Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

Review by Kari Mugo

Walker Art Center
Mar 26–May 1, 2016

There are many things beyond my comprehension: religion, the 2016 presidential election, racism, how most technological devices actually work and Art—with a capital A. The sort of art that intimidates and frustrates the average person, driving us out of museums and galleries alike because we don’t “get it” or worse, fear the implications of not “getting it.” Such is Lee Kit’s Walker Art Center exhibit, Hold your breath, dance slowly—it is capital-A Art.

Kit, a Hong Kong born artist currently based in Taiwan with solo exhibitions featured in museums in Shanghai, Dublin and Hong Kong, presents his first U.S. solo exhibit at the Walker this summer. Lee’s work, which has been described as an investigation of “time, memory, emotion, and place” feels less like art and more like an artist’s brazen wink at the modern art world where almost anything—including a pair of glasses left on the floor by teenagers at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this May—can be deemed Art.

In the ambitious exhibition catalogue accompanying Lee’s gallery show, artist Anthony Yung described Kit’s work as such: “Everything is so irritatingly pointless that it becomes impossible to place the blame on anything in particular, as if someone sitting comfortably in front of you is simply not answering your questions.” This, from a friend of the artist.

Could any other words I put forth capture more resoundingly the utter pointlessness of an hour of those rare summer days in Minneapolis spent exploring Kit’s work? I don’t know, but I shall try.

The exhibit—which features among other objects, ordinary blue storage totes, white copy paper on the walls of the Burnet Gallery, a Johnson’s Baby Oil bottle, re-contextualize nature as culture, to capture its visual poetry, in a gallery space designed for cultural reflection. Nowhere is this more evident than in the video collaboration with composer and cellist Alex Waterman. I am drawn into the projection room by Waterman’s score, a haunting riff on the natural sounds of frogs, birds, and insects. Waterman has layered his croaking, chirping, buzzing, and ringing instrumentation— including a staccato percussive woodblock, a low bowed bass, a soaring piccolo—in rhythmic intervals that echo the visual flashing patterns of the fireflies. Instruments enter, joined by others, each forming its own terse, repetitive tonal and rhythmic leitmotif. These leitmotifs layer, and successively disappear in moments of silence, only to return at a later interval. This pattern of sound and silence reiterates the synchronous rhythmic patterns of light and intermittent darkness with which the fireflies call to one another. The score provides auditory cues inviting me to look for corresponding visual patterns. The video moves me from twilight in an identifiable wooded setting, through the dissipation of daylight and into a darkness punctuated only by the fireflies’ own bodily luminescence. The fireflies’ points of luminescence do not reveal the surroundings. We orient ourselves with vision, and thus our need for ambient light competes with their need to communicate. Firefly light does not aid our orientation, but is vital to their species’ survival. Gainer studied with filmmaker Stan Brakhage, known for his 1963 film Mothlight. Brakhage incorporated dead moths’ wings, expired because of their irresistible attraction to light, along with other bits of translucent and opaque flora physically wedged between clear strips of 16 mm film. This carnage and detritus sandwich was then print transferred to create a film without the aid of a camera or lens. In later pieces, such as Stellar (1993), Brakhage experimented with painting directly on film stock with aniline dyes. a lamp, a shower stall, and ad copy with words interposed over it against another wall—felt bereft of meaning and facetious at best. While the Walker’s description of the exhibit advances the idea that Kit’s work is infused with political commentary and critiques of “the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history,” the political commentary is difficult to see.

Instead, it feels like the Walker (and the artist) intends to lead the viewer in a direction of deeper contemplation which the works themselves fail to translate effectively. Is there commentary on consumerism? Perhaps, but nowhere within the exhibit does Kit make it apparent that this commentary is tied specifically to Hong Kong, rather than offering a general critique of consumerism or more precisely, our ongoing obsession with beauty care products and the multibillion dollar industry that maintains this.

By the time I arrived at no. 13 of Kit’s installations (numbered 1 through 16), The lasting care 2016, and missed the tiny piece of paper stuck to the gallery wall, I was beyond irritated. I exasperatingly made it through the last three installations (one featuring the aforementioned shower stall titled 10 years after, I grow fatter.) out of sheer obligation to the readers of this review.

Kit’s Art is frustrating not only in its utter pointlessness, but because the Walker’s galleries, as the premier art venue in the Twin Cities, present some of the most coveted art space locally and there are many, many other local, national, and international artists more deserving of this space than Kit’s current exhibit. Artists who execute brilliantly the political commentary we so badly need in these times and reflect intentionality in their collections. Hold your breath, dance slowly fails to be accessible to the average viewer (which I consider myself), fails to effectively communicate its intended message, and is a perfect example of why regular folks maintain a hesitation with engaging in mainstream art institutions such as the Walker—and/or contemporary art in general.

To its credit, the Walker does succeed in another exhibit—the one housed directly adjacent to Lee Kit’s in Galleries 1, 2, and 3. The exhibit titled Less Than One features 16 multigenerational and international artists exploring over 40 years of their collective work and is a far more worthwhile way to spend your $14 (for non-members) admission to the Walker Art Center. Less Than One hits the mark where Kit fails, creating engaging political commentary, while exploring the myriads of ways to make art and highlighting the Walker at its best.