The Simplicity of Being

by Michèle Vicat

Lee Mingwei, portrait by Michèle Vicat © 2010


Lee Mingwei’s projects belong to the spheres of perception and suggestion. They have no connection to the commercial art market per se. They are commissioned by major museums and institutions. The Taiwanese-born and New York based artist is interested in the moment that captures a relationship between himself, people and places. His performances and installations subtly bring us into a world of self-awareness via routine activities--« we eat, » « we sleep, » « we write, » « we offer a gift »-- all actions that we no longer notice, because they are so banal. And it is the banality that is at stake here. It is the starting point for an exploration of relationships, which is anything but banal. « I think that one of the most exciting things about contemporary art is that we are trying to do something that is out of the ordinary, » said the artist in an interview given to Asian Art News in December 2008.
Lee Mingwei’s search to use the ordinary to go beyond the ordinary preceded the 10th Biennale of Lyon (2009), which was based on the theme of « Reinventing the Ordinary. » The idea was to have ordinary people become participants and evolve on the same plane as the artist. (See our article « Reinventing the Ordinary » in the section PointerAtWork of www.thepointeradventure.com ).

100 Days with Lily, courtesy of the artist and Lombard Freid Projects, New York, 1995
100 Days with Lily is a very intimate and physical project that has great personal meaning for the artist. It was undertaken and carried on in the memory of his grandmother who passed away in Taiwan while he was in California. She was the first woman from Taiwan to study western medicine in Japan, and she opened her own clinic when she returned home in the 1930s. Lee Mingwei was deeply affected by her death and he felt that he needed to spend some time with her, and the memory of her, in order to accept death as a passage. He planted the bulb of a lily, and he followed the steps of its growth, blossoming, wilting and death. The artist lived with the plant and carried it for 100 days. Each change in the state of the plant was carefully noted on the day and hour that it took place. A photograph shows Lee Mingwei’s hands holding a pot with the plant whose flowers have just faded after the natural cycle was completed. The image serves as part of a diary. We can follow the artist’s daily involvement with the plant. Day 61 – 18 :32 Studying with Lily. Day 75 – 09 :07 Walking with Lily. Day 79 – 11 :43 Death. But life continues in the heart and in the memory. We have to let it go, but not necessarily at the exact moment of disappearance.

Finally, the plant is exhumed on Day 100, because it is time to let it go. The time limit may be artificial, but it is the one that best promises continuity. « I carried the plant 24 hours a day for 100 days, » explains the artist. « Basically, after 80 days, it was already dry, but I did not feel like letting it go because it became a very important part of me. I prolonged the for an extra 20 days. Then I exhumed the plant and put it back in the earth. For Taiwanese, the water lily has a very special identity. In its bulb form, it looks physically like a male scrotum. So, it is a male organism, spiritually. When it germinates, blooms and blossoms, it becomes a female organism. And when it fades, it becomes a male organism again. It was important for me to experience the phases of birth, growth, deterioration and death over 100 days. It was a way for me to mourn the passing days of my grandmother. »

At that time, Lee Mingwei was working as a weaver in a textile factory in California. Every day, he would carry the plant with him in the bus. People in the bus, mainly Hispanic, started to talk with him, because he looked like a spiritual man with his short hair and long robe. Older women started confessional conversations with him. The project, although intimate in its conceptualization, took on a public face with the spontaneous participation of people.

Time is central to the process of Lee Mingwei’s projects. It is a variable, which can be expanded in the sphere of the concrete or the sphere of the immaterial. People may respond to his installations or they may not. He has learned to accept this. This readiness to accept what is in the process of happening comes from Lee Mingwei’s Asian background. Born and raised in Taiwan, he comes from a family with a very long involvement in medicine. His parents expected him to continue the tradition of the eldest son. In college, he first studied biology for four years. But his parents were concerned when he told them that he fainted when he saw blood. They ask him what he wanted to do. Lee Mingwei recounts in a very amusing way his conversation with his parents: « When my parents asked me what I wanted to do, I wanted to say ‘art’ but somehow I blurred something like ‘artitecture’ and I ended in architecture for 4 years. Wonderful subject, but, for me, it was a discipline that does not allow any wrong steps. If you miscalculate, the building collapses. Very rapidly, I realized that I want to practice a discipline that does not have any right or any wrong. The subject has to privilege the creation of ideas.»

Having lived in the United States since the age of 14, Lee Mingwei feels completely bi-cultural. When we met in his New York apartment, he was dressed in a traditional long silk robe of an exquisite pale blue. The cloth moved gracefully around his slender figure. In the entrance, nice flat embroidered slippers were waiting for me. The place looked and sounded restfully calm, ordered, inviting to a quiet conversation, although the view from the windows showed the crowded and busy streets of the Wall Street district. Lee Mingwei explained that when he is in a certain environment, the uniqueness of the other culture works better for him. His Asianess reveals itself in an American environment and his occidentalness is more obvious when he is in Taiwan. When the family left Taiwan, Lee Mingwei was 13. He stayed for one year in the Dominican Republic in order to obtain a visa to go to the United States. In his high school in San Francisco, he studied ancient Greek and Latin as well as English and Spanish. At that time, he hungered for classical Chinese literature. The uniqueness of Chinese culture comes to him when he is away from its geographical context. But, how does Lee Mingwei envision his Chineseness? « When I am here (meaning in the United States) I have a better understanding of where Taiwan is, where China is in terms of historical context. I understand that I am also culturally part Japanese, part Chinese, but nationally Taiwanese. How do I blend these things in a harmonious state? I see being Chinese as a cultural heritage but not as a national identity. »

When Lee Mingwei went to the Chinese mainland for the first time, he felt the scars of people and the destruction of the richness of China’s traditional culture deeply. Taiwanese have remained Confucians. The Cultural Revolution tried to destroy Confucianism.

The Dining Project at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard Freid Projects, New York, 1997-present
When looking at Lee Mingwei’s installations, one is filled with wonder. The precision in the orchestration and the elegance in the design echo his studies of biology and architecture, two disciplines that require method. From the BA in Textile Arts and the MFA in sculpture, he absorbed the sensibility for materials and the projection of ideas and forms onto the public sphere. Coming from the West Coast, the young man felt isolated when he arrived at Yale University in 1995 for his graduate studies. He elaborated the Dining Project, a one-on-one project focusing on themes such as intimacy, trust, anonymity and self-awareness. The project started as a projection of an old Taiwanese custom in which newcomers in a village or in a small town go to the soy milk breakfast place (doujian dian). Hospitality requires that the newcomer be invited into homes and eventually to meet the whole village. Based on the idea of « meeting the whole village, » Lee Mingwei thought of doing something similar in New Haven. He posted hundreds of posters around the campus asking people interested in an introspective conversation and food sharing to contact him. The first day, 45 people showed interest! For a whole year, Lee Mingwei cooked three to four nights a week. The « rules » were that the meal would be prepared according to the individual’s dietary preference and that the participant would be highly encouraged to converse freely during the meal. The meal would be served to a single person and there would not be any conversation during the dinner. The acquaintance with the stranger was to be accomplished before the actual meal.

The Dining Project operates at two levels. There is the elaboration of a relationship with a complete stranger. Then the food acts as a medium for mutual trust and intimacy. In 1998, the Whitney Museum commissioned the show with a few variations. This was the beginning of Lee Mingwei’s entry into the world of museums and institutions. The Whitney Museum created a lottery making the selection of participants unpredictable. The installation per se was very simple: a tatami and a low table. The whole process was recorded on video, with the camera lens at the level of the food. The anonymity was preserved. The video was projected the next day on the wall behind the tatami installation. Bits of the conversation were audible. Pieces of the action of eating and sharing food and conversation were visible. The project became then part of a museum, a public space, where visitors could explore change through interaction.

The Dining Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Courtesy of the artist and Lomnbard Freid Projects, New York, 1998

In 2006, Lee Mingwei embarked on a project with a larger physical and emotional dimension. It was based on the concept of impermanence. Gernika in Sand, a mixed media-installation, was first conceived at the Albion Gallery in London. The reference to Picasso’s masterpiece is used here to meditate on the damage done to people when they are victimized. Lee Mingwei’s partner miraculously escaped death on September 11, 2001. More than 400 of his colleagues died that day. In his work, Picasso depicts the massacre of Basque civilians by the Spanish nationalist forces under Franco just before the outbreak of World War II. Gernika in Sand (the name of the place in the Basque language) expands the idea to all victimized beings. « My first great experience of a western piece of art, physically, was Guernica, in the late 1970s, when it was still at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Picasso wanted that piece returned to Spain only when the country would have full democracy. I was so stunned by the sheer size…the paintings I saw before were beautiful paintings from the Song Dynasty with birds and flowers…but nothing like this in black and white and grey with people screaming. It has a political message behind it. My parents were much involved in the Taiwanese Independent Movement and, suddenly, I realized that the Picasso had some aspects of it. »

Gernika in Sand at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia.
Courtesy of the artist, Lombard Freid Projects and Yeh Ron Jai Culture and Art Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan, 2006-present

The choice of sand as the primary material recalls the sand mandalas created by Tibetan Buddhist monks. Mandalas are reflective pieces on the ephemeral nature of material life. Sand, a ‘powder’ created from the erosion of rocks by wind and water, will again become rock one day. When one thing changes, other things can come from it. Lee Mingwei used 40 tons of sand to create a 50-foot long by 30-foot deep reproduction of Picasso’s painting. But here, we go beyond the idea of a reproduction. Gernika in Sand took on its own life by becoming a performance articulated around four phases.

The first phase was to have a nearly completed sand-version before the exhibition opened. One small fragment of the composition was missing because the artist wanted to show that it was a performance in phases. The composition was left untouched for weeks so people could come, see it and absorb it in this undisturbed phase. On the Monday of the 7th week, at sunrise, the artist completed the piece using the whole day. It was the signal that people could begin walking barefoot on the sand, one person at a time while he, the artist, simultaneously finished the piece. The alteration became a ceremony, which would be internalized differently by each individual. It was a dynamic between two people who efface and create. An artificial island placed on the composition allowed visitors to take a step back, and to physically see and emotionally live the process of destruction and creation. At sunset, the artist invited 3 visitors to brush the sand with him toward the middle of the disturbed composition. That would be the stage at which people would see Lee Mingwei’s work for the next 6 weeks. Only a small fragment of the original composition was left untouched for people to identify Picasso’ s artwork. Impermanence and destruction-creation effect purification. What is important in Gernika in Sand is that perception is very different from one person to another one. The artist himself experienced changes throughout the whole process.

« For me, the enlightening experience was to look at it at the beginning, being involved in the creation of something beautiful and then, at the end, to realize that it was completely destroyed. Interestingly enough, a lady came almost every single day because she realized it would be destroyed. She became very agitated when the day became closer and closer. She was one of the last people to walk on this piece before the sun set. Then she watched me brushing up. She came to me and she was in tears. She said to me that before that stage it was for her about death. She said that at that stage the death mask had been lifted. Life comes out. It took me a few seconds to realize that she understood my work though me, the creator, did not understand it. » Beauty comes from healing and is a way to respond to victimization.

Bodhi Tree Project for Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane,
Australia. Courtesy of the artist and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia, 2008-present.

The Bodhi Tree Project (2008) is very close to Lee Mingwei’s heart. Maybe because the project involves physical, cultural and emotional transplantations and assimilation. It is like his life: a perfect harmony between past and present. The project was commissioned by the Queensland City Government of Brisbane, Australia, for the inauguration of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. The museum wanted a public art project. Lee Mingwei proposed going to Sri Lanka to bring back a branch of the Sri Maha Bodhi, or the tree of enlightenment. Two thousand five hundred years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha and founder of Buddhism, is said to have sat under this tree in Northern India. People wanted to cut down the tree in a wave of destruction that followed Buddha’s enlightenment. According to the story, the night before the destruction, Princess Ashoka (Sangamitta) took a branch from that tree, hid it in her hair and escaped to Ceylon, which is today Sri Lanka. It took four years for Lee Mingwei to convince the government, the high priest and the village of Anuradhapura to give a branch of the sacred tree to a non-religious institution. Lee Mingwei remembers every detail of this adventure: « For me, it was to convince them that, in the West, we go to museums as going to temples for the art. We go there to be enlightened. A week before the cutting of the branch, all the villagers were sitting under the tree, chanting to the tree for the departure. I was extremely nervous when the high priest handed me the branch. The priest spoke to the tree in English! He said: ‘You are going to a beautiful and exotic land. Your job is to be as tall and as strong as you can so you can create shade for animals and people there.’ » The branch had to stay in quarantine for 7 months because it is an exotic species. But, it was in good hands by an accident of fate: the customs officer assigned to the tree was from Sri Lanka! She thought it was karma and dharma that gave her a chance to take care of this tree. The tree is now 20 feet high and not only provides shade to visitors but has become a meeting point for the Buddhist community of Australia. It is extraordinary proof that public art can be a living and sacred object. From an early age, Lee Mingwei grew up learning the principles of Ch’an, a Chinese version of Zen. His apprenticeship in classical Chinese literature and calligraphy opened the doors to discover « the essence of Buddhism, » as he says, « not the Indian part but the Chinese part. It is about impermanence, about that philosophy of nothingness, about tastelessness like water. And that really affects my work. It is something visceral about being a human being. It is about the mundane essence and the simplicity of being a human being. »

Bodhi Tree Project for Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane,Australia. Courtesy of the artist and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia, 2008-present.

Reaching the innermost depths of oneself is the core of Lee Mingwei’s conceptual projects. He facilitates the exploration of our « I » by placing us in a conversational environment with other human beings. Situations do not have to be fixed in advance. They develop slowly around a very simple action that forces us to reflect on the « we » that we are establishing if we take the time and if we make the effort. From the time Lee Mingwei graduated from Yale University, he kept a very personal relationship with one gallery based in New York’s Chelsea district. The Lombard-Freid Projects understands the artist’s commitment to museums, institutions, biennales and triennials around the world.

The Mending Project at Lombard Freid Projects, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Rudy Tseng, 2009-present

The Mending Project, 2009, is also based on a simple idea that developed in the gallery as a performance. The installation was minimalist: 450 bobbins of thread, neatly placed on two panels, a table, two chairs and a small sewing kit. People were invited to come to the gallery and bring something to repair. The conversation started when people chose the color of the thread, sat down and looked at the mending process. « I celebrate the rip, » says Lee Mingwei. « I try not to hide it. Then, when it is repaired, the thread is still attached to the garment. A pile is building up and there are more threads pulling from the wall. It is like a lot of my projects: it is cumulative. » The process started when the show opened, not the other way around as usually happens in a commercial gallery. The project here takes its full social dimension as the conversation between the artist and the participant takes place while the artist repairs the garment. In the end, it is about the objective of work. How do we integrate our actions into our lives, how do we share this with others. Ultimately, Lee Mingwei creates a place to go, to develop an intimate story, which he then entrusts to us so we can explore it and share it with others.

The Moving Garden by Lee Mingwei, Biennale de Lyon, 2009,
photo © Michèle Vicat

For more information about Lee Mingwei and to see more of his work, visit his website at http://www.leemingwei.com

Upcoming events:
Trilogy of Sounds, Mount Stuart, Scotland, UK (Solo project, May to September 2010)
The Travelers, Museum of Chinese in America, New York (Solo project, September 2010 to 2011)
Playing in the City II, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Germany (Group show, September 2010)
Re-Thinking Trade, Liverpool Biennale 2010, UK (Group show, September 2010 to January 2011)

All material copyright 2010 by 3DotsWater