In advance of the forthcoming exhibition, Lee Mingwei: The Travelers and The Quartet Project, Curator Herb Tam discusses how Lee’s work re-imagines what a museum could be. The exhibition opens with a public reception on Thursday, October 20, 7-9pm. For more information visit http://www.mocanyc.org/exhibitions/current
Excerpt from Museum as Material: The Travelers and the Radical Domesticity of Lee Mingwei
I am writing this in the days after New York State passed historic legislation legally recognizing gay marriage, throwing light onto a broad shift in the nature of domestic spaces that has been developing since World War II. As we prepare to install Lee Mingwei’s exhibition at MOCA, I find myself reflecting on what his work says about the role and status of museums today, how it relates to the idea of home, and what his commissioned project, The Travelers, will literally and conceptually do to our space.
The Museum of Chinese in America, having begun without exhibit facilities in 1980 as the Chinatown History Project, and after inhabiting a warren of rooms at P.S. 23 in Chinatown for more than 20 years, moved in 2009 to its current 215 Centre Street location. The new site, a former machinery repair shop, was designed by Maya Lin and refers to the sacred domestic space of the home. Indeed, the central area in the museum alludes to the courtyards that are commonly seen in traditional homes throughout China.
In 2010, Lee was asked to create a site-specific project inspired and informed by MOCA, our new building, and our work to describe the history and culture of Chinese experience in America. In past work, Lee has challenged artistic and social conventions. In 1999, he and artist Virgil Wong (members of the collective PaperVeins) staged an elaborate virtual project that cast Lee as a pregnant man. Inviting Lee, whose work typically demands personal engagement with the artist himself or with a condition he has set, has forced MOCA to confront its own shifting identity as a museum settling into a new space. The project Lee conceived of, The Travelers, imagines the museum as a home, just like Maya Lin’s design intimates. But The Travelers does so by raising questions about the expectations of our space and by highlighting shifts in the meaning and function of both museums and homes.
In addition to its references to Chinese American experience and to this particular museum, it is instructive to see The Travelers as arising from a tradition of artistic activity that seeks to destabilize institutional spaces. For more than a decade, Lee has done so by creating situations that relocate the field of domestic experience into the logistics of museums. If both Lee’s body of work including The Travelers and MOCA refer in different ways to home, we should ask what this space signifies today.
The full version of this essay is on the exhibition’s poster, which will be available at the Museum.