By Melissa Fitzgerald, news correspondent
Museums are typically thought of as places for quiet reverence and whispers, but artist Lee Mingwei is challenging that notion with his performance art exhibit Sonic Blossom.
Mingwei’s exhibit is currently running at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Rather than a portrait or a sculpture, this exhibit features an opera soloist, a kimono, a single chair and a willing listener. Boston–area singers trained by Mingwei roam the halls and offer “the gift of song” in the form of four-minute operas to the MFA wanderer of their choosing.
The project, which first debuted in Seoul in 2013 for the inauguration of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, was shown in Beijing and Tokyo before arriving at the MFA.
The exhibit is the first extended performance art exhibit in the MFA’s 145-year history.
Each performance begins with a kimono-clad singer approaching a museum attendee and asking if they would like to receive the gift of song. If the person accepts, they will be guided to a special chair in the William I. Koch Gallery, which houses the museum’s collection of European paintings from 1550 to 1700 and Hanoverian Silver.
Fitting with the time period of the gallery, the songs Mingwei chose to perform are four-minute versions of Franz Schubert’s “Lieder,” or art songs.
Jen Megel, the Beal family senior curator of contemporary art at the MFA, said that when Mingwei was invited to bring his performance art to Boston, he was taking care of his mother while she recovered from surgery. As she recovered, Mingwei played their favorite songs by Schubert just as she had played for him when he was a child.
“Lee felt the songs were a source of healing, calm and peace for her, a real gift,” Megel said.
This gift is one he shares with museum visitors.
Mingwei’s art is about encouraging strangers to push the boundaries of trust, intimacy and self-awareness to connect with others on a deeper level.
Museum attendee Kathleen White was tentative when first approached by the singer, as she had not heard about the exhibit.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” White said. “But he was very graceful, he was very welcoming and very self-assured, so I felt very safe. And it was a delightful experience … He was so calm and so comfortable in his space; it was transfixing, and he passed that sense of calm on to me.”
Virginia Benton went up and shook the singer’s hand. He sung to her daughter, and then he asked her if she’d like to be sung to as well.
“I like when he said, ‘May I give a gift of a song?’ instead of like, ‘Here. Here’s another one,’” Benton said. “I felt a little bit [awkward] when I saw some other people watching… you are sort of singled out… but it was so fabulous.”
Cathy Moynihan, a sculptor and barista, laughingly admitted that she stalked the singer around the museum for a while in order to be chosen.
“I love experiencing performance art,” she said. “To be part of performance art is just really uplifting and having, like, a completely new experience at the museum is really enjoyable.”
Mingwei described the experience of Sonic Blossom like “a butterfly landing on your shoulder while you are walking through a garden of flowers; like the beautiful creature that rests with you briefly then flies away, the song is with you only briefly before it ends and becomes a special memory.”
Sonic Blossom will be bringing the gift of song to the MFA until April 9. Just look for the person in a kimono.
Photo courtesy Lee Studios