MINNEAPOLIS — A kind of dance happens as you walk through Lee Kit’s exhibition at the Walker Art Center, appropriately titled Hold your breath, dance slowly. As you enter, there’s no sign that dictates whether you should walk right or left, but most people walk right, out of convention, and don’t see the ready–made shower stall until they walk through the whole show and reach the supposed end.
That tickles Lee, a Hong Kong-born artist, who is currently based in Taipei, Taiwan and whose shows at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and at the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.) in Ghent, Belgium opened within a month of each other. His solo at the Walker is his first in the United States.
Lee bought the shower stall on a trip to Home Depot with the Walker staff. One of the staff members jokingly asked Lee if he wanted to buy it because of his tendency to include items like bathtubs and security booths in previous exhibitions. Sure enough, upon reflecting on the decision for three days, Lee decided to go ahead and buy the shower stall. “I always felt there’s something in this kind of product,” he said. “For example, shower stalls, when you close the door, it’s kind of quiet. You’re on your own, you’re naked, thinking about a certain thing.” He said he wanted the shower stall to be the last thing visitors see, and perhaps compel them to go back and take another look at the rest of the exhibition for a second time.
Lee has tried this type of thing before, where he devises creative ways to get visitors to spend more time with the artwork. In an exhibition at Art Basel in 2011, he filled a space with objects purchased from Ikea, and instead of selling individual items, had the exhibition for purchase by the square foot. If you wanted a particular painting or one of his signature hand-painted cloths, you had to buy all the items that were in that section. “We kind of wanted to annoy people,” Lee explained sheepishly. But more than that, there was an attempt to get visitors to stay in the room for more than 10 seconds, not a small feat at Art Basel, with its swirl of activity.
Besides the pirouette Lee attempts to orchestrate at the end of Hold your breath, dance slowly, there are other ways he sneakily choreographs a visitor’s movement. At the center of the show, there’s an intersection where the rooms created by the temporary gallery walls meet, and, while the karaoke version of Elvis’s “I can’t help falling in love” blares on repeat, you might find yourself doing a bit of a shift-ball-change as you decide which way to go.
“I have to admit that this show has very dark moments,” said Martin Germann, from S.M.A.K., of the Walker exhibition, at a panel discussion about Lee’s work. “If you spend a half hour in this exhibition, again and again you hear this Elvis song. “After a while it gets at the title of the show [in Belgium], A Small Sound in Your Head — it starts to annoy you a little bit. That’s actually what I find interesting.”
Lee sees his exhibitions at the Walker and at S.M.A.K. as two parts of the same whole. “For me they are one show, but I had to split them into two sides,” Lee said. “The show here [at the Walker] looks lighter and a little more romantic … The other show is much darker.”
“The whole show is about love,” he said of Hold Your Breath, Dance Slowly, at the Walker, then clarified: “Impersonal love. It looks very personal, but actually it is not.”
Lee is interested in that certain moment where we feel loved, or just feel love. “That moment is so overwhelming,” he said. “I wanted to capture that moment in this show.”
The signature work in the show, a 13-channel video installation, acquired by the Walker, called “I can’t help falling in love,” was made for an exhibition in Beijing in 2012, during a time when Lee was missing an old partner. “I made that because I missed my ex-girlfriend,” he said. “It was about love — it is still about love, but it’s not about a particular person anymore.”
To describe what he was trying to do, he took out a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. “When I see this pack of cigarettes, I think about my partner, but you don’t know that,” he said. “You see it and think, ‘Oh, it’s just a pack of cigarettes,’ but for me, it’s much more than a product. I’m interested in that part of objects that carries a certain kind of memory. It’s personal, but it’s not personal as well, because we all have this kind of experience.”
The TVs in “I can’t help falling in love” display videos of various brand-named products, all of which hold significance for the artist. The use of American and Western products and English words perhaps reference the influence of Western market forces in Hong Kong. Lee endeavors to humanize various products like facial creams, portraying a kind of colonization, not just of things and places, but one’s own brain and ideas, with brand names undertaking a kind of intimate relationship with people.
In other words, the political edge to Lee’s work is understated, a way of understanding how the artist makes sense of the contradictions in his surroundings. He’s interested in the in-between, making sense of historical and political forces in a kind of liminal space. “It’s a hidden political agenda,” he said in reference to his work.
Lee grew up in Hong Kong and lived there for 34 years, before moving to the city of Taipei in Taiwan a few years ago (he’s now 38). Because he grew up in such a large city with a history of British colonialism, it makes sense that he has such a familiarity with Western products. “I went to the supermarket when I was young with my mom and saw all these Johnson & Johnson bottles, the Nivea cream, Head and Shoulders — and we would watch a lot of Hollywood movies,” he said.
When people refer to him as Chinese, Lee corrects them, saying he is from Hong Kong. Growing up, his worldview was very British. “In a way I’m half British, half Chinese, but also traditional Chinese, not current Chinese,” he says. He studied in a British school, listened to British music, while at the same time reading ancient Chinese philosophy.
One of the reasons he moved to Taiwan was so that he could see Chinese culture and philosophy up close. “It’s quite important for me,” he said. “Because China or Chinese is not an identity — it’s a mindset,” he said. “This is something I cannot escape, even though I hate the Chinese government. I am Chinese, but now I will say I am from Hong Kong.”
At the same time, Lee shies away from linking his work to a direct criticism of capitalism or imperialism. “I kind of accept capitalism. I cannot change it, so I make use of it. I’m doing something better. I can’t say good — better.”
The exhibition at the Walker is very clean and minimal, almost empty. Besides the 13-channel installation, there are videos projected, which he shot in hotel rooms. Lee doesn’t like spotlights, so he installed his own light fixtures for the exhibition. There are a lot of doorways, which in themselves become a part of the composition, especially in the way that light bleeds through from one room to the next.
Sometimes you’ll see a painting of a product, on a piece of cardboard, situated next to a video of that same image. If you walk toward it to get a better look, your shadow disturbs the image so you can’t see anything. There are also random objects, like a vase sitting on the floor, or metal chairs placed here and there. “I want to put everything in a certain order,” Lee said. “I enjoy that moment where everything is clean and aestheticized. There’s a certain kind of state of mind inside of that atmosphere. It almost feels like in a hospital.”
In a panel discussion with Lee, Martin Germann, from S.M.A.K., described a generic quality to Lee’s material, full of commonplace objects and also language. “It’s full of people everyone knows which are reverberating like echoes,” Germann said.
If there’s one thing that Lee wishes people would take away from the exhibition, it’s an experience of quiet reflection. This show, made up completely of signifiers of Lee’s emotional associations, seems to present a universal past, sparking visitors’ own thoughts and memories.
Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly continues at the Walker Art Center (1750 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis) through October 9.