Let me start with a caveat: the object of exchange in Lee Mingwei’s artwork isn’t strictly a book, it’s an envelope containing a story. I wanted to discuss it though because the artwork itself is irresistible.
The work, which is essentially a performance takes place in a beautiful, modernist garden designed by the Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. As visitors mill around the garden a performer quietly (and seemingly randomly) invites one of the guests to take a seat in the garden and admire the view, listen to the gentle sound of the flowing water and watch the world go by.
The performer talks with the guest and then slowly leaves (retreating to another part of the building) letting them enjoy the scene. The ritualistic element of the work (the slow deliberate pace, the performer’s minimal attire, the tranquility of it all) make it pleasant and relaxing to watch as a spectator – in another context I would have been keen to participate, but this seemed as much a pleasure to watch as to be involved in.
When the performer returns (a few minutes later) they are carrying a gift; a beautifully presented envelope titled with the name of the exhibition ‘When Beauty Visits’.
After being given the envelope the guest is instructed to only open the envelope on the occasion they encounter something beautiful. Inside is a story written by another guest recounting a moment they experienced ‘beauty’ themselves.
There are several gifts given in the work and the guest is not the only recipient. First of all there is the object itself: the envelope with its hidden contents, the act of being singled out and given something, the wait in the beautiful garden, the encouragement to look for and find ‘beauty’, the unique story inside the envelope and finally the resulting connection made between that unknown guest and the other. For the spectator, we have the pleasure of seeing the first part of the performance unfold.
The reason that I have included this artwork here is because the envelope could easily be a book; it contains a story, it can be carried, it has a physical presence, and most importantly is to be experienced in private. And perhaps a performance such as this would be a very interesting way to ‘activate’ a book work?