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Reading Rämistrasse #144: Isabelle Reymond on Maggie Lee at Kunsthalle Zürich - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #144: Isabelle Reymond on Maggie Lee at Kunsthalle Zürich

[Kunsthalle Zürich disclaimer: Isabelle Reymond writes here about a Kunsthalle Zürich exhibition]

"I just want to do what I want" Maggie Lee giggles. Her candid affirmation sets the tone. She repeats it several times during our interview, conducted before the opening of her exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich. In this respect, her approach is diametrically opposed to that of many other artists, who are generally professionals at intellectualising their position. That isn’t to say that Lee couldn’t also do that, but she chose not to. Considering that her work, by virtue of its diaristic nature, is already an intimate glimpse into her personal world, it is her prerogative. Furthermore, her bold attitude is also a rebellious act against the top-down system of the art world.

Maggie Lee’s breakthrough came with the fifty-five minute film Mommy (2015), made when she was in her late twenties. The movie is a personal exploration of grief following the loss of the artist’s mother.The intimate portrait is divided into various chapters, similar to a book or personal diary, and starts with her mother's arrival in the United States as an immigrant from Taiwan. The film presents itself as a copy-and-paste montage of old photographs, home videos, cut-outs, stills and voice-overs from Lee, her mother, her father and other family members. It is at once a universal narrative and a very personal story of grief, loss, and the passing of a loved one, as well as a testament to migration. Full of unfiltered teenage emotion, the film also has a voyeuristic element as Lee reads extracts from her personal diary. The result is a non-linear time capsule, a juxtaposition of raw emotions and memories, reminiscent of an animated family photo album.

Maggie Lee, Magazine, Kunsthalle Zürich, 2024

Image: Cedric Mussano

At the Kunsthalle Zürich, Lee’s solo show is entitled Magazine. The expansive exhibition hall is steeped in dim pink light and is largely empty. Here and there are some objects: a table, half-drunk, abandoned cups of tea and a fake gun on an office desk. While the air is filled with the eerie soundtrack of a film projected onto a side wall, the spirit of things gone by lingers in the empty spaces. Lee, now 37 years old, references her zine-making teenage years by hinting at the creative process with an office desk situated in the center of the space and the name of the exhibition. Still, the emptiness of the bureau, populated with only a few items, is strikingly bewildering. The collages on the wall can also be read as magazine pages and as part of the creative zine-making process, but with their little bows, glued-on ribbons and cut-out hearts, the collages are further reminiscent of an adolescent’s personal journal. Its three-dimensionality extends beyond the pages of a zine, revealing a vulnerability that confounds and bemuses. Lee, who is no stranger to cringe culture, confronts the viewer with frills and trimmings unexpected in these surroundings. Their raison-d’être firmly attached to a Peter-Pan attitude resonates throughout Lee's work. And although the artist denies any sense of nostalgia in her art, unequivocal melancholy is felt. Whether that might be for a party gone by or as part of a darker, existential struggle is left to our imagination. Lee’s work today is more guarded, hinting at emotions rather than revealing them. And while she leaves us grasping for the unspoken, it was the expression of uncontrived sentiment in her aesthetics that made her work so captivating.

Maggie Lee, Magazine, Kunsthalle Zürich, 10 February–20 May 2024

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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