Lee Mingwei is an artist whose practice dwells in the intimacy of human exchange. Sculpting scenarios through agreed protocols, the artist honours coalescence between foreignness and intimacy. His practice conjures a space of conviviality and reciprocity, it heightens the interactions that take place between people, often within a scaffolding of daily life such as having a conversation while mending (The Mending Project), dreaming in a shared space (The Sleeping Project), or singing a song for someone (Sonic Blossom). The artist then distills these exchanges into considered environments for others to experience. A certain formality of exchange orchestrates enough space for unpredictability and for new and potent insights to occur.
Lee enjoyed six summers as a child as an apprentice to a Ch'an Buddhist monk in the mountains of Taiwan. Here he learned about abstraction, Song Dynasty poetry, generosity, and the power of silence. He also became familiar with the essence of the Ch'an idea, which heightens awareness of what is happening at a particular moment and how this determines one's next step. These experiences were formative to the artist, however the nature of his practice and its purpose evolved carefully through other modes of inquiry as the artist explains:
'I know in my artistic process there are several elements that are quite prominent. One is the psychological component of it and this goes back to my practice of biology. When I was in University in WashingtonI was a biology major, and took extra psychology and anthropology classes. I already had an interest in how people think and feel and relate to each other, and after four years I decided science was a little too accurate for me. I preferred more fluidity. Instead of declaring to my parents my interest in studying art, I said I wanted to do architecture. This was rather a happy accident because the discipline within architecture about spatial rather than graphic concerns and the interactions of people within space is very important for me. There is an architectonic element in all my installations. When I was studying architecture at California College of Art and Craft I was double majoring in textiles because, again, I felt architecture was too precise. I also did not really enjoy the sort of machismo and ego within architecture. Textiles, particularly weaving, gave me a very different sense of structure within two dimensions. The way I look at it, my work is conceptually concerned with the weaving together of people. Instead of the warp and weft, it is human memories, histories and dreams that form the fabric. After I realised I wanted more than the certainty that the textile form could offer, I studied new genre public art, which at the time involved a blurring of art and life, as well as an investigation of human relationships and ideas about daily rituals.' (1)
Lewis Hyde's 1983 book The Gift: How the creative spirit transforms the world was an influence on the artist, as were the wider concerns of new genre public art or what has been described as 'relational aesthetics', trajectories of practice that emerged in the early 1990s. Yet Lee's art is also deeply informed by the daily rituals of living, as he explains:
'I grew up in a household that's very much about gift giving. The wrapping of gifts is a considered process. All my projects are participatory-type projects, and I realised that in a way I'm depending on the generosity of the participants. Gifting is part of the process in both directions.
The openness and honesty that forms the basis of Lee's practice is breathtaking. Vulnerability is a quality of the human condition, yet in today's era of closing borders and the mass movement of some 258 million people across the planet (2), openness amongst people has perhaps never been more acutely needed. Japan is particularly interesting as a space for The Tourist to be presented given the county's demographic homogeneity that means that 98.5% of Japanese citizens possess ancient genealogical connections to place. Simultaneously, 20 million international tourists visit Japan annually; forming a collective imagining about Japan might be.
For The Tourist the 'rules of the game' are simple: individuals agree to participate and volunteer to share their gift of knowledge as they guide the artist on a certain day through the places, spaces and experiences that define their city. The secrets that a city holds are revealed, not through neo-avant-garde articulations such as an unchartered Surrealist flânerie of unearthly encounters, or even The Situationist International movement's notion from mid last century of dérive or drifting through clandestine walks in urban spaces. Rather this is more a guided mediation of the city by individuals who hold a deep and particular connection to place. Lee Mingwei explains that the tour guides are '... the creators of the artwork with me, and they are truly the owners of the artwork.'
The Tourist was commissioned by Rice University Art Gallery, Houstonin 2001; and then presented at Museum of Modern Art, New York 2003; Sherman Galleries, Sydney 2006; and Schirn Kunsthall Frankfurt, 2011, 2008. His solo exhibition Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Art of Participation was first presented at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in 2014 before touring to Taipei and Auckland.
(1) All quotes by the artist are from an interview with the author on 8 and 9 March 2005 for The Tourist at Sherman Galleries, Sydney, Australia in 2005.
(2) 2017 International Migration Report, United Nations https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/migrationreport/docs/MigrationReport2017_Highlights.pdf
Rhana Devenport is Director of Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, she has worked with the artist since 1999.
Press release courtesy Perrotin.
Lee Mingwei is known for his participatory projects, which often engage audiences as collaborators, be it in a personal, one-to-one type of experience or via an open invitation to a general public. These exchanges are documented and then carefully represented in specific environments to create another set of encounters for different viewers around...