Start > Ausstellungen > Lee Mingwei: 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals

Museum Villa Stuck Museum Villa Stuck

Lee Mingwei: Li, Gifts and Rituals

Tour of the exhibition

New studio, ground floor

Rituals of active contemplation play a major role in Lee Mingwei’s work. As part of the The Letter Writing Project (1998/2021), visitors can take time to write a letter they have been meaning to write for quite some time. “In response to the passing of my maternal grandmother, I spent the next 18 months writing letters to her. Some were long letters, some were just drawings and random thoughts. At the end of this process, I had about 120 letters for her.” Two translucent booths offer secluded spaces for writing and the necessary pens, paper and envelopes to do so. Inspired by Buddhist meditation postures, each booth is set up for a different writing position, either kneeling or sitting. Lee invites visitors to remove their shoes, enter a booth, and pen a letter. It can be a message of gratitude, insight or apology and be addressed to a deceased or otherwise absent person. If the letter is sealed in an addressed envelope, it will be mailed by the Museum Villa Stuck. If the letter is left open for others to read it enters Lee’s collection, which so far already includes more than 60,000 letters. At the conclusion of the project, he plans to ceremonially burn these letters, for he feels that “These very heavy and intense emotions really belong to the sky, or to the water. The fire will release the emotions.”

Our Labyrinth (2015/2021) originates from observations that Lee Mingwei made in pagodas, temples and mosques in Myanmar. At all of these places he saw the care with which volunteers swept the paths, preparing them for barefoot visitors. Lee combines the humility of sweeping with the image of the labyrinth, which is found in all manner of spiritual traditions. Unlike a maze, within which you can get lost, the labyrinth is made up of a single, circular path. Its twists and turns are symbolic of a spiritual journey. The labyrinth is walked as a meditation in movement. Inspired by this tradition, Our Labyrinth is conceived as a ritual dance. Lee invites the dancers to do two things: “To move very slowly, almost like morning fog over marshland, and to listen to the rice with their heart by not ‘thinking, planning’ their next move. The rice will guide them through the dance.” The performers come from diverse movement traditions including yoga, ballet and contemporary dance; they wear a sarong, a white shirt and ankle bells that chime with their movements. By sweeping rice with a broom patterns are fleetingly created. Once a dancer has finished, the broom and the space are handed over to the next performer. This choreographic meditation takes place daily, Tuesdays to Fridays from 12 to 3:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

In The Mending Project (2009/2021) needlepeople engage in conversations with visitors while mending or enhancing their clothes. These processes create a shared space in which it is possible to enter into a dialogue. Lee Mingwei lives in New York and Paris. In 2001, while waiting to find out if loved ones had survived the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, he turned to mending. The Mending Project extends this ritual of repair. Visitors are invited to bring their torn clothes to be repaired by mending hosts, while sharing conversation with each other. Similar to the Japanese kintsugi tradition of repairing pottery with gold, the Chinese and Taiwanese mending technique juci fixes ceramics with rice glue and nails. Within these cultural practices the objects are not seen as any less valuable for having undergone such a process. The colourful repairs that happen at The Mending Project table are consciously left visible as a reminder of the time, the dedication and the conversations. Each item on the table also has a tag recording the owner’s name and occupation. The repaired clothes which are attached by threads to spools on the wall form an ever-growing installation, like a network. At the end of the exhibition, the artist cuts the threads in order to return the clothes to their owners to take with them.

Money for Art(1994/2020, 2006/2020) raises the question whether art can function outside the constraints of capitalist exchange. Created when he was living in California, Lee sat in a café folding $10 bills into origami sculptures and asked passers-by if they would be interested in owning this work of art. As a condition for receiving the object the buyers had to agree to be contacted by Lee in six months’ time and again one year later. The result is a series of five photographs that document the origami works, the name and profession of the nine people who received them, and their subsequent trajectory. Many people kept their sculpture. Others unfolded them and used them as currency. Later iterations of Money for Art, shown in art spaces, included a shelving unit filled with origami $1 bills. Visitors were invited to replace them with an object they considered to be of equal value. For this exhibition Lee Mingwei has created a third version of the work: a vitrine containing five new origami sculptures.

New studio, gallery

Through 100 Days with Lily (1995), Lee makes the experience of living in the presence of an absent person both tangible and public. The title and the duration of 100 days reference the 1980–81 work One Year Performance by the Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh’s. Hsieh’s experiments with duration and endurance have been a major influence for Lee. The five photographs document one of Lee Mingwei’s earliest durational performances. In response to the death of his grandmother, he spent 100 days living with a daffodil plant. “When I went to my grandparents’ home during the Chinese New Year holiday, they often had daffodils in their living room. Since I couldn’t say the word ‘daffodil’ as a young boy, my grandmother just said the flower is a ‘lily’”. Grief is often an intimate process. The texts on the photographs record the actions that Lee performed with the plant. On day 22 the plant germinates, by day 79 the plant dies and Lee spends a further 21 days living with the withered flower. On day 100 he exhumes the bulb and replants it in the earth. This final part of the performance illustrates Lee’s understanding of life as being a cycle of births and deaths.

Personal encounters often are the starting for projects in which Lee Mingwei expresses his fascination with the giving of time and dedication. The artist attaches particular importance to the role of the host. In The Living Room (2000/2021), Munich collectors are invited to display, as hosts, their unique pieces and share them with strangers. Lee developed this project when he was the artist in resident at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) was a legendary arts patron and host whose house and collections formed the basis of the museum. Lee is convinced that everyone collects in some way, and he is interested in how objects can be conversation starters. For the Munich iteration of The Living Room, Lee launched an open call looking for people with unique collections. Furnished by the Böhmler und Poliform furniture stores, the living room invites visitors to linger, as it offers an exhibition within the exhibition. Over the course of 17 weeks, fifteen collections will be shown. The volunteer hosts will periodically be present to share the stories of their collections. The series of presentations starts out with a collection of teaching aids featuring anatomical specimens, followed by Munich independent magazines, homemade musical instruments, an eraser collection, 1930s ceramics, snow globes, teddy bears, griffelkunst or “stylus art”, a private art collection, a collection in orange, textile souvenirs with photos, chocolate wrappers, take-away objects, treasures from the Poetry Mailbox and matchbox cars.

New studio, upper floor

Our Peaceable Kingdom (2020/2021) is like The Living Room an exhibition within the exhibition and part of Lee’s ongoing exploration of models for peace in contemporary times. The point of departure is the painting Peaceable Kingdom, a c. 1883 work by the Quaker minister and artist Edward Hicks (1780–1849) which depicts a peace prophecy from the Book of Isaiah. Lee invited twelve painters to interpret Hicks’ image and in turn, these artists invited other painters to do the same with their works. All of the artists were asked to write a few lines about their concept of peace and their painterly process. The resulting paintings are displayed together with a reproduction of Hicks’ painting. For its presentation in Munich, three new works were added to the installation. The Munich artist Esther Rutenfranz painted her version of Hicks’ work and in turn, commissioned the artists Klaus Geigle and Mathes Schweinberger to each create a painting. Honouring the Quaker principle of tolerance as the foundation for peace, the installation brings radically different aesthetics and perspectives together, creating a metaphor for peaceful coexistence. Like this work, peace is an ongoing process.

Care and repair, a main concern for Lee Mingwei since the mid-1990s, are key themes in Guernica in Sand (2006/2021), which offers a ritual for transforming both historical and personal trauma. The point of departure for this monumental installation involving seven tonnes of sand is one of the most iconic artworks of Western modernism, Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). Picasso painted the work in response to the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). Rendering the motif in sand, Lee references the Tibetan Buddhist peace practice of sand mandalas. In this tradition, detailed sand paintings are painstakingly created and upon completion swept together. Guernica in Sand is not only an installation but also a five-hour performance. On Saturday, 3 July 2021, beginning at noon, Lee will work to finish the final part of the sand painting, which he had intentionally left incomplete. A light sculpture suspended from the ceiling illuminates the artist at work. During this process, visitors are invited to walk across the sand painting one after another, altering the image with their footsteps. In the second part of the performance, Lee and other performers sweep the sand together with bamboo brooms. Emphasis is placed not on the destruction of the cubist image but on its transformation and the transience of material things. Information and registration for a 10-minute walk across the sand installation Guernica in Sand on 3 July 2021, 12 p.m., at www.villastuck.de.

Lee grew up with the creation myth of the goddess Nu Wa. His Nu Wa Project (2005) references the tale of Nu Wa repairing the vault of heaven, which had been torn by battling gods. In order to fix this hole and protect her human creations, she takes several coloured stones, melts them and uses the paste to mend the cracked heavens. Her repair heralds peace in both the heavens and on earth. The Nu Wa Project takes the form of a traditional hand-woven silk kite on a bamboo frame. Lee worked with Master Hseih, a respected kite-maker in Taiwan, and the artist Chao Yu- Hsiu, who painted the image of Nu Wa. The goddess is depicted in her traditional form with a human head and a serpent-like body. “The idea underlying this work is for whoever owns the silk kite to write their dreams on it. Once the kite is filled with dreams, its owner should fly it as high as possible and then cut the string, allowing Nu Wa to patch up the hole in the sky.” When the work enters a collection, the collector is instructed to write his or her dreams onto the delicate fabric, before flying the kite and letting it go. Akin to Stone Journey, there is an implicit invitation to release the material object. Nu Wa is returned to the sky and the act symbolises peace.

A number of Lee’s projects develop from emotionally charged encounters in his youth. The Sleeping Project (2000/2021) stems from an experience he had after leaving high school. Lee backpacked through Europe, taking the night train from Paris to Prague. He shared a sleeping compartment with an elderly Polish man. As they spoke about the routes they were taking, it unfolded that the man was on his way to collect compensation for the time he had spent at the Auschwitz concentration camp. This encounter remains vivid for the artist. Moved by this exchange with a perfect stranger, Lee is curious as to whether an art institution can provide space for emotional connections and if the darkness of the night might facilitate intimate conversation. In non-pandemic times, people who have expressed their interest to do so are randomly chosen to spend a night in the exhibition with either Lee or a member of the Villa Stuck staff. For the time being, this project cannot be realised due to the current situation.

Historical rooms, dining room

Fabric of Memory (2006/2021) presents fabric items with memory potential in Franz von Stuck’s dining room. In the autumn of 2020, the Museum Villa Stuck launched an open call for Fabric of Memory, with Lee Mingwei asking people to search their homes for fabric items which hold memories, emotionally enrich their lives and, hence, tell stories. From the submissions Lee selected a number of items which are displayed in wooden boxes, along with accompanying anecdotes. “The point of inspiration for Fabric of Memory was my very first day of kindergarten. Because I didn’t want to go in, my mom told me to think of the jacket I was wearing as her embracing me throughout the day, and finally I agreed to go. She had spent six months learning how to sew in order to make my clothes for that day.” In non-pandemic times, Lee invites visitors to remove their shoes, step onto the wooden platform and unpack the boxes. After the stories have been read, the traditional Japanese sanada himo ribbons can be retied, repacking the “gift” for the next visitor. Currently, however, the boxes are presented open. Objects can help sustain emotions and moods linked to certain moments, people and places which no longer exist or have been lost. The selected fabric items with their associated personal stories bear moving witness to the emotions people associate with things, thereby uncovering the underlying interpersonal relationships and their powerful impact.

Historical rooms, smoking salon

In Chinese tradition, intricately formed stones were collected from remote places and served as a source of inspiration for literature and artworks. On a journey to Te Waipounamu, New Zealand’s South Island, Lee collected a number of stones formed by the processes of natural erosion from a glacial river, which he had then cast in bronze. Stone Journey (2010) presents nine pairs of stones, one of which is the original and the other its bronze cast. They are displayed on individual wooden platforms that are engraved with their approximate age, making tangible the enormous timespan that lies between these objects. For Lee, these pairs are a way of asking questions about both value and ownership. When the work is collected, a pair of stones is bought on the condition that one of the pair must be discarded. The owner must decide whether to discard the original stone or the bronze copy. This concept goes starkly against the logic of conserving an artwork and instead proposes that the real act of care is to allow the artwork to transform. For Lee, the work is a score, waiting to be enacted.

Historical rooms, music salon

Sonic Blossom (2013/2021) is a live artwork that is performed daily during the exhibition by classically trained opera singers. “It came into existence while I was caring for my mother as she recuperated from surgery. We found great comfort in listening to Franz Schubert’s Lieder. These songs came as an unexpected gift, one that soothed us both and clearly helped with her healing.” The singers walk through the space and approach visitors with a simple question, “May I offer you the gift of song?” If accepted, the visitor will experience a one-on-one performance of a Franz Schubert (1797–1828) song. One of the following Lieder is sung: Du Bist die Ruh (You Are Repose), An den Mond (To the Moon), Frühlingsglaube (Spring Faith), Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams) or Auf dem Wasser zu singen (To Be Sung on the Water). For Lee, this work tests the possibilities of giving and receiving something as immaterial and intimate as song. The question the recipients ask themselves in this situation in Franz von Stuck’s historical music salon is: To what extent can I open up to this moment and to the singer’s or artist’s gift? Sitting on a wooden chair, one is overwhelmed by the power of the music – and by the intimate moment of encounter in the midst of an exhibition space. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the performers are unable to wear what Lee refers to as a “transformation cloak”, created by the designer Akira Isogawa. Instead, the garment is displayed on a mannequin. The songs are performed for visitors on Tuesdays to Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Villa Stuck, basement

Like many of Lee’s works, The Tourist (2001/2020) is based on a deceptively simple premise. Lee adopts the role of “the tourist” and asks a local host to show him their city. The result is a series of personal tours where Lee is often taken far from the well-trodden paths that might typically be encountered by tourists. “Through The Tourist, I am able to see someone’s familiar world through their lens. And at the same time the guide is able to use my eyes to take a fresh look at their everyday environment.” The project was started in 2001, before social media and GPS technology radically altered the way that holiday photos, local knowledge and personal routes through cities are shared. Shown here are ten journeys through the cities of Tokyo, Paris, New York, Berkeley, Tainan, Kunitachi, Boston, Taipei, Jakarta and Berlin. In the installation, Lee’s photos and those of the hosts are projected side by side – a play on the classic holiday photo slideshow. Each host introduces the presentation and chooses the music for the soundtrack. And yet another tourist essential is addressed: the souvenir. Objects collected on the trips by Lee and the hosts are displayed in a vitrine. These souvenirs are bearers of memories that are emblematic of different travel destinations. Purposefully shown without labels, visitors are invited to speculate about where the objects were collected. Several of the boxes remain empty, waiting to be filled on future trips. Unfortunately, an extension devoted to Munich could not be added as planned due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Villa Stuck, Studiolo

When Lee Mingwei began studying for his MFA in sculpture at Yale University in New Haven, he was exploring durational performance. The Dining Project (1997/2021) was conceived as a yearlong endeavour in which Lee cooked for a stranger every second night. The meals were simple home cooking: chicken with tofu, rice and stir-fried vegetables. The project has continued to evolve since its first showing at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1998. At the VILLA STUCK, visitors can participate in this work, which has evolved from a dining project into a tea ceremony, via a lottery. Every Tuesday afternoon, randomly selected individuals can participate in a virtual tea ceremony with Lee Mingwei. In non-COVID times, guest and host sit on a purpose-made platform, surrounded by black beans. To Lee, the beans – which can be planted like seeds – symbolise what can “germinate” as a result of a simple, shared meal.

All quotes by Lee Mingwei are from the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.