“It’s my most complex work yet”: Conceptual artist Lee Mingwei on his installation “Luminous Depths” – interview

Taiwan’s Lee Mingwei explains why Luminous Depths is the most complicated and representative work of his career to date.

Typically presenting exhibitions of a historical nature, Singapore’s Peranakan Museum has recently stepped out of its comfort zone by hosting its first contemporary art installation – a site-specific work commissioned from Taiwan-born artist Lee Mingwei. Like much of Lee’s work, Luminous Depths required the kind of audience participation that left some viewers lost for words.

Lee Mingwei, Luminous Depths, 2013, mixed media interactive installation, dimensions variable, installation at the Peranakan Museum, Singapore. Photo: Lee Studio

Lee Mingwei, ‘Luminous Depths’, 2013, mixed media interactive installation, dimensions variable. Installation at the Peranakan Museum, Singapore. Photo: Lee Studio.

Visitors to Singapore’s Peranakan Museum are normally seeking to learn about the visual cultures and traditions of the Perankan communities of Southeast Asia. But between 21 June and 22 September 2013, museum-goers were greeted by the sight of Lee Mingwei’s Luminous Depths, a striking three-storey, rope-bound chute extending from the museum’s uppermost gallery to the lobby below. Visitors were invited to purchase ceramic objects for five dollars apiece and toss them down the chute from a third-floor platform. The ceramic shards will be placed in the foundation of a new museum building, and the funds generated from the installation will go towards the purchase of a new piece for the museum collection.

In conversation with Art Daily, Asian Civilisations Museum Director Dr Alan Chong says of the work:

Contemporary artists help us look at the past by raising questions and challenging our assumptions. Lee Mingwei is interested in memory and how we preserve history. Luminous Depths deals subtly with issues of collecting, archaeology, and the role of the museum. Mingwei invites visitors to participate in the creation of a new work of art, as they create their own experience. In the end, visitors will also contribute to the future of the museum in an unusual way.

When Art Radar asked Lee to pick a piece of his work that he found most representative of his career and artistic practice to date, he chose Luminous Depths. The highly participatory approach of his Peranakan Museum installation is not new for the artist, whose projects frequently include viewers as active creators of the very work they are experiencing, often through mundane, everyday activities such as eating or sleeping. This installation, however, is one he identifies as his most complex and thought-provoking yet.

Why did you choose Luminous Depths as representative of your work, and what does the piece mean to you?

The reason why I picked this piece [is] a very obvious reason: this is my newest piece. It was commissioned by the Peranakan Museum in Singapore. Although it was a commission, it didn’t mean that they told me what to do – in fact it was the very opposite. The museum director – his name is Alan Chong – he said: “Mingwei, come and look at this site and see if you can come up with something that is meaningful for you, for the community and for the museum.” So I went back about three times to look at the museum. It’s a highly specific ethnographic type of a museum, which I’ve never ever done a project for, because most of my projects are for modern art museums or contemporary art museums.

The museum collection is very interesting because whatever is in there was donated by several very wealthy Peranakan families in Singapore for the museum, and that was highly contested by other Peranakans, because the others were saying “wait wait wait this is not what we are familiar with – this type of aesthetic and collection or chinaware that you’re showing here. It’s not Peranakan for us.” And of course when you look in depth it’s actually more of a disagreement between the wealthy and the poor, because the poor never had this kind of embroidered clothing or this beautiful, beautiful china made from mainland China. So with that kind of highly challenged collection, I thought, “Oh my God, that would be a Pandora’s box that I probably don’t want to open.”

But when I walked into the museum, I was so struck by the light well that is the architectural centre of this museum. It reminded me very much of my maternal grandmother’s home in Puli, which is near Taizhong. My grandmother [was] the first Taiwanese woman to study western medicine and have her own clinic. She opened her clinic in the building she lived in. I remember visiting her when I was very young, hearing her conversation with her patients while the raindrops and the wind were coming down from the skylight. She had a chicken coop up on the fourth floor, so I also heard the chicken and the rooster making all this sound. So this cascading of sound and light and object – I was just so mesmerised by the symphonic element of these things. And it was the same thing when I went into the Peranakan Museum, because they had music coming from the second floor gallery and also people talking, the light coming from the skylight. So I thought I wanted to do something about this, and use this as a departure for this project called Luminous Depths.

Lee Mingwei, Luminous Depths, 2013, mixed media interactive installation, dimensions variable, installation at the Peranakan Museum, Singapore. Photo: Lee Studio

Lee Mingwei, Luminous Depths, 2013, mixed media interactive installation, dimensions variable, installation at the Peranakan Museum, Singapore. Photo: Lee Studio.

Art as theatre

Do you find this piece a departure from things you have done before or is it a continuation of themes you have explored in the past? What sets it apart? You have said it is the most complex work you have ever done.

I definitely think it’s the most complex, because for me it’s more like a theatrical play on a stage. When you walk into the museum you see the ceramics on a low table with the light-catcher type of installation behind. So that’s really the beginning; it’s almost like the first chapter of the play. And once you’ve decided to pick up one of these ceramic pieces and walk around the gallery with it, that’s really the middle part of the play. And once you get up there and hear music, one of the lieders by Schubert called “Night and Dream”, and stand on the platform and toss this thing down, that becomes the climax of what I think of as a theatrical play. So it has its own rhythm, and also its own cadenza, the conclusion or finale of the piece.

I think it’s complex not just because of the structural components, but also these different elements within it: the element of theatricality that I just explained [and] two other components. One is that we are using the collected money to purchase one single Peranakan artwork that all the Peranakan community agrees is Peranakan. So that is complex. Once the show closes we need to have meetings with the head of the clan and the curators to start the discussion. The other part of it is that we’re going to bury the shards of these pots in the foundation of the new building that the Peranakan Museum is building. So that becomes a part of the memory of the new museum.

So with all these kind of flexible and organic processes going on, that’s why I felt it’s fairly complex and it’s a very clear departure from what I’ve done before, because what I’ve done before was pretty straightforward and pretty transparent, but in this one there are so many unknowns and that’s why I found it quite exciting.

How have those unknowns played out now that the piece is live? What has surprised you about your audience’s reaction?

As you can imagine, if you throw something from the third floor, let alone when it’s in a museum, the safety has to be 100 percent. But when I tossed [ceramics] the first, second and third time, two of these pieces shattered in such a way that these little shards flew out of the netting into the corridor, and we thought “shit, this is not good, and the show opening’s in twelve hours! OK, let’s put our brains together and see what we can do.” And we pretty quickly came up with a good solution that made it 100 percent safe. So that was one unknown.

The other unknown was how the meeting was going to proceed when we gathered all these different voices together to discuss what Peranakan is, and then to find that one particular Peranakan object, that’s another task that is really unknown. I will let the curator of the museum lead that expedition to find this one single object and then purchase it and bring it into the museum.

The Luminous Depths of Lee Mingwei’s memories

Memory seems to come up a lot in your work. How has the way you treat memories in your works changed across your career? As you have grown older and matured as a person and as an artist?

For me memory is really an organic process. And it changes, because my current memory of my childhood is so different from my memory of my childhood when I was twenty or thirty or forty. With Luminous Depths, it started with my own memory of my grandmother’s space and the participants who toss the ceramics down the light well – they don’t have the same memory as I do, since memory is such an individual thing. This project here, although it started with the idea of a memory, [it’s] unlike Fabric of Memory: that is really, really about memory of objects and things that were made for you by someone who was close to you. This project here has less of that compared to the others.

Luminous Depths is a contemporary work, but it is looking towards the past, and towards this idea of collecting and preservation through destruction. What do you think about the role of contemporary art in this sort of context, in this sort of setting, asking these sorts of questions? Does contemporary art have an obligation to deal with these sorts of things?

I think that’s a very good question. I think that the most distinct quality of contemporary art is that it often brings out more questions than answers when you leave the museum. Pandora’s box was opened by Duchamp when he presented the urinal in 1933; that really opened up a completely different ocean in terms of art. That’s a great divider of contemporary versus classical artwork. So when people come in to see not only my work, a lot of my contemporary collages, they’ll often say, “what is this about?” And hopefully the piece is engaging enough that you want to go in and explore it, maybe starting from what the artist wants to say. Hopefully that will guide you towards yourself and looking into yourself saying, “and what do I get out of this? And how do I relate to what this artist has put in front of me?” So hopefully that is the function of contemporary art, or at least, the function of my work. I truly hope people walk away with a lot of confusion and a lot of questions for them to think about.

How do you think this piece in particular pushes the boundaries of that conversation started by Duchamp in new ways?

I spent about three days observing people when the show opened. It was very interesting for me to see a lady who purchased one of the ceramics. She was very careful. She held it and walked around the gallery, went up to the second floor and then the third floor. And then once she stood on the platform ready to toss, she couldn’t do it. She was standing there for the longest time. She came back down and sat down – there are two benches there for people to take their shoes off – and sat there for a very long time, and then got the courage to go up to the platform again, and then she still couldn’t do it. When she came back down a second time, I went up to her and said, “I was observing you and I’m the creator of this work. Can you tell me what is going on in your mind?” She was being very kind and she said, “At first when I picked this up I just thought it’s so beautiful, and of course I can do this, I’ll have no problem giving up this thing.” But she realised very quickly when she got up there that it was she who created the entropy for this object to be destroyed. It really was her responsibility to see this thing transformed into something else. She started thinking about, is it destruction, is it creation? That really became such a big thing in her mind that she couldn’t take the responsibility to transform this object. I didn’t want to press her more, because I think that she needed to process those things by herself, and I don’t know if she threw it down the light well in the end or kept it. But I’m sure that has a tremendous, tremendous impact on her thinking, going through that process.

A lot of your works are very participatory – a lot of the time they depend entirely on people’s reactions, on what people bring to the piece rather than something that comes completely from you. Why are you interested in participatory works and how do you think the participation required of the audience in Luminous Depths is similar to or different from other kinds of audience participation you have solicited in the past?

To be very honest, I don’t think I’m the most creative person in the world. I need people to help me create my works. When I was at California College of the Arts in San Francisco as an undergraduate, I failed all my basic art classes, like colour and drawing. I just couldn’t do those things! I was so frustrated. But I really liked the idea of being in a field that has absolutely no right or wrong, and I was quite baffled by why they’d fail me in my art class when there’s no right or wrong.

Very luckily I met one of my mentors, Suzanne Lacy, who was a pioneer of this type of work. I was so taken with what she’d done. She introduced me to all different kinds of readings by contemporaries of hers, [like] Allan Kaprow and Joseph Kosuth. I got so excited thinking, wow! Even walking on the beach with such concentrated consciousness could be an artwork. So I started studying and reading about performance and conceptual art, starting all the way with Duchamp. And that’s how I came to do what I do now. So there is a lot of historical background for this kind of work. It’s not new at all. With Luminous Depths participation is very important, because it is the people who purchase these artworks, who transform them.

Lee Mingwei, Luminous Depths, 2013, mixed media interactive installation, dimensions variable, installation at the Peranakan Museum, Singapore. Photo: Lee Studio

Lee Mingwei, Luminous Depths, 2013, mixed media interactive installation, dimensions variable, installation at the Peranakan Museum, Singapore. Photo: Lee Studio.

A most commercially unfriendly artist

This is reminiscent of your piece Money for Art. People pay USD5 for this ceramic thing, but they are also paying for the right to participate and paying to own a piece of the work, because they are part of it. They are also sort of buying a future share in the museum and what it will be, whether they know it or not. Was there a conceptual role you wanted money to play? It is also interesting because it is a work that cannot be sold – it is experienced, it cannot be bought.

I just had a meeting with my New York gallery yesterday. I always tell them, I’m the most commercially unfriendly artist you’re ever going to represent. Because you’re right, my work doesn’t sell. Who wants a big fishnet structure in their living room? So it’s really just the concept that people might be interested in, but how can you sell concepts? Maybe that’s one of the major reasons why these are called institutional commissions rather than commercial gallery. Money – it’s a dilemma in my work. It’s sort of the ‘white elephant in the room’ for me when it comes to my artwork. It doesn’t exist, but it really does. So I try to use it in a way that makes it an integral part of my work, and becomes a meaningful and sincere part of the work and not the element that kind of destroys the beauty and the poetry of the work. That’s why there’s this money component to it, and it doesn’t go back to my bank account – it actually goes to the community.

I’m having a survey show with both the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and also the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. When an artist creates an artwork, there is a fee for the budget and also a fee for the honorarium. The budget for my project at MFA is probably USD10,000 to create something. So I’m going to use that USD10,000 to create a project where Bostonian college students adopt a mentor relationship with high school students in Vietnam. So with that money, people can help about fifty high school kids go through about three years of high school. So it’s money that’s not coming out of my own pocket, but we are just giving this gift of mentorship to college kids in Boston who want to be big brothers and big sisters to high school kids in Vietnam. And that’s how money often functions in my work. It’s a way to achieve the project, but [it] also hopefully benefits all the people involved.

Has working on Luminous Depths changed the way you think of your own artistic practice?

I think it definitely has changed me in a lot of different ways, but I can’t really tell you what they are at this moment. Often a lot of my projects, from when I start thinking about them up to the point of giving birth to them, will come back giving me information that I wasn’t expecting. When that happens, I very quickly realise that this artwork has its own life now, and although I was the originator of this work, it really becomes an organic thing. Luminous Depths is already in that form: it’s bigger than who I am or what I am. When I go back to close the show in ten days, I definitely think that I will learn a lot more about what this project was, who I am and what I am.

 Becky Davis

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Related Topics: museum shows, Taiwanese art and artists, ceramics, interviews, installation, memory

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