Lee Mingwei
Photo by Andrew NianZhu Lee Courtesy of LEE Studio

Lee Mingwei: “We are not broken”

Short Profile

Name: Lee Mingwei
DOB: 1964
Place of birth: Taichung, Taiwan
Occupation: Artist

Lee Mingwei's exhibition Rituals of Care is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts - De Young until 7 July 2024.

Mr. Lee, your participatory art installations ask your audience to perform rituals like writing letters, eating meals, and connecting with strangers. Do you also participate in your own exhibitions?

For The Letter Writing Project, where the audience is asked to write a letter to someone expressing unsaid thoughts or feelings, I usually start the exhibition by writing a letter to myself. For The Mending Project, where the audience brings in an item of clothing to be repaired by a mender, I sometimes bring something in to be repaired or embellished. For both of those projects, when the show opens, sometimes the museum or gallery staff will participate first so that the exhibition is “activated,” you know, because people will be more likely to participate if they see others have done so first. For me, it’s a really nice way of settling down, a little ritual I do for myself before each show.

It sounds like it could almost be a bit cathartic for you.

Well, the origin of The Letter Writing Project itself is actually that when my maternal grandmother passed away, I wasn’t physically there with her and I had a lot of things I wanted to tell her. After she passed, I wrote about 120 letters to her and I decided to burn them. These powerful emotions went up into the sky in smoke, to the birds for my grandma. When this project was first commissioned for the Whitney Museum, my very first show in the 1990s, I thought maybe other people would have similar emotional experiences in their lives, and I wanted to create a space for that. I continue to show these pieces in exhibitions like Rituals of Care, to hopefully keep creating those spaces for intimate experience and connection.

“I don’t want to use the word heal, because we are not broken. We all have histories, even damaged or unpleasant ones, but in fact, that’s what makes us beautiful.”

That said, you are apparently careful not to suggest that your work has a healing element to it because you don’t want to assume that people are broken.

Yes. I think that when people participate in my work, they sometimes feel better or they are more relieved. And that is fantastic, it is really wonderful. I like to create a place for us to go to to release some of these lesser pleasant energies. But I don’t want to use the word heal, because we are not broken. We all have histories, even damaged or unpleasant ones, but in fact, that’s what makes us beautiful!

Many of your projects come from a place of personal experience: loss, family relationships, and memories. Does it ever make you self-conscious to share your personal stories through your art?

It depends on the situation! Although you’re right that my work stems from those kind of personal stories, I don’t always share that in the exhibit itself. For example, The Mending Project comes from my husband’s experience during 9/11. He was in one of the buildings, and luckily managed to survive, but we lost many friends that day, and the project was a way to help us work through our sadness. I would never put that on the wall didactic! But I’m comfortable to share it in this conversation with you, I am less self-conscious if I can share my story in person like this.

It seems like your work also seeks to make its audience a little self-conscious or uncomfortable, to push people out of their comfort zone.

Yes, definitely, it also asks that sometimes of the workers who participate in the project. With Sonic Blossom, my performance installation where a small choir will approach gallery visitors and offers them the gift of a song, they aren’t really trained to sing to only one person, so that can make it a difficult task for them too. The singers are also a bit vulnerable. Also, I would say about one fifth of these invitations are turned down! And that’s perfectly fine, we’re not always ready to receive a gift, maybe that’s asking us to get too uncomfortable or it makes us too self-conscious. But I also made sure to tell the singers during rehearsals, you know, “Don’t take that personally, don’t be too hurt when someone turns you down.” And that proved hugely helpful for them.

You need to have faith that the right people will show up and be open to what you’re asking of them.

It’s all about faith and about trust. If I put this trust out, if the singers put the trust out, the menders put the trust out, it's incredible how the world responds to it. I think we are all quite sensitive to the sincerity, it’s a very sensitive, intimate dialogue and it requires kindness between strangers. It’s a delicate equilibrium.

Is it easier to garner that trust now that you’ve reached this point of success in your career, and you have a certain reputation?

With something like The Dining Project, where I host an audience member for a meal at the museum, I first started the project as a graduate student  and found that people participated simply because of their curiosity. Several homeless people came in to participate as well, because they really needed the shelter, the food, and the attention that we share for each other. So that was quite beautiful. I think that goes to show that it's not the artist that is most important, it’s the work itself. This idea of artists as a superstar… That’s against my ethic. The work is most important for me.

What other considerations factor in when you’re asking your audience to participate in your installations? One of your earliest pieces involved you making origami sculptures of out $10 bills and handing them out, and then months later following up to see if the participants had spent the money. But you can’t always have that kind of insight, can you?

It’s interesting you mention that project with the money! I work with a very talented artist who embellishes the garments I wear to the openings of my shows. I keep trying to pay her for her beautiful work but she just wouldn’t accept the money. I ended up writing her a personal cheque for 1000 dollars with her name on it, but I folded it into origami! So now she has this money but it’s in the form of art. And if she wants to cash it, it becomes monetary again. (Laughs) So that was a bit cheeky of me. But generally, It’s true that I can’t know for sure if someone is really writing a letter, or in the case of something like The Moving Garden, where we ask guests to take a flower and pass it along to a stranger on their journey home… We can’t control what they do when they leave.

Do you ever get the chance to find out? Maybe when an audience member attends a future exhibit?

It can be cyclical! I did this project called When Beauty Visits, which was commissioned for the 2017 Venice Biennale, and every day, myself or a performer would invite one person at a time to come into the Carlo Scarpa Garden in the Querini. We would give this person an envelope that they are instructed only to open when they encounter their next moment of beauty. Inside the envelope is the description of another person’s experience of their moment of beauty. We don’t have any control over what each person does, so I don’t usually get to find out what the experience was like for someone, but about a month ago, when I had finished installing Rituals of Care, a man stopped me on the street and said he had been invited to When Beauty Visits back in 2017. He said when he was sitting in the courtyard, listening to the church bells toll nearby, he couldn’t help but cry.

Wow, did he say what made him so emotional?

Apparently he had scattered his wife’s ashes in the river just the day before, and the performer who’d invited him in showed him a lot of grace and kindness that he needed. He was very moved. I  ended up bringing him with me to the gallery where Rituals of Care was just installed, and inside the gallery where we have The Mending Project set up was the performer who had invited him all those years ago. He recognized her, and started crying again. Even thinking about that gives me chills… Stories like that really make me believe there is something much bigger than us here.