The secret to a good public relations interview? Switch on the voice recorder and ask questions — that is all you need to know. Except, of course, it’s not. Usually the interviewee has a particular image to maintain and the interviewer is looking for something that hasn’t already been said — incompatible objectives.
However, as Lee Mingwei’s art is more about the practice of daily life than the creation of objects, an interview is, you would hope, an occasion to make a human connection. In this respect one of his only “vices,” by his own admission, is that an interviewer may walk out of the room having divulged as much about themselves as the artist. Thank goodness, then, that while he loves to find out about other people, he does not like gossip, because a good third of our hour together is taken up with nearly everyone else in the room, myself included, happily divulging our own heinous secrets.
Mingwei himself, by contrast, is definitely someone you could take home and introduce to your mother. He is clean-shaven and doesn’t drink, smoke, take drugs or even stay up late. Staff at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, Tokyo, where his work is currently on display, have noticed the unusual phenomenon of people wanting to give him presents, especially food, and it’s not hard to see why. Some people give you energy when you meet them, and some take it away. Not only is Lee of the former, but he’s made it his art practice. He is the antithesis of the romantic tortured artist, unlike his fellow MFA students at Yale, who, he says, would drift into the studio after a late night of Sturm und Drang to find him beaming with delight from an early-morning swim. When he was younger his mother was worried he would become a monk.
Although he was brought up in both Catholicism and Buddhism, the moral cosmology of an education with Benedictine and Dominican monks has largely been jettisoned in favor of the praxis of listening to nature, meditation and healthy living. Ideas come to him “like dreams” while long-distance swimming or taking baths in the dark and listening to classical music, rather than as the result of conscious grappling with intellectual concerns. He notes that when reviewers in the U.S. and Europe write about him and his work, it tends to revolve around how Buddhism influences him, whereas in Asian countries it is about relational aesthetics, the Fluxus movement and other interests he might have picked up in his art education in America.
Apart from an obvious curiosity about the unfamiliar, Lee understands that he is being exoticised through the different filters of background culture. He says he’s OK with it, though, because, as he puts it, “I thrive on difference. I like to be different; maybe that’s because I’m an artist, or vice versa. Because of that I became an artist.” Indeed, at his press conference he was splendidly attired in a colorful silk changpao gown, which stood out dramatically from the sea of formal black in which nearly everyone else was dressed.
The success of Lee’s projects, however, is not that he is the center of attention, but that the attention is shared between the artist and the participant. A fusing of the Buddhist notion of co-dependent arising with the social interaction of relational aesthetics is fundamental to works such as the “Mending Project,” where members of the public bring a damaged fabric item to be repaired. This mending has been done by Lee himself, but due to the scale of the Mori exhibition, people also cover for him when he is not there.
The setup of the exhibition as a whole reflects this dissipation of focus, with the unusual inclusion, for a mid-career retrospective, of work by people other than Mingwei, such as Yves Klein, Rirkrit Tiravanija and the Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki. The implication is to show that the artist is part of a continuum of aesthetic and philosophical activity, but may have also been a curatorial solution for filling the large space of the Mori Museum when Lee’s work often hinges on his personal interaction with limited numbers of participants.
In the midst of the otherwise gentle, wholesome, Buddhist-oriented projects that form the majority of Mingwei’s work, it was something of a surprise to see the phrase “masturbated with Lily” appear in documentation of one of his early pieces. Not because of the frank admission of onanism per se, but because it seemed so incongruous. Lee explains that the anomaly belongs to a time when he felt it necessary to be confrontational in order to be taken seriously as an artist. As testament to his commitment to process, he is neither embarrassed nor proud of his former self — he just accepts that that was then and this is now.
“Lee Mingwei and His Relations” at Mori Art Museum runs till Jan. 4; open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tue., till 5 p.m.). ¥1,500. www.mori.art.museum