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Interview

Lee Mingwei, Taiwanese artist breaks through barriers with his conceptual art projects.

Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei breaks through people's barriers with his conceptual art projects, and quickly gets people's trust, intimacy and honesty. Born in 1964 in Taiwan he has a Catholic and Buddhist background. He attended a Benedictine high school in California, has an MFA in Sculpture from Yale, 1997, and now lives in New York. He started doing conceptual art for major museums around the world in 1995 and he spoke about his art, and the people he met through it, at the Asia-Pacific Trienniale in Brisbane, on October 30.

Lee Mingwei talked about a woman he met while working on his “One Hundred Days with Lily” project. He planted a lily seed in a flower pot, and carried it around with him for 100 days as the lily bloomed, withered and died. Lee took a photo each day of an arbitrarilly chosen moment, eg. “Meditating with Lily”. He had started the project after his grandmother died. “After my grandmother died I wanted to say a lot of things to her but it was too late,” he said.

Lee said he lived near a Hispanic community in San Francisco and they would talk to him on the bus about the lily he carried around everywhere, then they’d confide their personal stories to him as though he were some kind of priest. One woman kept talking to him about the flower, but as it started to wither and die she spoke to him less, until she no longer spoke to him.
She told him later that her son had died three years previously and the life cycle of the flower reminded her of him. “I realised people project their own personal history onto this,” he said. “I realised the project was not just for myself. There was a bigger meaning.”

Other projects involved contact with large numbers of people.
In the Money for Art project (1997, Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Centre, Boston), he folded one dollar notes into origami style sculptures and invited people to exchange them for something of equal value, then displayed the objects. Items included pieces of jade, a piece of chewed gum (one of his least favourite exchanges), but he liked how one woman just wrote the word thief.

The Dining Project (1997, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), involved selecting 60 people by lottery to come along to the museum where he would cook Asian style food and dine with them one at a time.
He told of how one was a Pakistani taxi driver who had been an art professor in Pakistan whose qualifications didn’t transfer to the United States so he had to drive taxis for a living. He’d come into the Whitney on his day off and filled out the ticket for the lottery, and was one of the 60 selected for the project. Another was a 12 year old girl whose mother dropped her off for the meal.
The girl told him about her boyfriend, then her mother picked her up and asked her if she thought it was art. The girl said she didn’t know but she liked the food. “It’s more about a feeling than an understanding,” Lee said.

The Letter Writing Project (1998, various locations including Boston and Brisbane) involved people going into booths and writing letters of gratitude, forgiveness and understanding. Some letters were written to the dead, which he burnt ritualistically so that the messages could be sent to the spirit world. Some were left open so people could read them. One letter was written by a man to a woman he didn’t know. He had raped her and he asked her for forgiveness.
The artist was on a train in the U.S. when an old lady noticed the brochure he was reading about the letter writing project.
Without knowing he was the artist she told him how in the early 40s in the south, she had married an African-American, and her father had never forgiven her all his life.
She had written a letter to her father telling him her husband had treated her like a queen, and asking him for his forgiveness and blessing.
Lee Mingwei said it was moments like that that kept him going as an artist.

Other projects included The Sleeping Project, 2000, Lombard-Fried Gallery, New York.

He placed an ad in The Village Voice for people to spend the night with him in separate beds in the gallery. There were 20 different people and he said it was like 20 different projects.
They were told to bring items about themselves for display, so you could get the character but not the identity of the people.
These included a dream diary and an escort’s night bag including condoms, lubricants, and dagger.

Then there was the Shrine Project where he asked people to bring sacred objects for display. His nephew handed him his Pokemon monster collection he said because they transported him into another realm.

Another was the Tourist Project, 2002, where people in Houston took him on tours of places that had a personal significance for them in Houston, for example one woman took him to a bijou that runs through Houston.
She’d spent childhood days there but now it was polluted and Lee said they found a body in it. At the end they all got together and showed slides and talked about the tours, and found that although many had lived in the city for 40 or 50 years there was still a lot they didn’t know about the city.
Lee Mingwei hopes to do the project in New York next year.

Ok, here’s what Lee Mingwei likes to read.
When living in New York Lee Mingwei reads The New Yorker religiously, and also The Economist, and Scientific American. But whenever he returns to Taiwan, he said, he really tried to find out about his own heritage, so he liked to read Chinese classics, like The Dream of the Red Chamber.
He was also reading a book which, loosely translated, has the title Tang Dynasty: Factual Evidence, which is about the ten most discussed historical events in the Tang Dynasty, but with varied perspectives on the events.

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