood sculpture provides inspiration for NotEqual to add clerical elements to the androgynous garment: a capelet, a monastic tunic-like skirt, and a wide-brim head covering.
Folk Couture is a small exhibition with a narrowly focused thesis, perfect for those who are interested in the artistry of fashion, and hopefully, it will also help to expand the museum's audience. The exhibition is on until April 23, 2014.