In Berlin, Lee Mingwei’s Gropius Bau Show Offers Post-Lockdown Healing
Lee Mingwei, installation view of The Letter Writing Project, 1998/2020, in “Lee Mingwei: 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals” at Gropius Bau, 2020. Photo by Laura Fiorio. Courtesy of Gropius Bau, Berlin.
Portrait of Lee Mingwei by Matteo Carcelli. Courtesy of the artist and the National Gallery of Victoria.
With ritualistic healing vibes, Lee Mingwei’s current exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau—one of the first shows to open in Berlin after the pandemic lockdown—offers a welcome haven from an oppressive news flow. It is intimate, calming, and somehow cleansing—a bit like a spa treatment for the mind. It feels exactly right for a time when people are trying to process the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, and resume something approximating normal life.
“禮 Li: Gifts and Rituals” had to be postponed by more than six weeks because of the temporary closure of the museum due to the pandemic. It opened on May 11th and now runs through July 12th. Wearing a mask on a visit a few days after the opening, I took off my boots, sprayed on some hand disinfectant from one of the dispensers available, and shook off the anxiety of death-toll reports and recession warnings to get immersed in an absorbing installation called Fabric of Memory (2006/2020).
Lee Mingwei, installation view of Fabric of Memory, 2006/2020, in “Lee Mingwei: 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals” at Gropius Bau, 2020. Photo by Laura Fiorio. Courtesy of Gropius Bau, Berlin.
Wooden boxes tied like gifts with ribbons are arranged on a platform; each can be opened, and inside is a fabric item carefully wrapped in tissue paper, contributed by someone for whom the item has a special meaning. The story behind each article is printed on a board in each box: One is a sailor outfit made by a grandmother in one night for a school play; another contains an apron sewed by a mother for a Polish kindergarten uniform.
While I was reading these touching personal stories, a handsome tenor broke into a Schubert lied for a female visitor seated in front of him (he was shielded from visitors by a large sheet of the plexiglass now ubiquitous in public spaces). In this work, Sonic Blossom (2013/2020), an opera singer approaches a single visitor, asking, “May I offer you a gift of a song?” (For the duration of the lockdown, Lee created a new version of this work for the internet so that members of the public could book a Zoom slot for a serenade by a professional singer.)
Lee Mingwei, installation view of Sonic Blossom, 2013/2020, in “Lee Mingwei: 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals” at Gropius Bau, 2020. Photo by Laura Fiorio. Courtesy of Gropius Bau, Berlin.
The mellifluous voice flooding through the as yet sparsely visited galleries adds to the sense of peace engendered by a show where little, quietly beautiful things happen around you. At a neighboring table, The Mending Project (2009/2020) is peacefully underway: Visitors bring items of clothing in need of repair. Either the artist or two “mending hosts” darn the garments. These are then neatly piled on a table, and linked by threads to spools attached to the wall like brightly colored pins on a map.
Lee, who grew up in Taiwan and now splits his time between New York and Paris, is strongly influenced by Confucianism—the Li of the exhibition title is a Confucian concept of ritual and harmony. Many of his works contain a narrative, and the stories of how they came about are part of the work.
He was once, for instance, travelling on a sleeper train to Prague and shared a compartment with a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp on his way to receive compensation. This memorable journey was the inspiration for The Sleeping Project (2000/2020), a room in the museum furnished with two beds. Before the pandemic, the plan was for the bedroom to be shared overnight by a visitor to the exhibition (chosen by a lottery) and the artist or a member of the Gropius Bau staff. Lee wanted to explore whether a shared night in a museum could lead to increased emotional intimacy with a stranger.
Lee Mingwei, installation view of The Sleeping Project, 2000/2020 , 1997/2020, in “Lee Mingwei: 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals” at Gropius Bau, 2020. Photo by Laura Fiorio. Courtesy of Gropius Bau, Berlin.
But the overnight stays had to be abandoned in the light of coronavirus social-distancing rules. “We can’t invite two strangers to sleep together in the museum,” Stephanie Rosenthal, the director of the Gropius Bau, explained by phone. She says another work, The Dining Project (1997/2020), also had to be adapted for the pandemic era. Lee had planned to invite random strangers (again, chosen through a lottery) to dine with him at the museum. Instead, he is offering tea by Skype, Rosenthal said. The focus again is on sharing and opening up to strangers.
Visitors are invited to contribute their own narrative in The Letter Writing Project (1998/2020). Again asked to remove their shoes, they can enter a quiet cubicle in the museum to write down their thoughts and feelings. Some of these are exhibited on the walls of the cubicle. When the project ends, Lee said he wants to burn them in a fire ceremony in India so that “all the powerful thoughts, emotions, and feelings would be purified by fire and then washed away by water.” That seems a shame—given the strangeness of our times, they may add up to a valuable historical documentation of the pandemic era. But for Lee, writing letters to his grandmother after her death and burning them later was a way of dealing with his grief and concluding his mourning—another ritual that seems relevant right now.
Lee Mingwei, installation view of The Dining Project, 1997/2020, in “Lee Mingwei: 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals” at Gropius Bau, 2020. Photo by Laura Fiorio. Courtesy of Gropius Bau, Berlin.
“It wasn’t a show where we needed to have any doubts about whether it was appropriate to open it,” Rosenthal said. She added, though, that museum leadership has had to make “some quite hard, quick decisions” to move other exhibitions to next year because of the pandemic, and the museum is still not sure whether it can open a show of Yayoi Kusama, initially billed as the artist’s “first comprehensive retrospective in Germany,” on September 4th as planned. Rosenthal said that transport costs for loans are currently extremely high and that if the show does go ahead this year, it would have to contain fewer works than she had envisaged.
For now, there is no danger of crowds at the Gropius Bau. In normal times, about half of its visitors come from outside Berlin. At the moment, there are no foreign tourists and visitor numbers are down about 30 percent, according to Rosenthal. It’s possible, but not necessary, to book a timed ticket, and masks are obligatory.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Gropius Bau’s visitor numbers are down by around 50%. At the time of publishing, the museum reported that visitor numbers are down about 30%.