Lee Mingwei’s ‘Sonic Blossom’ Offers MFA Visitors the Gift of Song

Opera soloists are giving intimate, spontaneous, one-on-one performances in the William I. Koch Gallery through early April.

sonic blossom

Photos courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

Starting last week, a group of classically trained singers have been taking turns silently roaming the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, one at a time, garbed in an elaborately embroidered kimono-like costume.

Sewn into the costume, a handwritten tag reminds the eight soloists—all with ties to Boston-area institutions—of the purpose instilled in them by artist Lee Mingwei. It reads: “This cloak transforms the wearer into a magical being, bestowed with the power to give the gift of music.”

Lee handpicked the singers to participate in his “Sonic Blossom” project, taking place now at the MFA through early April. But when the singers don the costume, it becomes their turn to choose. Following Lee’s instructions, they select individual museum visitors throughout the day, approaching about four or five every hour.

“May I offer you the gift of song?” they ask.

If the visitor accepts—and most of them do—the singer directs him or her into the William I. Koch Gallery on the second floor, a dramatic space filled with a shining display of Hanoverian silver and paintings by European masters like El Greco and Velasquez. The singer then guides the visitor to sit in a special wooden chair set up in the gallery and, standing a few feet away, performs a piece from a set of lieder (art songs) by Franz Schubert. The singer’s operatic voice fills the room, which depending on the time of day might be filled with other museum-goers, but his or her eyes stay focused on the single chosen visitor.

“Much of [Lee’s] art is based on many theories and writings about gift-giving, and so he definitely sees the encounters that he stages as occasions for trust between strangers,” says Jen Mergel, senior curator of contemporary art at the MFA and a longtime friend of the artist.

Reactions have varied, ranging from stoic gratitude to tears.

“No performance is ever the same twice,” Mergel says. “You may have an instance of somebody eagerly seeking out the experience and feeling so moved by it.”

Last week, she recalled, one man, an Italian tourist, proclaimed to his wife, “I need to find my soul floating in this beautiful room. [The singer] was so beautiful, he killed me.”

“You may also have somebody who is taken off guard, and may feel slightly uncomfortable to be at the center of such intense attention,” Mergel says, recalling a young boy, whose feet barely touched the ground as he was sitting in the chair, promptly walking out of the room following the performance. His grandfather reassured the performing assistant that the boy, an avid violinist, was just extremely shy.

In another instance last week, one woman, who initially took out her phone to record the encounter immediately upon being seated, put the phone down seconds into the performance, and found herself in tears by the end.

“To see that transformation, even over the course of four minutes, of this initial instinct to record—this notion that everything must be recorded for it to have happened—and to let go of that, and just be in the moment, and to be emotionally moved… That’s somewhat profound,” Mergel says.

I need to find my soul floating in this beautiful room. [The singer] was so beautiful, he killed me.

At times, the singers’ voices have to compete with other sounds in the room—the chatter of visiting school groups, or even the audible alarm that goes off when people get too close to the artwork.

“Most opera singers sing to the room,” Mergel says. “[But with “Sonic Blossom”] it’s not to the void—it’s to this one individual.”

Like the singers, the room—the Koch Gallery—was handpicked by Lee himself.

“There’s something so grand and awe-inspiring here, and in some ways, it’s a space that makes you slow down and pause, and just take in its otherworldliness. He felt like it was perfect for the way that the piece itself transports you to another place,” Mergel says. “It’s also just such a setting with a built-in audience—all of these portraits and faces looking upon you. It’s the heart of the museum, not just architecturally, but in some ways in terms of mission and mandate. It’s a place for celebration, and it’s a space where really important gatherings happen.”

Originally created for the inaugural exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul and later shown in Beijing and Tokyo, the appearance of “Sonic Blossom” at the MFA marks the project’s U.S. debut, as well as its first run inside an encyclopedic rather than a contemporary art museum. The project also marks a first for the MFA—ongoing during all open hours, “Sonic Blossom” is the first extended exhibit of performance art in its history.

The performances forge an intimate experience for museum visitors, and stem from Lee’s own personal experiences with Schubert’s lieder. When he was a child, his mother would play the songs at a very low volume, to make Lee quiet down and really listen. Years later, while his mother was recently recovering from surgery, she again turned to Schubert.

“[Lee] saw how healing and inspiring and calming and meditative it was—and invigorating in some ways,” Mergel says. “And so for him, he said, it’s so important to potentially be able to share this gift with somebody else, and to let somebody feel chosen. There’s serendipity and chance involved.”

By giving the singers full freedom when it comes to choosing the gift recipients, Lee places his trust not only in them, but also in the audience.

“The participants complete the work,” Mergel says. “It may be two seconds, 20 seconds, a minute before somebody responds yes or no, and [Lee’s] work is hanging in the balance in the meantime—and it may or may not happen until the next person says yes.”

“Sonic Blossom” takes place at the Museum of Fine Arts through April 9. For more information, visit mfa.org.