Lee Mingwei: Hanging by a Thread

By Ariel Swartley

Lee Mingwei does not make objects so much as he makes possibilities. A slender platform slopes outward from a hillside. Follow its path from the forest and arrive at a single potted tree. These images, from Grandfather’s Incline designed by Mingwei and the architect Stephan Freid, invite us to consider how natural and man-made landscapes can intersect and even illuminate each other.

Proposed as a permanent public artwork to be sited on Montalvo’s well-used network of hiking trails, An Offering and Public Art Proposal: Grandfather’s Incline does not yet exist. The platform, intended to float somewhere above the Garden Theatre, is currently suspended between now and then. In that anticipatory state—where plans are sketched and instructions are penciled in—we must puzzle out for ourselves what the experience of descending the incline is likely to be. The elevations and topographical maps displayed in the Project Space offer a new, intimate view of the hillside—a kind of x-ray vision. At the same time, without an actual structure to tether us to the ground, we’re free to go off on our own tangents, to remember other precipitous slopes and their angles of repose.

To feel oneself vigorously launched, then left momentarily dangling, is a frequent experience in Mingwei’s work. In movies or novels suspense is accompanied by a rush of adrenaline. Mingwei’s objective is a different sort of emotional chemistry. It’s not surprising to learn that he studied Ch’an Buddhism in his native Taiwan. Like the paradoxes beloved by Buddhist monks, Mingwei’s not-fully-determined spaces induce, after the first startled moment, a feeling of buoyancy. In this sudden unfreighted state deeper perceptions and renewed intentions more easily arise.

His projects draw on a variety of skills and practices, some traditionally belonging to the arts, others frankly domestic. Sewing, writing, photography, gardening, cooking, sculpting, performance: For Mingwei, the common denominator is people. His constructions—of whatever material and whether concrete or metaphorical—are designed as arenas for engagement. Guernica in Sand, a recent installation, up-ends the idea of art as an object requiring protection and preservation. Each day as he recreated Picasso’s revered Guernica as a sand painting, Mingwei proposed that a spectator walk through it, disrupting the picture even as he was busy renewing it.

Mingwei studied biology and architecture—both full of lessons in interdependence--before completing a degree in textile arts. But that subject holds lessons, too: Delicate threads, when interwoven, can support many times their weight. His Fabric of Memory, a 2006 piece, first appears as an array of wooden boxes tied with ribbon. Like presents, they’re designed to be opened by exhibit visitors. Each contains a piece of hand-made clothing. Contributed by community members, the clothes are accompanied by written explanations of who made them and why they are cherished. The boxes, unlike the nubby sweaters, are uniformly smooth and their arrangement is enticing, but they are simply housing. Call them junction boxes for connections waiting to be made.

“Psychologically or physically,” Mingwei has said, “(I) build a platform for people to come in and put their story and their experience in my context.” Out of that warp and woof of single intention and communal engagement come works whose dimensions spread far beyond the habitual boundaries of viewing hours and exhibition space.

Submission number 858932 to the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition envisaged 12-foot glass walls built to the building’s thickness and erected on its original footprint. Designed by Stephan Freid and recreating a project originally staged by Mingwei in 1990s, the walls would be filled with letters written by visitors at stations scattered around the site. The project, though not chosen and not built, stands as a convincing demonstration. Over time, love and memory can make a fabric more enduring than steel.

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