Review: Yingmei Duan's Thingness

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Review: Yingmei Duan's Thingness

“I was always very afraid to speak before the age of 21, because I spent most of the time in silence because people could not understand my words even until I was a teenager. So I often talked to myself and the objects around me.”

With this quotation from artist Yingmei Duan in mind, Thingness, her current installation at the Neuer Kunstverein Wien becomes a strange, personable journey into her psyche by way of the objects she has chosen to include. Indeed, the show itself is purposefully devoid of her authorial voice in the most evident of ways, making her hesitance with words and speech—and the lack thereof—a crucial element of the exhibition. Namely, instead of including the usual object labels and artist statements that are standard by now in contemporary art exhibitions, as well as ones that are so conceptual and cerebral in nature, Yingmei has chosen to write the labels from the point of view of the objects themselves. This strategy allows the items that Yingmei has chosen to take up the burden of speech, of explanation, of making the first contact with the viewer, creating the impression, if not the reality, of an absence of the artist’s intervention in the most literal sense.

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The multi-room installation contains a veritable smorgasbord of Yingmei’s personal effects in all shapes and sizes in a completely interactive format, including such disparate items as a suitcase, puppets, a ladder, books, clothing, a chair and photographs, along with several video pieces. After sitting in one of the chairs she has chosen in the first room, you are invited to watch the first video of Thingness: a video of Yingmei’s opening night performance in the space. Leading the audience around the second room of the exhibition slowly and purposefully, Yingmei sings a wordless song as she touches each object in sequence to activate it, often handing it to the audience for their own study, then placing each handwritten label by the appropriate object. She takes her audience inside her own mind, one object at a time as she uses them in a facsimile of how they are meant to be used, imbuing each of the items with purpose and meaning.

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The next part of the journey through Thingness, then, is to follow in Yingmei’s footsteps, tracing her path through the objects themselves, using all five senses—yes, even taste. The objects work in a chronological order, allowing you to explore Yingmei’s own life, from childhood to the present day, through the objects she has chosen to represent each stage of growth and change. You begin with climbing the ladder, as the text provided in the ladder’s voice encourages you to take in the overall show at different levels, quite literally engaging your sense of sight. You exercise your sense of smell by taking a whiff of a vial of Chinese medicine, which harkens back to Yingmei’s own background growing up with parents who practiced medicine. You are encouraged to touch every object in the room, from the broken porcelain figurine to her copy of the Quran, an aspect of Thingness that, to this avid museumgoer, still feels like a taboo. You have the opportunity to listen not only to the sound from each video, but also to discordant music co-composed by Yingmei as well as cassettes of her favorite pop and rock music. Naturally, taste is represented by a plate of sausage samples, which you are encouraged to eat while watching a video Yingmei created about pork butchery, which is definitely an odd juxtaposition—and a little gruesomely funny.

While the overall effect of Thingness might come across as scattered to a casual observer, it is in fact a carefully wrought exploration of Yingmei’s own complicated relationship with speech and with communication, using meaningful objects as vessels for the words she has always struggled to express.