Interview with artist Lee Mingwei
About Lee Mingwei
Born in Taiwan and currently living in New York City, 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.
Mr. Lee received an MFA from Yale University in 1997, 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 (2006, 2010), Taipei, Sydney, Whitney, and at Echigo-Tsumari, Asia Pacific Triennials.
Interview of Lee Mingwei
Is it important for students to learn about diverse forms of artist expression around the world?
It is important for me, and hopefully for most of people, to learn about different world views, values and artistic expression. By doing so, I understand myself, and others, better.
The learning process makes me a humbler person.
In your work, “Through Masters’ Eyes” there is a fascinating process you describe of having two copy artists paint the same famous painting.
Art teacher Chyah Weitzman, does a project with her middle school class where students study and translate the painting, “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh.
Chyah’s students express their cultural and personal differences and all the student representations of “Starry Night” tend to look different. Some paint the sky pink and purple and others can be more pastel.
In Art Studio, Chyah often talks about respecting and acknowledging each others’ visions in the creative process. She will speak about the many different interpretations in art when her students see paintings and sculptures in galleries and museums. Chyah encourages each of her students to look at all works of art indiscriminately. Her students are not necessarily expected to like all the art forms, but she believes they have to carefully consider each art form and give it the acknowledgment it deserves.
Because your artists were skilled “Artist copiers,” do you feel their personalities came through in the paintings, or were they trying their best to do just that, copy an original?
The main reason for me to select two groups of artist is because I wanted to focus on the different interpretation of the word “copy” and “imitation” from both Eastern and Western point of view.
In the Far East classical tradition, a young artist starts by copying her teacher’s work for the first few years, and then progress to copying her teacher’s teacher’s work. If she survives these artistic copying practice, then after decades of copying someone’s art work, she can then start doing her own work but never venture too far away from the training.
However, in the West, especially in contemporary art, if one copies another artists’ work as if it is his original work, this would be highly unethical and be considered a crime.
Coincidentally, here is an article from New York Times that touches on the issue:
“Glafira Rosales, a Long Island art dealer, pleaded guilty to fraud on Monday in the sale of counterfeit works for more than $80 million.”
Where do these artist find their own sense of freedom with their work?
Artists find the freedom within themselves. The beauty, and reward, of being an artist is that there is no right or wrong, when it comes to creating your art work. This is why I became an artist: I wanted to be in a field what celebrates the ambiguity and uncertainty.
“Guernica in Sand,” is another fascinating piece. It is so difficult to talk about pain and suffering and how we are to transform our pain into forgiveness.
The sand is impermanent, it blows away. Similar to the Tibetan monks and the American Indians when they make sand paintings, they too are impermanent and blow away.
Through the Pencils for Africa program, the program’s founder Karim (also the Founder and Editor of Salon de Refusés) has talked about children in Africa and the Sudan that have been victimized and how their suffering was represented through drawings that they have done (click here to learn more).
Hopefully, by drawing and bringing a voice to their pain, they were able to release some of the emotional experiences that they must of had, in a way to blow it away like the sand.
Does the making of the sand-paintings create a healing process to forget the past or to forgive?
Guernica in Sand has several stages in its evolution as a completed art work.
The first stage is the making of the sand–painting. This is usually done with help from the local art students. The second stage is when people come to view it when it is in a static state which usually lasts for 7 weeks. The third stage is the walking on the sand-painting while I am finishing the last part of the sand-painting. The fourth, is the static, transformed stage, which lasts 7 weeks.
In general, I think the healing process begins when one is willing to stand in front of an art work and let it speak to her. For most of the audience, the healing process is most intense during the 3rd stage, either walking on the sand painting or watching others doing it. The simultaneous existence and action of the walking person and the person who is finishing the sand-painting electrifies the gallery in such a way that I could hear people sobbing quietly.
Do you feel that being creative is a way to heal and to transform our lives towards forgiveness?
Certainly! When one realizes that she has the power of creating something original and beautiful, the internal transformation begins.
The gift of giving and receiving that you intended from your installation, “The Moving Garden” was wonderful. You mentioned the, “unexpected act of generosity,” that two people who are strangers might benefit from through the simple exchange of a flower.
If you could have chosen a side, to either be the person giving the flower or the person receiving the flower, which one would you be and why?
It is hard for me to decide which one I prefer because both sides have to have the equal amount of opening up in order to experience this project.
Superficially, the flower giver is the provider of the gift. When looking closer, one sees that the receiver could be the gift giver also, by providing a chance for the interaction.
When making this installation, did you consider other items to give such as a pencil? Why a flower?
I focused on flower because it is a living thing which withers and decades. Also, in Chinese, there is a certain phrase: “借花獻佛” which, loosely translated means:
“To present Buddha with borrowed flowers.”
In the Moving Garden, I see everyone, the giver and the receiver, is a Buddha.
Even though creating a dining experience and ritual of sitting and having dinner with another person is a form of gift exchange, do you think the practice of gift exchange itself is the “art form” or the ritual of viewing the dinner was the “art form” that the patrons of the Whitney Museum experienced?
When doing the “Dining Project”, the process of dining was not a part of the exhibition.
Each of the diners came and participated in the project only after the museum is closed to the public. The identity and privacy of the participants are kept from the public.
I want to respect each of them and don’t want to exploit our relationship because of my art work.
Having said this, I think the art work is experienced, and expressed through the mutual exchange through conversation, sharing of food, space and time together. Hopefully, after this evening, each one of them goes home with sparkles within their spirits.
When people view your exhibits at the museums what do you hope they walk away with?
I would like them to walk away with questions about art, themselves and the world we live in.
All of your beautiful installations seem to be very personal, sensitive well thought out and emotional.
In the “The Bodhi Tree Project” installation, you said that you brought several different histories together, your own, of Buddhism, of planting the tree in the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Australia.
It seems like this project was a huge and difficult undertaking to complete.
What was the most difficult part of completing “The Bodhi Tree Project”?
This project was originally proposed as the memorial for my grandfather’s elementary school which was leveled during the 1999 Puli earthquake in Taiwan.
The idea was well received by the community but was not able to carry out even from the very beginning. I realized quickly that there were other things for the community to deal with before they can pay attention to a public art project.
Is it important to always come to a completion with all your projects or is it more the journey?
Each idea and project has its life. It takes the right amount of time, chance, fate and space to realize them. Some of them never get to be realized in the physical world but have very strong presence in the spiritual world for me.
Have you ever started a project that you were not able to finish?
Not that I am aware of.
What are your projects for the near future?
I am working on a project called “Sonic Blossom”, which is a new commission for the inauguarlation for the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea. This will happen in early November. Here is a very short statement:
While taking care of my mother, I have been listening much to Schubert’s Lieder.
Amongst some 600 lieder he composed, there are five that I particularly love. The sonic scape and the poetic lyric provided my mother and me much hope and comfort during this difficult time. For the new project, I will use these songs as a transformative gift to the visitors who encounter these moving lieder.
For this interactive performance project, each singer has to learn at least three of these lieder. During the exhibition hours, the singer meanders in the gallery, finding a visitor that s/he thinks might enjoy receiving this sonic gift by approaching them with the question: May I give you a gift? This is when the song is sung. This happens sporadically both in time and space, folding and unfolding of a “Sonic Blossom”.
What advice would you give to my school l students on expressing their self through creativity?
Please trust yourselves and do not be afraid to be unique, different and be very grateful of the opportunities that you have.
The art of a hand-written letter is a lost art for new generations. In fact, the art of handwriting systems in general is becoming an endangered species. During her spring school term, Art Teacher Chyah Weitzman, taught from Professor Mafundikwa’s beautiful book (which he researched for over 20 years), entitled Afrikan Alphabets. It is so moving to see the creativity and care people throughout history applied to craft exquisite hand-writing systems such as those featured in Afrikan Alphabets.
In your installation, “The Letter Writing Project,” you displayed the letters on brightly lit luminous walls in three booths, displaying all the letters individually
We live in such a fast pace, fast information world with the internet that the idea of a handwritten letter seems very private and personal.
Do you feel that current and future generations will continue this fast pace, loose their sense of privacy and forget the beauty of a handwritten letter?
I am optimistic about your generation and later ones.
Even when well versed in twitter and facebook ( and other social media) we still are quite protective of what we post and what we keep as private.
[For more information about Lee Mingwei and to view his artwork, click here.]