“The Art of Participation” is the largest retrospective of Lee Mingwei’s practice presented in the Southern Hemisphere to date.
The exhibition presents several of Lee Mingwei’s key participatory installations. Art Radar takes a closer look at some of the significant themes in the Taiwanese artist’s practice.
From 5 November 2016 to 19 March 2017 Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki hosts the exhibition “Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Art of Participation”, the first large-scale retrospective survey of the artist’s practice to be presented in Auckland.
The works in the exhibition involve a number of ways of participating, including sleeping, mending, letter writing and receiving the gift of song, which occur before, during and after the show. In addition to the projects developed by Lee Mingwei, there are also a number of works on display from the Gallery collection that reflect themes in Lee’s work as well as providing cultural context for his practice. These pieces include work from Hakuin, John Cage, Allan Kaprow, Yves Klein and Lee Ufan alongside William Blake, Colin McCahon and Dane Mitchell.
The everyday details in life
Lee Mingwei (b. 1964) is a New York and Paris-based Taiwanese-American artist who is well known for connecting audiences through social and one-to-one experiences, fostering unexpected communication between strangers that take participants on a path leading to deeper reflection. By exploring the mundane and everyday, Lee reflects on people’s place in the world around them. The themes of trust, intimacy and self-awareness are very important in these interactive installations.
This focus on the everyday details in life could be in part influenced by his early years, where, from the age of five, his parents sent him to a monastery in Taiwan for a month every summer. For six years Lee experienced this time of a simple life – waking up early, cleaning the temple and meditating. Here he learnt about silence and about paying attention.
This early experience is threaded through his creative practice. In an interview with EyeContact, Lee explains that “there is something about simplicity, or simple gestures, though loaded with complex memory, sensation, and ritual, that is present throughout my practice.”
In his early training as an undergraduate at the California College of the Arts, Lee studied under iconic social practitioner Suzanne Lacey. Lacey was also a well known student of Allan Kaprow, who in turn learnt from John Cage. This artistic lineage is present in “Lee Mingwei and His Relations”.
Lee received an MFA from Yale University in 1997 and has held many solo exhibitions internationally including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Queensland Gallery of Modern Art and Mori Art Museum. Lee’s works have been featured in biennales in Venice, Lyon, Liverpool, Taipei and Sydney, as well as the Echigo-Tsumari and Asia-Pacific Triennial.
An open-ended participatory practice
Much of Lee’s work encourages the gallery visitor to move from passive spectator to active participant. Gallery Director Rhana Devenport explains how Lee engages with gallery visitors:
Lee’s projects are often open-ended scenarios for everyday interaction. The works therefore have an unpredictable quality that allows them to grow and change throughout the duration of the exhibition, relating to the Buddhist notion of the ever-changing present.
In The Letter Writing Project (1998 – present) for example, visitors are invited to write a letter in one of three illuminated booths. The public is encouraged to offer previously unexpressed gratitude, forgiveness or apology, which they can either seal and send or leave open for future visitors of the gallery to read.
Lee explains that this project came out of the time when his grandmother passed away and he still felt that he had many things he wanted to say to her although it was too late. He then began to write letters to her as if she was still there over the following year. Lee invites visitors to also go through this process of writing out unspoken thoughts and feelings.
Lee explained that when visitors left their letters in the gallery space for others to read, it created a cycle of emotions that we all share:
Many later visitors come to realise, through reading the letters of others that they too carried unexpressed feelings that they would feel relieved to write down and perhaps share. In this way, a chain of feeling was created, reminding visitors of the larger world of emotions in which we all participate. In the end, it was the spirit of the writer that was comforted, whether the letter was ever read by the intended recipient or others.
Another participatory project in this exhibition is Sonic Blossom (2013 – present), where visitors can be gifted with a song. If the visitor accepts, the singer then performs a Lied (art song) by Schubert. This work was developed when Lee was caring for his mother while she recovered from an operation. They found unexpected comfort in Franz Schubert’s Lieder, which helped the healing. This experience confronted Lee with both the brevity and beauty of life, reminding him of the mortality of us all. In the exhibition he wanted to gift visitors with a similar experience.
The Sleeping Project (2000 – present), where visitors enter a ballot to spend the night in Auckland Art Gallery with Lee or a Gallery representative and The Mending Project (2009 – present), where visitors bring damaged clothes that Lee mends as they watch, both explore the everyday through individual interactions.
In each case the participants leave personal items behind, the objects they sleep with such as a clock or a photo or the mended item, which they collect at the end of the exhibition. These personal objects give clues to gallery visitors about the interactions between Lee and the anonymous participants that explore questions of intimacy and trust. This contribution from a range of participants leads to an evolving experience of the artwork. As Devenport observes,
Because of the role played by the visitor, the artworks have an unpredictable quality that causes them to grow and change throughout the duration of the exhibition.
Life cycles and loss
Lee’s work often explores the fragility of life and the idea of impermanence. Lee developed 100 Days with Lily (1995) in response to the grief of his grandmother’s death. For 100 days he actively chose to live with his grief, planting a lily bulb on the first day and following it through the cycle of germination, sprouting, blossoming, fading and death.
The lily, although it died on the 79th day, accompanied Lee in his daily routines of sleeping, gardening, bicycling, shopping, cooking and reading. Through this process he contemplated his own and his grandmother’s mortality. The final product is text from randomly chosen moments in each day overlaid onto five of the photographs of the lily’s life. The poetic contemplation confronts the grief that he was feeling, instead of putting it aside and trying to move on. Lee directed his attention to the emotion as he lived with it throughout his daily routines.
Another work that investigates the idea of value and loss is Stone Journey. While visiting New Zealand’s South Island Lee encountered the Pororari River Valley, which was formed from glacial movement 70 million years ago. From that place he took eleven stones that he found soothing, which he replicated in bronze when he returned to Taipei. However, by displacing the stones from their natural environment he was changing their form and circumstances.
The work asks what it means to own something, why do we feel the need to possess. By making replicas, the piece also questions notions of value: is it the natural or the manmade ones that carry more worth? At the heart of this work are the themes of ownership, control, value and loss. Like the death of and grief for his grandmother, much in life is out of human control.
- Taiwanese artist Wu Tien-chang at festival of new media art MADATAC 08, Madrid – January 2017 – Art Radar takes a look at some of they key themes in Taiwanese artist Wu Tien-chang’s work, on show at Spain’s contemporary festival of new media arts MADATAC 08
- Lee Mingwei explores impermanence through ‘Guernica in Sand’ – video – June 2016 – Lee Mingwei’s most elaborate and largest sand drawing titled Guernica in Sand (2006/2016), opened at Carriageworks at the 20th Biennale of Sydney on 23 April 2016
- 5 Taiwanese artists going global – August 2015 – Art Radar charts the multimedia practices of five Taiwanese artists: Kuo-chun Chiu, Ya-chu Kang, Kuei-chih (Chris) Lee, Liping Ting and Chin Chih Yang
- Serenading visitors at Lee Mingwei’s first Beijing solo show – in pictures – May 2014 – Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) presents a solo show by Taiwan-born artist Lee Mingwei
- “It’s my most complex work yet”: conceptual artist Lee Mingwei on his installation “Luminous Depths” – interview – October 2013 – Taiwan’s Lee Mingwei explains why Luminous Depths is the most complicated and representative work of his career to date
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