Interview with Lee Mingwei “禮 Li, Gifts, and Rituals” at Gropius Bau, Berlin

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2006–2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Gropius Bau.
Digital performance of “Invitation for Dawn” with singer Celina Jimenez-Haro and Clara Tang, screenshot. Image courtesy of the artist and the singer.
Lee Mingwei, The Letter Writing Project, 1998–2020. Photography by Laura Fiorio. Image courtesy of the artist and Gropius Bau.
Lee Mingwei, Our Peaceable Kingdom, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Gropius Bau.
Lee Mingwei, Sonic Blossom, 2013/2020. Photography by Laura Fiorio. Image courtesy of the artist and Gropius Bau.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

On the occasion of Lee Mingwei’s exhibition “禮 Li, Gifts, and Rituals” in Berlin, Clara Tang speaks to the artist via Zoom to talk about his current projects, and his wild mix of interests spanning Buddhism, classical Chinese literature, and American folk painting.

TEXT: Clara Tang
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Gropius Bau

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2006–2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Gropius Bau.
Digital performance of “Invitation for Dawn” with singer Celina Jimenez-Haro and Clara Tang, screenshot. Image courtesy of the artist and the singer.

 

On a Wednesday afternoon, I open my laptop from home to join a new Zoom meeting. When I log in, I learn that the only other participant is Celina Jimenez-Haro, a singer who, like me, is self-isolating in Berlin. After a short introduction, Celina serenades me with the old French song “La Belle si tu voulais”. Although the call only takes a few minutes, the melody stays with me for the rest of the day.

The digital performance is part of artist Lee Mingwei’s exhibition “禮 Li, Gifts, and Rituals” at Gropius Bau, Berlin. Originally slated to open in late March, the exhibition was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Inspired by these times of isolation and by his broad practice based on performance and physical interaction, Lee conceived additional projects to include in his Berlin show—among others, Invitation for Dawn (2020), a spin-off of Sonic Blossom (2013–present), which forms part of the exhibition, and Letter to Oneself (2020), a twist on his work The Letter Writing Project (1998–present), in which personal letters written by the audience are displayed within the installation.

On the original day of the exhibition opening, we met—as you do these days—online for a conversation regarding his preparations for the show, his current projects, and his wild mix of interests spanning Buddhism, classical Chinese literature, and American folk painting.

 

Lee Mingwei, The Letter Writing Project, 1998–2020. Photography by Laura Fiorio. Image courtesy of the artist and Gropius Bau.

 

I heard you are self-isolating in New York. How are you doing, and what are your thoughts on the current situation?

I am actually doing quite okay—it may be my optimistic personality. I think this is a good time for mother earth to take a break from our destruction. It’s a time to reflect on humanity, on how to make and share this world in a more egalitarian way. It’s a painful situation for many, but hopefully, we can learn from it and walk away with many teachings—a sack of gold, so to say.

 

Your works have taken on an extra layer of meaning in the current crisis, as they are about physical interaction and the intimacy of these moments of connection. Tell me a bit about your projects.

We were lucky that we almost finished installing [the exhibition at Gropius Bau] before I flew back to New York in March. We had the fantastic help of about 30 local artists. However, most of my projects require interaction—real people connecting in real time and real space. So although the works are installed, their essence is still waiting to be discovered in May.

The central work, displayed in Gropius Bau’s huge atrium, is Guernica in Sand (2006–present), a project using 35 tons of sand to recreate Picasso’s Guernica (1937), based on the idea of a mandala. There will be a performance after the show opens, in which we will transform this painting into something completely different. The work asks us: Can creation and destruction coexist in a single moment, in a harmonious and balanced way?

Among others, a new work commissioned by Gropius Bau is Our Peaceable Kingdom (2020). The seed of this work came to me when I was at college in Berkeley in the 1990s. A book on Edward Hicks (1780–1849), an American Quaker painter of the 19th century, caught my eye. He created a series of works titled The Peaceable Kingdom (1833–1834), inspired by a passage in the Bible, and depicted a world of harmonious cohabitation between animals, children, colonialists, and indigenous people. I found this series very curious, and wanted to investigate how each of us sees and interprets this “peaceable” world. 27 artists from around the world are involved in this project, from Afghanistan, to Australia, to Hong Kong, and contributed their own version of The Peaceable Kingdom. I wanted the artists to incorporate their ideas of peace in the paintings. What resulted were 27 magnificent works with different cultural complexities, all presented at Gropius Bau. As a truly communal project, I hope to bring this series to public institutions around the world, and ideally have these works collected, in order to share the profit among the artists.

 

Lee Mingwei, Our Peaceable Kingdom, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Gropius Bau.

 

Your projects are always adapted to a site’s specific conditions. Considering Gropius Bau’s particular history in Berlin—it is, for example, situated right at the Berlin Wall—how do you explore and connect to each place?

Going back to Guernica, it was Picasso’s response to the 1937 bombing of Guernica, which was inflicted in part by Nazi Germany’s air force. So, in both a physical and emotional sense, my work has close ties to Germany. However, I always encourage visitors to think far beyond the concept of war and peace when they experience Guernica in Sand. I would like people to imagine something more universal—similar to how sand comes from a rock transformed by natural forces over millions of years. Now, it is part of an artwork at Gropius Bau. And when the show closes, we will give the sand back to nature, where it may become a rock again. I want visitors to think about how small a section of time and place we are actually occupying.

 

Where does this sense of spirituality—for instance, the cosmic sense of creation and destruction in Guernica in Sand—in your work come from?

My family is not particularly religious, my father being a Western doctor and my mother being a Chinese literature professor. However, my favourite pastime from a young age was going to spiritual places and buildings—churches, shrines, mosques, and temples. My father noticed this quality in me and sent me to one of his friends, a Zen Master, at a mountain temple up in the Puli area, one summer. I ended up spending three months there every summer for six years. We didn’t study scriptures; instead, we went into a bamboo forest near a river and listened to our surroundings. We cleaned the temple regularly. It was, basically, a very simple life. The only writings we studied were classical Chinese poems. This time at the temple was a formative experience for me. I learned how to pay attention to my surroundings using all my senses. Whenever I go through difficult moments in my adult life, I think back on these days spent with my teacher and enjoy those moments in my memory, as if he were still here with me today—which he is, in a spiritual and emotional sense.

 

A lot of your works are based on the spoken word and transmission of sound. What is your relationship with these elements, and where does this fascination come from? 

This also relates to my youth in Taiwan. I attended the Western classical music conservatory, where I was trained to be a violinist from the age of five. So early on, I was trained to listen to things, and to use my aural sense to discover the world, to receive information and emotion. This is how sound became an important element in my practice. Looking back at my works, I started using sound and music around the time of The Quartet Project (2005), which involved a new auditory and visual experience of Antonin Dvorak’s American Quartet from 1893. Another inspiration is Chinese music culture. In classical Chinese music, songs were often passed down auditorily, and not by notations.

 

Do you still have a strong connection to classical Chinese culture, after growing up in Taiwan, and then moving to the US at a young age?

I lived in Taiwan until I was 12, and went to a Chinese Mandarin language school. When I left Taiwan and came to California, I asked my mother to send me classical Chinese writings, even though I was only trained in Chinese for six years. Through classical text, I reconnected to my roots, which I consider to be a mix of Taiwanese, Chinese, and Japanese culture.

For instance, these days, I am reading the Chinese memoir The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendour (11th century), an account written by Meng Yuanlao (c. 1090–1150) about the once thriving capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, Kaifeng. It is a recording of the era’s quotidian city and court life. The most interesting parts of the book for me are the famous restaurants, the most famous geishas, the poetry and song culture of the time. It is as if someone was writing about New York ten centuries from now and listing the famous pop singers and restaurants of today. I am fascinated by this time of high culture in Ancient China, which is somewhat comparable to today’s big cities, such as Paris or Berlin. A bit eerie, right?

 

Over the last few weeks, art institutions and artists alike have been adjusting to the new conditions of art creation and display. Can you tell me about your new projects inspired by the current, extraordinary situation? 

After it became clear that the show would not open at the planned time, the curator, Stephanie Rosenthal, and I were discussing how to address this issue. At my suggestion, we created projects inspired by my existing works. The first is called Letter to Oneself (2020). I am asking people at home to write a letter to themselves that will be opened and read in three or four months, when hopefully the pandemic has receded. They can write down where they are, who they are with, and how they are doing. It is a way to reflect on our thoughts and wishes for a time after the virus. Then, the letters are sent to Gropius Bau. When the show finally opens, we would like to leave them in booths for visitors to read. To see envelopes and writings surrounding visitors in the exhibition space will be a very emotional experience— [representing] a time that we all lived through, and survived. It celebrates a sense of beauty, comradery, and solidarity.

I also created a new project titled Invitation for Dawn (2020). Classical singers were invited to contribute three songs, and sing one song acapella, for an individual in a virtual, one-on-one call. The songs were supposed to invite the arrival of dawn, as we are living in such a dark place now and it is important to think about a brighter future. The singers devoted two hours per day for people around the world who were able to receive this gift. It was not really a performance, like Sonic Blossom, for instance; it was a gift from one stranger to another in a virtual, but very intimate way.

 

Lee Mingwei, Sonic Blossom, 2013/2020. Photography by Laura Fiorio. Image courtesy of the artist and Gropius Bau.

 

For Letter to Oneself, you also sent a letter to your future self, from your current residence in New York to Paris. What were your thoughts on the hopefully-near-future, when we can travel more freely again?

An interesting question! I will paraphrase my thoughts from my letter: “When reading this, I will be sitting in Michel le Comte’s courtyard, listening to the blackbird, (I hope he is still there), taking in everything that is Le Marais. We will have made it to the other side. I would like to take the usual walk with John along the Seine…”

 

We hope very much that this will come true, Mingwei. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us!

 

 

禮 Li, Gifts, and Rituals
27 March – 12 July 2020
Gropius Bau, Berlin

*Gropius Bau reopened on 11 May 2020. For further information and the latest updates, please refer to the Gropius Bau website.

 

 

About the artist
Born in Taiwan in 1964 and currently living in Paris and New York City, Lee Mingwei creates participatory installations, where strangers can explore issues of trust, intimacy, and self-awareness, and one-on-one events, where visitors contemplate these issues with the artist through eating, sleeping, walking and conversation. Lee’s projects are often open-ended scenarios for everyday interaction, and take on different forms with the involvement of participants and change during the course of an exhibition.

Lee received an MFA from Yale University in 1997, and has held solo exhibitions internationally including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Mori Art Museum, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and has been featured in biennals in Venice, Lyon, Liverpool, Taipei, Sydney, Whitney, and Asia Pacific Triennials.

Lee’s mid-career survey exhibition “Lee Mingwei and His Relations” was on view at Mori Art Museum (2014), Taipei Fine Arts Museum (2015), and Auckland Art Gallery (2016), and he has participated at the 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “Viva Arte Viva,” curated by Christine Macel.

 

 

 

 
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