Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, 2009/2014, tables, chairs, thread, fabric. Interactive installation.

Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, 2009/2014, tables, chairs, thread, fabric. Interactive installation.

Lee Mingwei

Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, 2009/2014, tables, chairs, thread, fabric. Interactive installation.

“Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Art of Participation—Seeing, Conversing, Gift-Giving, Writing, Dining and Getting Connected to the World”: the ambitious but unwieldy title of this retrospective exhibition spanning twenty years is deliberately multivalent. It extends standard readings of relational aesthetics from a practice based, in part, in Asian philosophies and art, proposing a broad conception of relations embracing family along with artistic companions, and often inviting perfect strangers to participate in intimate social activities—sleeping, dining, mending clothes. Rather than interrogating social structures or interrupting authority, as much European relational art does, Lee gently convenes conversations or confluences of actions that reaffirm connectedness between people, revealing the enriching possibilities of interactions undertaken with generosity and respect.

The gift is at the heart of Lee’s practice—he cites anthropologist Marcel Mauss and particularly essayist Lewis Hyde—and this gift giving is an essentially reciprocal process: According to Lee, each participant, donor, and recipient is changed by it. He intends these works to be reparative and harmonious, emphasizing self-awareness and deploying the Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness he first encountered as a boy in his native Taiwan. Moving Garden 2009/2014, for instance, originally commissioned for the Biennale de Lyon, invites visitors to take a flower and, on leaving the museum, bestow it on a stranger. (My Tokyo taxi driver was baffled but delighted.)

The conceptual strategies of the exhibition are impeccable. Curator Mami Kataoka weaves together a number of major participatory projects, starting with The Mending Project 2009/2014, a signature work. Visitors bring clothes to be repaired by tailors in the museum, leaving them until the exhibition’s end as mute witnesses to dialogues with strangers. (Lee originally trained in textiles; fabrics, with their imageries of affection and affiliation, often feature in his work.) Next are works deriving from the artist’s Chinese culture, such as Through Masters’ Eyes, 2004, in which eleven artists of Asian heritage re-created a celebrated Qing dynasty literati landscape. Other works situate participatory activities in Asian settings, such as The Dining Project, 1997/2014, which features a low, Asian-style table surrounded by tatami matting, and The Sleeping Project, 2000/2014, staged with beautiful Chinese-inflected furniture made to the artist’s design in Taiwan. This is not mere set-dressing. Each physical component embodies an elegant proposal, setting a tone of calm mindfulness, and is treated with great respect, both in its substance and in its crafting. Lee’s is an almost animist position: Every element of creation is revered.

Interrupting the show’s three major sections—“Thinking Relations, Connections, and In-Between Space”; “Walking, Eating, and Sleeping—Rethinking Everyday Action”; and “Thinking Connections of History, Culture, Society Through Personal Memories”—are what Lee and Kataoka call “Works for Relationality,” a dense assembly of pieces by artists as various as the celebrated Zen calligrapher Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768), D. T. Suzuki, John Cage, Yves Klein, Allan Kaprow, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. These multiple precedents point to a complexity that underscores, perhaps guarantees, the precision, and the potential, of Lee’s participatory projects. The currently popular invocation of artistic context has two roles here: It demonstrates what Lee describes as his bicultural identity, both Taiwanese and American, and, by invoking multiple heritages, it asks Japanese visitors to value the hybridity of this ephemeral art. For other, broader audiences, the challenge may be the obverse: to recognize the significance of Asian sources for contemporary collaborative and participatory art. Subtly, tenaciously, I think Lee succeeds.

Julie Ewington