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With ‘Sonic Blossom,’ Lee Mingwei Brings the Gift of Song to the Gardner Museum

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's central courtyard is home to a new participatory performance installation by Lee Mingwei.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's central courtyard is home to a new participatory performance installation by Lee Mingwei. By Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
By Branch A. Freeman, Contributing Writer

Although normal hours had long since passed, the evening of Oct. 17 saw the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum busy and alive with song.

Scattered throughout the museum’s central courtyard, a sculpture garden enclosed by Venetian-style façades, people gathered in small groups and listened as the strains of a Schubert lied echoed through the halls. The performer, a male vocalist, stood at the center of the room. Although many visitors had come to listen, the singer seemed focused on one in particular — a woman seated just a few feet away in a simple wooden chair.

The performance was one of many that evening, all part of artist Lee Mingwei’s “Sonic Blossom,” a participatory performance installation being held at the Gardner Museum through Dec. 1. The installation, shown previously at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, is being presented as part of the Gardner’s ongoing exhibition “In the Company of Artists: 25 years of Artists-in-Residence,” which runs through Jan. 20, 2020.

Throughout the evening, professional singers approached visitors individually and invited them to participate in the exhibit. Eleni Stratigos, an opera singer herself, was among those selected to receive a song.

“I was just in a random room,” she said, “and [the singer] came up to me and asked, ‘Can I give you the gift of song?’ What are you going to say? Of course, yes!”

The performer then ushered Stratigos to the middle of the courtyard, collecting himself silently before beginning his performance.

“He was very calm. He didn’t talk much. It’s definitely a full experience. And when I sat down, we made eye contact the entire time. Maybe because I’m a singer as well, I’m kind of used to it,” Stratigos said. “Just sitting one person in front of one person, sitting down, one chair — it was kind of intense, but a very deep connection.”

Lee, the artist behind “Sonic Blossom,” attended the evening’s exhibition. In an interview, Lee described the performances as gifts shared by singers and listeners.

“Everything — the gesture, the pace — the singer is doing is really a gift for the other person,” Lee said. “It seems like the receiver is receiving the gift, but very quickly, I think, at least I realize the gift is coming back from the sitter to the singer.”

There is a visual component to the installation as well: Each singer performing in “Sonic Blossom” wears a colorful, hand-made robe incorporating elements of traditional Japanese dress.

“I call it a transformation gown,” Lee said. “It’s created with my friend [designer Kelima K]. The idea is that we use two Japanese obis to create a form that is reminiscent of origami.”

Beyond their aesthetic appeal, Lee said the transformation gowns serve an important psychological purpose.

“[The gown] gives the singer a power to give this gift — a very sacred gift — from Schubert to us,” Lee said. “I remember asking one of the singers, ‘How is it to sing without the gown?’ because when they were rehearsing they were singing without the gown. They told me they felt very naked. They didn’t really have that power to give this song to a stranger as a gift.”

Lee even said the experience can become so emotional that singers have sometimes needed to cut performances short.

“I’ve seen enough times that the emotion between these two people [is] so intense, so the singer sometimes gets so emotionally affected by the receiver and they just choked up; they couldn’t continue singing,” said Lee. “I’ve seen that happen quite a lot of times.”

The origins of “Sonic Blossom” are similarly emotional.

“[‘Sonic Blossom’] came from when I was taking care of my mother back in Taipei when she was very ill — I’d play Schubert’s lieder for her,” Lee said. “The reason is because when I was young, growing up in Taiwan, I was very rambunctious, and my mom would play Schubert’s lieder during hot summer evenings to calm me down.”

“Sonic Blossom” seemed to be a hit with museum guests. Maria Neusa, a visitor chosen to receive a song, was moved by the experience. “[I] loved it,” she said, calling it “magnificent.”

Those who watched without participating were no less enthusiastic.

“This is one of my favorite new exhibitions,” Andrea Bonanno, a volunteer at the museum, said. “It’s incredibly therapeutic. This whole place is very therapeutic.”

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