“Like a glass of water”
The artist Lee Mingwei tells us about his participatory installations for 57th Venice Biennale.
A tiny woman politely invites you to a private garden, a young man mends damaged clothes with colourful threads. In the chaotic Biennale these simple pieces are like portkeys in a busy muggle street (this metaphor is just for Harry Potter fans): if you know where they are, they could carry you in another magical world. Lee Mingwei’s world is quiet and poetic, a place where strangers take care of you and share with you very moving moments. The conceptual performer, born in Taiwan in 1964 and now based in Paris and New York, is one of the most engaging contemporary artists. As in his 2 works shown in this year’s Biennale, his poetic is mainly expressed through one-to-one participatory projects that create connections and trust between strangers.
At the Giardini, the atmosphere in the Scarpa Garden is exalted by When Beauty Visits: a host invites a chosen guest to sit on a simple wooden chair and invites him/her to meditate for few minutes. The host then returns bringing an envelope, containing the story of someone visited by beauty (he will explain this later, in the interview), that the participant is asked to open only after first-hand experiencing that encounter.
For the Mending Project, at the entrance of the Arsenale, next to a multi-coloured web of sewing threads, a performer is waiting to mend fabric objects that the visitors bring. This very vintage gesture is a tool to begin an intimate conversation with the participant and the mender. Exactly the opposite of what a tailor does, the act of mending is not done to hide the damage but to celebrate the repair and the exchange happened meanwhile
If you’re planning to visit the Biennale, remember to bring a damaged garment and become part of the art!
On July 7th, 2017, Elisabetta Zerbinatti had the chance to interview the poet of participatory installation, Lee Mingwei:
First of all: why the curator Christine Macel chose you for her Viva arte viva Biennial?
I really don’t know! We should ask her.
Well I see some connections, but I was wondering whether she told you the reason or just said “I want you”.
I know she saw my piece Sonic Blossom and was very very excited, so she wanted me to do that in the Portico area, outside the the Main Pavilion at Giardini. However, that’s a performance where a singer offers to a spectator a gift of a song, so for acoustic reasons it couldn’t be done open air.
Then she proposed to do it only for the opening week, but I always thought that if a performance work is dedicated to a Bienniale it has to last for the whole period.
Is that because during the opening only art workers would see it?
Yes, there are quite a few performances this year that, after the first two weeks, are just falling apart. To me this is a very elite’s way of doing things and I often have questions about an artist being a celebrity. There’re always people asking “Is important that is you doing the mending in the Mending Project?”. Absolutely not! What is important is that it is a stranger who is doing something for you. I never advertise the time when I’m going to be there, because it doesn’t matter, it really takes away the sincerity of the work. Sometimes I go and do it, but I never tell people who I am, in fact quite few people understand the person that is mending their clothes is Lee Mingwei. Usually people don’t know whether the artist is a man or woman, sometimes even that he is asian. And that’s perfect.
In fact, my T-shirt was mended by one of your assistants and we had a very nice sharing. However, he told me that I was nearly the only one that brought something on purpose for that piece and had an emotional connection with the cloth. Is this a problem for your piece?
It’s not a problem. When it was first done in 2003 it was for a commercial gallery in New York, therefore every day I got only 2-3 people coming. It was on the second floor and usually people didn’t know about it; at that moment, I realized I could do embellishment, it doesn’t need to be mending, because many people would come and say “Wow this is great, but I don’t have anything that needs to be repaired”. Obviously, people don’t go around with damaged clothes! So jokingly I used to answer “I have a scissor to cut a hole if you want!”, but then I just offer them to do a decoration and make them sits in front of me while I do it.
Because it’s the exchange that is important.
Yes, it’s all about intimacy between strangers and creating that tension by repairing someone’s second skin which is the cloth. For me there needs to be a tension to make a work an artwork, otherwise it is just an activity. Instead when I share an extremely intimate moment with a person I just met a second ago, that brings everything to another level.
How about When Beauty Visits? I know you said that you don’t look for inspiration, the ideas just come to you, but did they arrive after you visited the garden? Was there an encounter with that space?
Actually, when Christine [Macel] asked me to do a studio visit in Paris, she was very clear she wanted 2 projects and that one was a new commission. She said: “I have the perfect space for you: The Scarpa Garden”. I love that place, it has always been my favorite in the Biennale; after looking at all those amazing works, it’s a space for me to rest, it’s a sanctuary. So I told her that I’d wanted to do a project there with beauty, on how each of us encounters and remembers it. At the time, I didn’t really know how to do it, only later on I realized it needed 3 stages: 1) to collect stories about beauty; 2) the participatory piece happening in exhibition space and time; 3) when people open their letters after encountering beauty, in their own space and time. I also realized it was for a Bienniale and there most of the works are very loud, exciting, colorful and active, but this is really not my aesthetic. So I told Christine that it would have been a very underwhelming and quiet project. And she loved it.
Well I loved it too! So in the third part you want people to encounter beauty in real life, what do you mean by that? What’s an encounter with beauty?
It’s the exercise that each person has to do for themselves, if they want to, to determine what beauty is for them. For me it’s enough for this person to have this idea in mind and think “I’m looking for beauty”. This person becomes beautiful, because is making himself available for beauty. For me the stories that people read when they open their letters are quite moving, but it depends on each of us. Some people might find it just a beautiful story and some people may read it and cry a lot; it depends on you and on the situation you are in.
It’s really subjective.
Indeed, I always say that my art is like having a glass of water: if you’re not thirsty is not interesting, but if you are that water is everything to you.
Let’s keep talking about your idea of art, you have chosen a very particular subject for your Artistic Practice’s video: a silent sky. Since it was meant to show how artists create, how is it related to your way of making art?
That is the view from my bedroom in my parents’ place in Yangming Mountains [Taipei, Taiwan]. When I’m there, every night I go to bed and every morning I wake up with the most beautiful landscape ever. When I made that video I told myself “I’m gonna shot a 3 minutes video and whatever comes into that’s exactly what I’m gonna give”. I filmed the mountains outside my window and toward the end, in the last 20 seconds, there was a beautiful hawk that came out, wheeled around and then disappeared.
That says everything about my work: is all about faith and chance.
Artistis Practises: Lee Mingwei (2017)
Then, considering the Bienniale in genaral, there’s another Taiwanese artist: Hsieh Tehching. What do you think about his work? Did you know him?
I’ve studied him actually! In university, he is the only Asian performer I ever studied, even before Yoko Ono. I have huge respect of his work, it’s really something that marked that type of endurance practice, involving the body and sense of time. It takes really a unique person to not only think of a project like that, but also do it. I could never ever do even 1% of what he does, he is absolutely mind-blowing! I’m very proud that Taiwanese Pavilion has Hsieh Tehching as this year’s artist.
Apart from Hsieh Tehching, while studying was there any other artist that made you say “Ok I wanna be this kind of artist”?
Not really, in 1995, when I was studying, there wasn’t really the idea of social practices, although there was already people doing it like Suzanne Lacy, but people didn’t know there was a category for that.
I just knew I wasn’t good at drawing nor at making objects, but I loved talking to people and being engaged socially. Probably if I had a second life I would have been a social worker or a psychologist.
But you knew you wanted to be an artist.
Well actually in Taiwan I never knew there’s such a profession called artist! My father, my grandmother and my cousins were all doctors, so I just thought “I’ll be a doctor”. However, after 4 years of training, I understood that it wasn’t what I wanted. If a doctor does something wrong someone may die, but if I mess up a show it’s ok, three months later people will forget about it. Also, I wanted to be in a place that celebrate originality and freedom of expression. I think that as artists we have the privileged opportunity to be a special voice in society and in people’s life. And how to use this voice is up to us.
Interview by Elisabetta Zerbinatti