Taiwan-born, New York and Paris–based artist Lee Mingwei is renowned for his participatory practice that encourages active exchange and moments of connection between participants. Serena Bentley, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria, spoke to Mingwei about his practice and The Moving Garden installation for the NGV.
Serena Bentley: What role do audiences play in your work?
Lee Mingwei: I often say that when an exhibition of my work opens it is around forty per cent complete, and only during the exhibition does the project take on a life of its own as a result of audience interaction, changing daily and becoming more complex and multilayered. Therefore the audience plays the most important role of providing and enriching the content of the work.
SB: In an interview about The Mending Project, 2009–, in which participants can bring you any object or piece of clothing to mend, you mentioned that someone brought you an image of a heart and your response – understandably! – was that you did not know how to mend it. Given that so much of your practice is driven by generosity and intimacy, how do you negotiate the parameters of your responsibilities to your audience?
LM: I try to relate to the audience member as I would to any human being – we all have stories of beauty and heartbreaks. ‘Responsibility’ is not something I think of when I’m executing my projects. In life, we rarely learn how far our kindnesses (or unkindnesses) extend. In The Mending Project I choose to let others be kind, and leave the rest to fate, and the gift I receive in return is knowing that some strangers have connected through acts of kindness. When the participants bring me something to be mended, they are also providing a very precious and fragile part of their personal history. I hope each encounter is filled with much care and warmth.
SB: Collaborating with audiences involves a lot of unknowns and variables. How do you determine when a participatory project has been successful for you?
LM: I try to be open-minded when it comes to the results of a project, and as a result I am always pleasantly surprised. A few years ago I gave a presentation at the Tate Modern, London, about my work which included The Letter Writing Project, 1998–. After the presentation, a lady with a young boy came up to me and said she was one of the participants who participated in the project when it was first presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1998. At that time she was breaking up with her boyfriend, so as part of the work of art she wrote a heartfelt letter to him expressing her remorse and sadness. After he received the letter they got back together, and ten years later are happily married with a lovely son who was standing next to me!
To be honest, I was both quite shocked and very happy to hear of her story. I rarely relate to my projects in terms of their success or failure; it’s more about the role the works have in our lives. These projects have lives of their own and generate amazing stories, even years after they occur.
SB: What are some of the key inspirations behind The Moving Garden, 2009–?
LM: When I was invited to Lyon, France, for a site visit to create a new project for the Lyon Biennale, I spent much time strolling along the Soane and Rhone rivers. One cloudy afternoon, when I was sitting on the bank reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983), I saw many flowers flowing passing by me quietly and with great swiftness and beauty. This became the elemental material for The Moving Garden.
I was fascinated by Lewis Hyde’s examination in that book of the effects of both our total immersion in a market economy and the myth of the free market on our views about gifts and our abilities to give and receive them. The Moving Garden was created with this in mind, and first exhibited at the Lyon Biennial in 2009. It has since travelled to Brooklyn, Osaka, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei and now Melbourne.
SB: A number of your projects, including The Moving Garden, are ongoing and have occurred in different iterations. Does the reception of your work differ depending on context, or does it tend to evoke a more universal response?
LM: The majority of responses have been quite similar, though with some variation depending on culture, of course, which adds another dimension to a project. The Moving Garden is very different in France than in a place such as Japan. For example, when it was in France, during the exhibition period of three and half months we had about 15,000 flowers given as gifts between strangers; however, in Japan, a society which is much more reserved than the French and has a long tradition of gift-giving, far fewer flowers were taken by visitors.
Often my works evolve gradually once I have created them. In some ways, it takes me many years to understand a work fully, as it gradually unfolds.
SB: Impermanence is a recurring theme in your work. Why does this concept appeal to you?
LM: Nothing is permanent in this world. There is a saying that the only thing that is constant is change itself. I try to be mindful of this when I create my works, finding beauty in things that change with time, which is everything.