Herb Tam and Jane DeBevoise in conversation with Lee Mingwei, on the occasion of Lee Mingwei’s exhibition ‘The Travelers’ at the Museum of Chinese in America (October 20 2011 – March 26 2012).
Herb Tam (HT): Thank you all for coming. My name is Herb Tam, the Curator and Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America. The event tonight is co-presented with Asia Art Archive. Jane DeBevoise, the Chair of AAA, will be moderating the talk tonight. Afterwards, we will move upstairs and I will introduce two projects in Mingwei’s exhibition. Please welcome Jane DeBevoise.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you Herb. I am delighted to have the opportunity tonight to introduce Lee Mingwei. I encountered Mingwei’s work about fifteen years ago at the Whitney Museum, and was struck by it for two reasons: one, because in those days, and maybe still, one does not find many works by artists of Chinese and especially Taiwanese descent in mainstream American museums. But most importantly, I was intrigued by his work, because it was quite unlike anything I had seen before. It was called Way Stations and made up of two parts. One part was the Letter Writing Project, in which the artist encouraged or invited the audience to write letters to people they wish they had written to but hadn’t. At the same time, he suggested people think about certain ideas such as forgiveness, charity, gratitude, etc. I think I might even have written a letter. Mingwei’s work has been shown all over the world in venues such as the MoMA and the Venice Biennale. I saw The Male Pregnancy Project at the MoCA Taipei. I don’t know whether he will talk about this work, but it was certainly quite unusual! Mingwei’s work is very varied. As you will see tonight, it’s not defined by any one medium or formal language. He graduated from California College of Art in textile, but he doesn’t make textiles or work with fabric, except from time to time. He also graduated from Yale University in sculpture, but he doesn’t really do sculpture. In fact, he doesn’t really make artwork, per se. Mingwei’s work is about projects, and the materials that connect his projects are people and time. Mingwei engages people, people engage his projects, and his projects develop over time. Mingwei, we are all looking forward to hearing more about your projects. Please join me in welcoming Lee Mingwei.
Lee Mingwei (LM): My mum told me not to talk about my pregnancy publicly. [Laughter] What I am going to do in the next 40 minutes is to talk about seven projects I’ve done through the past years.
The first project is called Money for Art. As you can see, it’s a ten-dollar bill. What I did was that I went to a café in San Francisco, took out ten ten-dollar bills, and started making sculptures out of each of them. People were quite interested in what I was going to do with the money. So I said to them, ‘You can have this piece of artwork. However, I need your phone number so that I can call you back every six months.’
One person said she was very hungry at that time, so having a piece of artwork didn’t mean anything to her. Therefore she used the ten dollars to buy some bananas. The most interesting person was the homeless man John. At that time, I was a little bit hesitant to involve a homeless person with a project that dealt with money. However my professor said I should just accept whoever would like to participate, which I did. So, I gave John one piece. Now, whenever I go back to San Francisco, I visit him and give him another, and every time, he takes them out of his wallet and says, ‘Look, I still have the artwork.’ Now he has about twelve of them in his wallet. He is actually quite happy that someone involved him in a project that deals with money, and he is very proud that he didn’t spend any of them. This project is not so much about what you should do, but what happens at that moment when one thing transforms into another.
The second project is called Through Masters’ Eyes, and it was commissioned by the LA County Museum of Art. In 2004, a curator of contemporary art contacted me, and said, ‘We are having a very heated discussion of what art should and could be. So we decided to look into contemporary art from the perspective of a classical work and see whether an artist can come up with a project that could be understood from both sides.’ When I went to the museum, I was struck by a particular small painting in their collection by the late Ming dynasty painter Shi Tao. It’s one of eight images in an album. What I did was I used this particular painting to talk about the idea of imitation and copying as both a Western and an Eastern idea. In the Eastern practice, an artist will usually copy from his teacher for many, many years. Only when you are good enough, can you start copying from the great masters. This stage will also last many years, and then if you are still alive, you can finally embark on your own work. So what I did was I invited six artists from America and six artists from Taiwan to copy the work of the previous person. I will show you the evolution of this particular project.
This work is by Arnold Chang, who copied Shi Tao. He kept the spirit, but transformed the painting quite a bit.
The next person copied from Arnold. It’s a Mexican-American artist, Sergio Teran, and it’s already quite different.
The next is by Cristian Alexa.
And then the next is by Shahzia Sikander from Pakistan.
They are all very different, but they all come from the previous painting. So let’s now go back to Shi Tao, and I will show you what the Taiwanese artists did.
The next person Victoria Lu copied from this one. Very similar, right?
At the museum, I designed a kiosk to house facsimiles of all the original copies. On the left side, we have the original Shi Tao. On the other side, on the top row are the Taiwanese, and on the bottom are the Western artists.
I also created this presentation so people can understand how it is to read a Chinese-style album, which is the format in which the original Shi Tao painting appears.
The third project I will share with you is called The Sleeping Project. The rules of the game are very simple. I selected one person to come and share with me an evening in the museum after the museum closed for the day. Nobody can see what happens between this person and myself. The inspiration for this project came from a trip I took when I graduated from high school. I traveled from Paris to Prague on a night train, where I met this very old lady who told these stories about how she survived living in a concentration camp when she was very young. I was so struck by her stories that I couldn’t sleep. I thought about these precious moments between strangers, especially when these intimate moments are shared in the darkness of the night.
This young lady was selected, but her friends were very scared about her sharing a night with some crazy artist, so they all accompanied her and said they wanted to stay. [Laughter]
I always ask my sleeping partners to bring something to leave on the nightstand. So it’s a progressive project. The first night there is only one nightstand with personal stuff, the second night you have two, the third night you have three.
This lady was very interesting. She came around eleven o’clock at night, and called me downstairs and said, ‘Let me take you somewhere to show you how I live my life at night.’ Apparently in the morning she works as a gallery director, but at night, she is an escort. She took me to where she met her clients. She didn’t come back until around five o’clock in the morning. What she left with me was very telling because in the bag there were the usual contraceptives, but she also had a little knife, which says a lot about the life she leads, which could be quite dangerous. I didn’t ask people to leave their names. One gentleman left me three books of his dreams of the past fifteen years. For me, The Sleeping Project was very challenging because although physically I was asleep for much of the time, psychologically I knew I was doing a project. Therefore, I didn’t sleep very well for the whole five weeks. The first night was the most difficult evening for me, because my parents and gallerists kept telling me things like, ‘You are going to be stabbed by some stranger. Make sure you have your cell phone to call the police.’ That really made me worry. After the second night, I sobbed all the way from the gallery to my apartment in Park Slope on the D train. That’s how emotional it was. However, fairly quickly I realized the only way I could carry on for the next five weeks was to be as vulnerable as a baby, because when someone sees a baby, one’s intuition is to protect the child, but when someone sees an armed soldier, I think the tendency is to poke this person as hard as one can. So I said, ‘Okay, I am going to leave myself completely open and see what happens.’ That literally saved me for the next five weeks.
Next, I was invited to be part of the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The Taiwan Pavilion was located in a 17th-century palace, the Palazzo delle Prigioni that was once a prison. I redesigned the furniture for this project based on ’ta’ (榻) furniture from the Song Dynasty so that the setting didn’t look like an IKEA showroom in a palace.
The Sleeping Project still remains the most challenging project I’ve ever done.
The next project was initiated by an invitation from the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco for one of their fundraisers. You probably can tell by now that most of my projects are not financially viable, therefore it was intriguing when I was asked to do a project to raise money. What I did was I went into their collection and discovered an amazing collection of spice boxes.
This is one of them. Then I started thinking about my own idea of spice boxes, which was more about the spice of life, bitterness, sweetness, or sorrowful moments of my life. What I did then was to create a kite for the eventual collector who would bid for this project. This collector would be asked to write his or her bitter or sweet memories onto the kite, and then when the kite was covered with memories, he or she was supposed to fly the kite as far and as high as possible, and then cut the string. With that idea, I looked into the Chinese myth of Nü Wa (女娲), which many of you probably already know.
In this myth, Nü Wa’s husband Gong Gong (共工) fights with another god, Zhu Rong (祝融), during which they rip a huge hole in the sky. Nü Wa then collects five-colored stones to weave a big fabric to patch the sky. However, a big hole still remained, so the only thing she could do was to draw herself against the sky to save her children.
With this story in mind, I went back to Taiwan and worked with a master kite maker. We used some of the finest silk and bamboo grown in Taiwan to create this kite. He actually created two of them—one for me to practice how to fly it so I don’t destroy it, and one for the fundraiser.
Here I am trying to fly the kite. The project was successfully bid by a collector in San Francisco. I don’t know who this person was and whether he has done what he was supposed to do—one day fly the kite and let it loose. This is up to him. At some point we all must let everything go.
The next project would bring me back to New York. It’s called The Mending Project. Again, the rules of the game are quite simple. For this project, I sit at a table and a chair, and anybody can bring me something—clothing—to mend. Somebody once brought me a heart, but I said I didn’t know how to mend that.
Again, this is a progressive project. When the show opened, there was nothing on the table, and on the walls were cones full of thread. When people came, I started from this side of the wall, gradually working across the wall, to use the thread to repair the clothes.
The way I repaired the clothes was quite different from what most of the menders would do. For example, see the big nest of thread. That’s how I repaired them.
This shows that I am actually not a very good mender. But this type of mending celebrates the fact that this piece of cloth was kept, although it was torn, and that it meant something to the owner. For the person to bring it back to me to repair says a lot about his relationship with this piece of cloth.
Usually I asked the visitors to sit in front of me while I did the mending. It took about 10 minutes, but some took longer. At the end I would ask them to please leave the clothing with me, which they could take back at the end of the exhibition.
This is an interesting image for me, because the young lady at the far left came and brought me something. The next day she brought her mother to give me something to mend. The next week she brought her grandmother. So this image shows three generations of women watching me mend the things that they brought.
This is the last day of the exhibition. When the visitors returned to retrieve their clothes, I cut the thread gradually and everything started to unravel.
This is about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Not many clothes were left.
And this is about 6 o’clock. It looks just like when the show began, except that now there were hundreds of threads covering the whole floor, and about four hundred twenty mended pieces of clothing floating around New York somewhere. I am doing this project for the Sydney Biennale in late June. If you have anything for me to mend, please come to Sydney.
The next is called the Bodhi Tree Project, which was commissioned on the occasion of the inauguration of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia. Before they opened the gallery, the curator and the director asked me if I could do a public art project for the grounds of the gallery. As an artist who does ephemeral projects, it was a huge challenge for me to think about creating something permanent. So I talked to Suhanya Raffel and David Burnett, the curators, about this idea. As many of you know, the original Bodhi tree was located in Northern India and it was under it that the Buddha was sitting when he achieved enlightenment. According to one legend, around 300 B.C. there was a campaign to eradicate Buddhism and that included destroying the Bodhi tree. However, when the daughter of King Ashoka heard of this plan, the night before the soldiers came into the palace, she went to the courtyard and took a branch from the original tree, hid it in her hair, and escaped to Ceylon.
This is a painting depicting the epic journey from India to Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka.
This image is of the descendant of the cutting that Princess Sanghamitta brought to Sri Lanka two thousand years ago and planted at the garden of Anuradhapura.
Imagining that this tree has witnessed the great teacher’s moment of enlightenment is very moving. My project was to come to Sri Lanka to take a sapling from this tree and plant it at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. The tree would be both a public art project and a sacred object. However, this project turned out to be a very difficult task because people can’t just go in and take a sapling from the sacred tree. It’s a national treasure, and anything to do with this tree involves the government, the high priest and many others. It took us four years to finally convince the high priest that ours was a genuine, sincere act. What finally convinced him was that I explained that for us, contemporary people, we go to museums to get that little piece of enlightenment, that experience of enlightenment, almost the way people go to church or temple. He finally said, ‘Now I understand. Please come a year from now, and I will prepare everything for you.’
This photograph, which was taken by the high priest, shows villagers sitting around the mother tree all day and all night, chanting to it about the departure of the sapling. The people assembled because they had heard what was happening, and the last time something like this had happened was when Princess Ashoka took a branch from the original mother tree more than two thousand years ago.
I always call the sapling ‘she,’ I don’t know why. So here ‘she’ is!
The high priest preparing for the sapling’s eventual departure.
Before the priest began chanting in Pali, he spoke in English, because I think he wanted me to understand. As he handed me the tree, he told the tree, ‘You are going to venture to a beautiful, exotic land called Australia that no Holy Bodhi Tree has ever ventured to before. Your job is to be as beautiful, as tall, as strong as you can be, so that you can provide shade and shadow, and protect the children and animals there.’ When I took this living being into my hands, I was literally shaking, not because it was very heavy, but emotionally and historically, it was a very heavy responsibility to bear.
This is the Buddhist scholar who advised us for the three years of our journey, which allowed us to get to this point. We took the sampling and walked around the mother tree three times to say goodbye.
Because the sapling is an exotic life form, we couldn’t bring it on the airplane. We actually had it delivered via DHL. ‘She’ then had to stay at the customs quarantine area for six months. [Australia’s import rules are very strict.] However, it just so happened that the customs officer who was taking care of all the exotic plants, including this one, was from Sri Lanka, and her home was only a mile away from the sacred site. She was deeply honored to have the opportunity to look after this plant, and told me that it must have been all the karma from all the generations and reincarnations that she accumulated that made her able to take care of this sacred being.
In 2009, I went back to the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art and worked with the local Taiwanese Buddhist monk Fo Guang Shan to plant this tree. The Buddhist monk comes every year and chants to the tree on Buddha’s birthday for 24 hours. I went back last year, and there ‘she’ is pretty big now.
A few days ago, the curator Suhanya sent me a tree health report. They actually hire a doctor every six months to check her health. She’s 30-feet tall now. Amazing. If you are ever in Queensland, please go visit her.
The last project I will share with you is called Guernica in Sand, also at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. Guernica [by Picasso] is the very first Western painting that made an impact on me. My parents sent me from Taiwan to Santa Domingo before I turned fourteen. On the way to Santa Domingo, they took me to the MoMA. It was right before Guernica went back to Spain. I was struck by not only the size, but also the content. I hadn’t realized that an artwork could be so politically charged or inspired by a political incident. So for this project, I created an interactive installation and also a performative space, which had three phases. Phase one is the process of making the sand painting. We used about 15 tons of sand and took 800 hours (approximately five weeks?) to recreate this painting by Picasso, which ended up being 45 feet x 27 feet in size. As you can see, there is a part that’s unfinished on the upper left side, and you will see why.
The second phase of the project began on a Monday morning at sunrise of the eighth week. I walked down the sand painting to finish the last block of the painting. At the same time, one person from the audience started walking onto the sand painting. One person only was walking on it while I tried to finish the painting. Of course by walking, you start to make marks and transform the piece. After the first person finished walking, the second came onto the painting, and then another and another. Hundreds of people watched this interaction.
This was taken around four o’clock in the afternoon. The artificial rock in the middle was for people to stand on, rest and think about what’s happening. Before sunset I asked the last person to stop walking on it. In total there were 45 people who walked on this sand painting.
At sunset, the other assistants and I started brushing the sand painting to the center. This is the result, after twelve hours of transformation, and this begins the third phase of the project. We also prepared a descriptive text so that people could have an idea of how this new painting came about.
This is at sunset. After twelve hours, this is what the painting looked like.
That’s all I would like to share with you tonight. Thank you so much.
All images courtesy of Lee Mingwei.
Born 1964 in Taiwan, lives and works in New York City and Berkeley, California
1997 Yale University, Graduate School of Fine Arts. MFA in Sculpture
1993 California College of Arts, Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honors in Textile Art
Lee Mingwei creates both participatory installations, where strangers can explore issues of trust, intimacy, and self-awareness on their own, and one-on-one events, where visitors explore these issues with the artist himself through eating, sleeping, walking and conversation. Lee’s projects are often open-ended scenarios for everyday interaction, and take on different forms depending on the participants. Time is central to this process, as Lee’s installations often change during the course of an exhibition. He has had solo exhibitions internationally including Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Fabric Workshop and Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and has been featured in biennials in Venice, Lyon, Liverpool, Taipei, Sydney, Whitney, and at Echigo-Tsumari, Asia Pacific Triennials.
Transcribed by Xiaofei Mo and revised by Stephanie Hsu