When I first learned that the CMA would present Sonic Blossom by contemporary artist Lee Mingwei, I was very excited. I had the good fortune and pleasure to work with Lee Mingwei for many years at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on The Living Room project, which features guest community hosts sharing personal objects and conversation with museum visitors. Like the Living Room project, Sonic Blossom is an artwork about intimacy, vulnerability, and connection. I was thrilled that audiences at the CMA would have the opportunity to experience this particular artist and this kind of artwork.
Sonic Blossom is an experience between two strangers engaging through music. Like all works of art, I would argue, this one changes in each encounter because each visitor is unique. And in this case, the visitor is required to make the work complete.
During the performance times, a vocalist from the Cleveland Institute of Music wears an elegant custom-made garment inspired by origami that incorporates two 1940s Japanese maru obi kimono sashes that the artist calls a “transformation cloak.” The vocalist approaches one visitor at a time asking, “May I give you the gift of song?” If the gift is accepted, the visitor is led to a special chair in the gallery and the vocalist performs one of Schubert’s five Lieder directly to that person. The intimacy of this experience is what imbues the work with its unexpected drama. At the CMA, the effect is enhanced by the setting. The performance takes place in the Reinberger Gallery (gallery 212) surrounded by 17th-century Baroque paintings of passionate religious and historic scenes. As the gallery filled with song during the first weekend of performances, the paintings came to life for me in new ways.
This project is not only personal for the singer and visitor, but it is personal to the artist as well. He developed it while taking care of his mother as she recovered from surgery. They found comfort in listening to Franz Shubert’s Lieder. Lee and his mother have a history of listening to Shubert together; to calm a rambunctious young Lee his mother would play Shubert very softly, causing him to be quiet so he could hear the music. As an adult this same music — brief poems set to classical music — allowed Lee to consider the fleeting nature of life. Lee explains, “One day she — and I — will be gone. Like Schubert’s Lieder, our own lives are brief, but all the more beautiful because of this.” This led him to the notion of a folding and unfolding flower, a “sonic blossom” that became the foundation for this immersive musical experience.
I invite you to come to the CMA during weekends in July to experience this work of art. When you are in the galleries, be open to the possibility of receiving the gift of a song. Having experienced it myself, I can say that the rewards of this gift, sung just to you as if no one else in the world matters, is powerful. Each recipient has a different response and each is unique to them in that moment in time. For me, Sonic Blossom illustrates that a museum can be a place of deep and meaningful human connection.
The performances take place in the CMA’s Reinberger Gallery (212) at the following dates and times:
Fridays, July 19, 26: 4:00–8:00 p.m.
Saturdays, July 20, 27: 12:00–4:00 p.m.
Sundays, July 21, 28: 12:00–4:00 p.m.