I have just returned from the Gardner Museum where, from 1 to 3pm, I was the host of the Living Room – a project based on Lee Mingwei’s original artist-in-residence project from 1999.
It is a remarkably informal project. You show up with a few objects, put them on a table and then talk to people about them. But that’s the hard part, talking. Without a shared context, how does one strike up conversation in a serene space where people go to rest and get away? It’s easy on a crowded train or a doctor’s office where there’s a common injustice or suffering. Our only hardship is Whistler the singing canary whose energetic song at times gets a bit loud. There is no sign that reads, “Warning: a stranger may attempt to be intimate with you.”
I try multiple approaches.
One: I sit on the edge of the chair, as originally instructed, and greet people. “Hello.” “Welcome.” I have a badge on that reads, "Contractor". It’s all too forced and aggressive. People are coming here to rest, flopping down on the low couches with a harrumph. Others make a beeline for Whistler. Who am I to force on them a hunk of asphalt when there’s a downy, yellow canary to observe?
Two: I make water drawings on the Buddha Board and see if people are curious enough to come over. I ask, “Have you tried this?” It’s placed too low. People aren’t interested. Plus it may be reading as product demo; a new exit through the gift shop approach.
Three: I hover near the timeline and, when appropriate, I say, “I’ve been invited here to share a piece of my personal history,” or “I have a piece of history here that I’d like to share,” and then introduce grandmother’s ring from Pratt where she graduated in 1937 with a degree in Costume Design.
This proves successful. From there we begin a conversation about two women from the past who’ve inspired creativity. One woman lost her only son and poured her creativity into creating a collection. The other focused on raising her two children. I then introduce the other objects and make connections between Gardner’s permanent collection and the impermanence of my work in asphalt, and water.
A true kismet moment comes when I hear an elderly man say, “My grandfather,” and points to a photograph of Gardner’s architect, Willard T. Sears, holding blueprints. “My grandmother,” I say as I point to the ring. Later, when I thank his wife goodbye she tells me to look up Edward Nichols — I did. He and Sears designed the palace though Sears gets the credit — and I’m not sure if I’ve been talking to Nichols or Sears’ grandson. But either way I am in awe. My grandmother left behind some nice dresses but no buildings.
Four: More hovering; this time near where the docent ends her introduction. By the second time she comes in, we’ve developed a routine. “This young woman has more history to share,” she says. I’m tongue tied for a moment by the adjective. But then I try a different tact about how the Living Room project is about collections but that I don’t have collections; I’m interested in the potential of objects and their impermanence. I have a lovely conversation with five women seemingly from three generations of the same family. The older one who has been silent most of the time asks for my card. She wishes me well. She reminds me of my grandmother.
Near the end I’m given a letter from Mingwei that, while would have been helpful in the beginning, gives me solace nonetheless. “Please enjoy the strangers who you will be welcoming into your Living Room, these beautiful beings and you will connect in a way that only you can understand. If you ever get a bit lonely while in the Living Room, the canary is there for you with his spirited songs.”
I have been lonely. I have connected with strangers. I have reconnected with old friends. I have been vulnerable and for two hours I looked into peoples' eyes, not my phone. In the end I leave with a deep appreciation for strangers and the legacies that each of us leaves, with or without a collection.