Lee Mingwei is a Taiwanese-American multimedia artist who creates participatory works in order to provide introspective experiences around human relationships — trust, intimacy, and self-awareness, as well as issues around gift and exchange. Born in Taichung in 1964, he lived in Taiwan until age 12, at which time he moved to the Dominican Republic, living with Taiwanese expatriates. Two years later, at age 14, he moved to the United States. As an adult, he studied biology at the University of Washington in Seattle before transferring to California College of the Arts in Oakland, where he received a BA Honors in Textile Art in 1993. In 1997, he received his MFA in Sculpture from Yale University. Mingwei has exhibited in countries around the world, including a solo exhibition currently at the Gropius Bau in Berlin.
Since the age of 8, Mingwei has studied Chan Buddhism, the Chinese ancestor of Zen Buddhism. While there are cultural/regional differences between the two, Chan and Zen Buddhism can be understood as practically identical, both emphasizing the importance of direct experience and centered around a practice of meditation. As he invites viewers to participate, this Buddhist influence is apparent as he uses his work to catalyze introspective moments and engaging (direct) experiences.
In 1994, Mingwei began a project which has gone on to have several incarnations since, Money for Art, for which he gave away nine origami sculptures made of ten-dollar bills to strangers on the condition that they keep in touch with him for a year. After six and then twelve months, he re-documented the pieces or what had become of them. After the full year, five of the original sculptures remained intact, three had been unfolded and spent, and one had been stolen. While this starts to talk about the blessings and pitfalls of trust and obligation & exchange, through the lens of Buddhism, it points to impermanence. The sculptures that were unfolded and spent as well as the stolen one convey inevitable change: sometimes things change directly while our relationships to things can change as well.
In 1997, to bring the project to the gallery, Mingwei again made origami sculptures, this time from one-dollar bills, allowing visitors to take one in exchange for an object they find equally valuable along with a card on which they would write their name and profession. In place of some of the sculptures, Mingwei found a bottle of antidepressants, a condom, and a credit card with the PIN. One visitor did not leave anything in place of the sculpture, but still filled out a card with her name, listing her occupation as “thief.” The outcome of this particular incarnation of the project steers the conversation back towards exchange and reciprocity, pointing out the human tendency to mostly uphold cultural norms and traditions, but not always.
One of Mingwei’s works that focuses more on vulnerability is The Letter Writing Project, which he began in 1998. This project has also had a number of incarnations, and is currently a part of his solo show at the Gropius Bau in Berlin. For The Letter Writing Project, he constructed three wooden booths reminiscent of architecture one might see in Zen monastery. Each booth contains a table with letter-writing materials. Mingwei invites visitors to write a letter to a loved one who was absent for whatever reason. They can then either seal up the envelope and the museum will send it, or leave it unsealed in slots in the walls of the booths for other visitors to come and read. In reading the unexpressed emotions of others, visitors reflect on their own feelings they may have kept private. At the same time, it catalyses empathy as people can see the similarities they share with strangers, and perhaps reflection on the human condition in general and the emotions we all share and experience.
A more obvious nod toward his study and practice of Buddhism, Mingwei began The Bodhi Tree Project in 2006, for which he took a cutting from the Sri Maha Bodhi in Sri Lanka to be planted in Brisbane, Australia. The Sri Maha Bodhi is a cutting from the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, the tree under which the Buddha achieved Enlightenment. This tree has been cut/destroyed and regrown or replanted several times in its history, as recently as the 19th century. The Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka — the entire city was built around the tree — is said to have been planted from the original tree.
Besides being an engaging way to share history and culture, this is also a gift to the Buddhist community of Australia as some lineages have a tradition of making a pilgrimage to the Sri Maha Bodhi. Helping so many people in their practice this way can also be seen as an act of compassion, in a way helping to further people down their paths. The cutting was finally planted on the grounds of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art on May 7, 2008 — the Buddha’s birthday — where it serves as a place for introspection, contemplation, and meditation. Even for those unfamiliar with Buddhism, the tree’s origin in a different time and place encourages reflection on interconnection.
In 2010, Mingwei made bronze replicas of stones that he took from the Pororari River Valley in New Zealand, which was created through a glacial movement 70,000,000 years ago. In taking the stones, he reflected on how he was forever altering their circumstances — after millions of years, no less. Mingwei says Stone Journey focuses on the concepts of ownership and value. Asking what it means to own an object, whether man-made or natural, the materials contribute to the dialogue as well. The age of the rock and the durability of both the stone and the bronze provide greater context to ownership: the stones were there long before any of us and will exist long afterwards. The bronze, too, is almost certain to outlast anyone alive today.
With together works of his, Mingwei has said ownership is more about using the senses to perceive and experience something — not so much about status or possession. In this way, the stones belong to all who see them, though Mingwei has given away some, asking the recipients to decide when and where to get rid of either the stone or the sculpture. At this point, the conversation shifts to value. One person may hold higher the value of an artist’s thought and craft while someone else may prefer the original stone and the design of nature. Some may value each equally, while others might not feel either is worth much at all. No matter what conclusions one might arrive at regarding value, Stone Journey ultimately inquires about the processes we use to assign and regulate value to the physical world.
Personally, my favorite of Mingwei’s projects is The Living Room, an interactive installation he began in 2000. Its first incarnation was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA, in which the artist turned the gallery into a contemporary living room, inviting museum employees and other affiliated people to decorate the room with their own things, chosen for personal or aesthetic reasons, engaging with museum-goers about them. Each host has a week in the gallery, sharing personal interactions with guests, allowing people to see a more vulnerable and private side of them.
With The Living Room, Mingwei asks questions why and how people collect things, about people’s relationships to their objects, and what objects say about their owners. Forming new relationships there in the gallery, this project highlights the social nature of humans and our desire to exchange with one another in a meaningful, organic way. This project especially, like much of Mingwei’s other work, asserts the value of human connection and intimacy, reaffirming the transformative nature of direct experiences.
Dunnell, Tony. “The Sacred Bodhi Tree.” Atlas Obscura, 14 Aug. 2018, www.atlasobscura.com/places/jaya-sri-maha-bodhi-tree.
Editorial, Artsy, and Catherine Hickley. “In Berlin, Lee Mingwei’s Gropius Bau Show Offers Post-Lockdown Healing.” Artsy, 4 June 2020, www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-berlin-lee-mingweis-gropius-bau-offers-post-lockdown-healing.
“LEE Mingwei — Artist.” Perrotin, www.perrotin.com/artists/lee_mingwei/550#biography.
LEE MINGWEI, www.leemingwei.com/index.php.
“Lee Mingwei.” Artsy, www.artsy.net/artist/lee-mingwei.