Critics' Picks
December, 24, 2011
Lee Mingwei: Museum of Chinese in America
Jason Farago

Lee Mingwei, who emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in his adolescence, presents a pair of installations as a contemporary coda to this museum’s permanent exhibition on 150 years of Chinese-American history. The Quartet Project, 2005, comprises four computers, each showing a video that features one member of a string ensemble in an otherwise dark gallery. The musicians play Antonín Dvořák’s 1893 American Quartet, which the Czech composer wrote in Iowa and which, like his New World Symphony, pays a debt to American folk music, not least African-American and Native American sources. The monitors are hidden behind L-shaped baffles and facing the wall, so that all you can see is a hazy light from the musical source. One’s impulse may be to peek around the partitions—but that trips a motion detector, cutting both sound and image with a hideous click. To hear the full piece, especially its aching second movement, you’ll have to stay put in the center of the space. There might be beauty in the story of migration, but try to get to the level of the individual and it’s access denied. (Lee is also presenting a participatory installation in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum, on view until January 22.)

For The Travelers, 2010–11, the artist sent one hundred empty notebooks to friends and art-world acquaintances, as well as to strangers, whom he asked to “write a personal story of leaving home.” (“I still see myself as a Midwesterner, not a true New Yorker,” writes Maya Lin—who also confesses that “it took years to get a New York driver’s license.”) These correspondents then sent the books onward to their own relatives or friends; some have since returned to MoCA, and some are probably lost. Part chain letter, part exquisite corpse, the books have bounced from Vancouver and London to Beijing and Guangzhou, and one went as far as the arctic Svalbard archipelago. Visitors have to wear protective gloves to handle them, which freights the at times stunningly personal stories with an added fragility—as if, in this new Chinese century as much as the lapsed American one, the individual character of our lives and movements risks crumbling in our hands.

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