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
100 Days with Lily, courtesy of the artist and Lombard Freid
Projects, New York, 1995
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
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.
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 at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan.
Courtesy of the artist and Lombard Freid Projects, New
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,
Courtesy of the artist and Lomnbard Freid Projects, New
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
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
of sand as the primary material recalls the sand mandalas created
by Tibetan Buddhist monks. Mandalas are
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
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
in phases. The composition was left untouched for weeks
so people could come, see it and absorb it in this undisturbed
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
time while he, the artist, simultaneously finished 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
visitors to take a step back, and to physically see and
emotionally live the process of destruction and creation.
the artist invited 3 visitors to brush the sand with him
the middle of the disturbed composition. That would be
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
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.
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.
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.
proposed going to Sri Lanka to bring back a branch of
the Sri Maha Bodhi, or the tree of enlightenment. Two thousand
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
about tastelessness like water. And that really affects
It is something visceral about being a human being. It
is about the mundane essence and the simplicity of being
Tree Project for Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane,Australia.
Courtesy of the artist and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art,
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.
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
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
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
as usually happens
in a commercial gallery. The project here takes its
full social dimension as the conversation between
and the participant
takes place while the artist repairs the garment.
In the end, it is about the objective of work. How
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