What you need to know
“Our Labyrinth,” a performance installation by Taiwanese American artist Lee Mingwei, took on a multitude of new meanings in New York.
The hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City stood empty for much of the year 2020. For three Wednesdays in September, however, they came alive with “Our Labyrinth,” a performance installation by Taiwanese American artist Lee Mingwei.
In Lee’s piece, which was live streamed and is still accessible to the public, performers take turns meditatively sweeping grains of rice for 90 minutes before handing their broom to another cast member. Every week features a different gallery of the museum, a different musician providing accompaniment, and three performers out of a cast of nine.
After an initial run in 2015 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and a subsequent performance at the Centre Pompidou in 2017, the most recent iteration of “Our Labyrinth” is a collaboration with legendary New York choreographer Bill T. Jones, whose influence grounded the work in the context of New York City. Amid the turmoil that wracked New York along with much of the world in the year 2020, “Our Labyrinth” provides a much-needed space of calm with an angle towards progress. A quote from Rabbi Tarfon is cited in the description of each livestream: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”
As “Our Labyrinth” is a site-specific performance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art itself figures prominently in the work, physically as a visually poignant backdrop and spiritually through its gravity as a cultural institution. The first livestream takes place in the expansive Great Hall, the museum’s main entryway and a fitting locale for an opening act, between a sculpture of the goddess Athena dating from the Hellenistic period and Cree artist Kent Monkman’s 2019 mural Resurgence of the People.
The juxtaposition of these two works of art conspicuously mirrors other tensions in the piece: quiet meditation contrasting with the chaos of New York City just outside, the grand musical compositions that score the piece interweaving with ambient noise echoing through the hall, and the digital streaming environment framing the classical and light-filled architecture of the Met. All these components reflect the interplay between the Athena sculpture’s expression of Western hegemony and Monkman’s radical re-imagining of American history. The following two performances are set in the Asian Art and American Wing respectively, each bringing a distinctive frame to the installation.
The performances are scored by unique sonic compositions provided by three different experimental musicians. All feature droning vocals that simultaneously soar through the museum’s wings and ground the viewer in the performers’ meditation, but possess different inflections most notably due to the musicians’ respective choices of instrumentation. In the first performance, Holland Andrews’s vocals intertwine with clarinet, Justin Hicks’s performance in the second is cut with percussion, and the final performance features Alicia Hall Moran a cappella.
Other sounds echo through the halls in addition to these musical compositions. Each dancer wears tinkling bells, footsteps and hushed whispers from staff members slide in and out of focus, and muted sounds of Manhattan traffic can be heard just outside. Remarkably, these ambient noises seem just as much a part of the installation as the musical compositions, as the voices and footsteps communicate at once reverence for the art and banality of institutional administration. The occasional car honk from outside accentuates the peace indoors, a reminder that New York traffic is extant but not exigent.
In the wake of multiple publicized incidents of police brutality in the past year, thousands of New Yorkers mobilized against racism and white supremacy. Beyond calls for reform and abolition within the U.S. justice system, the art world has also come under scrutiny for failing to live up to commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Under Bill T. Jones’s elegant, collaborative hand — a critic in the New York Times described him as not changing Lee’s work, but “infecting” it — “Our Labyrinth” tacitly responds to this context of civil unrest, cultural tension, and disease that has colored the recent past. While Lee reportedly conceived of the installation as a “pure” refuge from the discord that lies outside the museum’s front doors, Jones’s contribution ensures that the New York community is still represented in the piece, rather than filtered out.
Jones, inspired by the collaborative public document “Creating New Futures: Working Guidelines for Ethics & Equity in Presenting Dance & Performance,” made inclusive casting choices to foster a space of healing rather than avoidance of the world. Approximating New York’s diverse performance community to scale, the cast included performers across the spectrum of race, gender, sexuality, and artistic background, platforming those of marginalized identities whose art and activism are the very basis of the culture in New York and beyond. The actions of the performers passing the brooms off at the end of their shift betokened great symbolic power — the torch is being passed on, the work is shared, and we are all in this together.
“Our Labyrinth” is ostensibly made up of solos, yet one could argue it is choreographed as a pas de deux. Inspired by his experience tending to a temple path in Myanmar, Lee encouraged performers to listen and respond to the grains of rice as if in conversation, treating them as collaborators rather than props. Indeed, the performers’ slow yet purposeful brush strokes seemed to facilitate rather than control the movement of the rice, animating the grains as if channeling their energy. The resultant patterns resembled an uncanny mix between crop circles and sea foam, at once alien and natural. The solitary work of the performer was reminiscent of life in quarantine, when interactions with fellow humans are few, faceless, and far-between, and the surrounding inanimate objects seem to take on lives of their own. Anything from the Zoom-mounted laptop screen to the bubbling sourdough starter became potential companions in the year 2020, as we collaborated with and tended to everyday technologies and items with just as much care as afforded to the grains of rice.
“Our Labyrinth” will be remembered as an artifact of the unusual times we live in. When else will the Met stand so empty during peak hours? More than anything, the performance is an excellent choice for those who are looking to escape the noise of everyday life with a hauntingly meditative experience. Whether one watches for five minutes or five hours, the effect is a quiet sense of focus and an appreciation for all the little grains that make up the world.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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