An Exchange That Happens in Different Directions

An Interview between Lee Mingwei and Stephanie Rosenthal

Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand, 2006/2020

Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand, 2006/2020
Photo: Laura Fiorio

STEPHANIE ROSENTHAL: When we began thinking about your exhibition, significant words and terms were exchanged as part of our discussions. Three of those words that interconnect are “faith”, “chance” and “impermanence”. Let’s start with chance: how does this play out in your work?

LEE MINGWEI: When I think about the idea of chance, it’s the main thread that runs through everything I do and, in a sense, through everything that anyone does. I say this for a specific reason: if you imagine a family lineage, you are at the very end of that line. Your parents are the previous dot on that line, your grandparents before that, and so on. Eventually you reach a point where one of your ancestors is “in between” – which is to say that they are human and non-human. Continuing our dot-to-dot logic, you soon realise that one of your ancestors could be a creature between mammal and amphibian. You can trace that dot all the way back to a single cell. One of your amoeba ancestors could have been eaten by another amoeba, but that didn’t happen; one of your insect ancestors could have been destroyed by a drop of rain or a falling meteorite, but that didn’t happen. The chance of us having actually survived really is a miracle. For me, that says a lot about chance and faith: we are all at the mercy of both.

And faith? When making art or presenting exhibitions, are you drawing attention to your faith in the fact that your ideas will find their form at the right time? Or is faith something that simply operates in the background of your work?

I think it is both; faith and chance are the essences of my work. I ask faith and chance to help me create artworks, which makes the works much more complex than I alone could imagine. This is a more vulnerable and challenging position for me. All of my projects are like two people dancing the tango. When one person moves in one way, the other has to move with them. We really don’t know where we’ll be ten steps from now; however, I do have a bigger picture. The real step in this tango is that of depending on faith and chance.

It seems that faith and chance play an important role in the how and when the first seed of an idea is realised. Equally, you don’t seem to want to force the work’s timeframe. Do you think about your projects years before they come into being?

Yes, that is exactly the case. The seed of the project often comes from my personal experience. I only notice this seed if an experience has such power that it never goes away; it holds onto my spirit and soul so strongly that it drifts within the subconscious. When the project shifts into my conscious mind, I think, “Oh, there’s something. Could this be a worthwhile story to share with people?” Sometimes they are so delicate they’re not ready to be shared.

We have been thinking about Arnold van Gennep’s concept of rites of passage together. Originally he wrote in French. There are the rites de séparation, letting something go; the rites de marge, which are about the in between, the liminal; and the rites d’agrégation, in which one approaches a new state. I have always been most interested in the rites de marge as the most creative space because it takes place in a liminal space, where one has already let go of something but has not yet reached the new state. It’s the space where you reach beyond your own experience, an entirely unknown space that is difficult to put into words. You spoke about knowing something but not wanting to put it into words: that’s the rites de marge. Artworks allow you to be in that space.

I realise that if I apply words to these very delicate states too early, that it somehow cages and kills the magic. I really need to pay attention to precisely when these states of mind are ready to be shared – verbally or conceptually, with myself or with friends.

It’s interesting what happens when you have to put an idea into words. I also feel that you can write a text in your head and on the page it can read differently. On the one hand language can free ideas by making them concrete. On the other it can hinder them from unfolding. There can be fluidity between the two poles. Some ideas simply fall into place and some ideas resist the linear order of language. What does it mean to you to put ideas into words?

Sometimes I do need words to solidify these very ephemeral things because they can be too fluid – to the point where there’s almost nothing there. On the other hand, in this fluidity there can be something that I need to protect, something I don’t want to cage. I have such admiration for poets because they are magicians; they are the ones who know when and how words become the magic ingredients of the imagination. I’m slightly scared of words because they can cage ideas. However, poets or writers can liberate with words.

Do you use exhibitions and the new environment of the institution to grow the seed of an idea that you’ve had a long time ago, in order to realise a new work at a later stage? Can art institutions provide such a space for rites of transition (rites de marge)?

My last travelling survey show was from 2014–2016, which was six years ago. Everything has changed – even I have changed, but there is a steady stream of consciousness running through my practice, which you can see alongside my new work. I think this Gropius Bau show has already become a pivotal point of reflection for me: reflecting on myself, on my work and on Europe. When I was living in America I was truly American-Taiwanese. Now, after having lived in Paris since 2015, I’m very interested to see how this exhibition will be received and responded to by an audience in a European context. I can already feel another artwork in a fluid, nascent state; this will come into being later, and is inspired by the collective effort and energy at the Gropius Bau.

The site of the Gropius Bau is incredibly politically and historically charged. During the Nazi period, the headquarters of the Gestapo were located next door. Across the road was Hermann Göring’s Haus der Flieger, where the House of Representatives (Abgeordnetenhaus) is today. Next to that building was the Ministry of Aviation, the home of the Luftwaffe. In 1945 the Gropius Bau was extensively bombed; you can still see World War II shrapnel damage and bullet holes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, restorers left the building’s injuries so that they remained tangible. The building bears witness to the injury and trauma of its own history and, in turn, to all of our histories. Due to the building’s history, we are engaged with the concepts of care and repair. Repairing relationships is the focus of several of your works, particularly Guernica in Sand, 2006/2020. What influenced you to create this work for the first time?

Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand, 2006/2020

Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand, 2006/2020
Photo: Laura Fiorio

Guernica in Sand is a project, superficially, about East and West. It’s my homage to two different traditions and practices. One is the history of Western painting – recreating Picasso’s iconic modernist painting Guernica, 1937. It is also my homage to the practice in Buddhist temples of creating mandala sand paintings. People can see it as a political statement or not. Guernica was a very direct response to the bombing of the Spanish town, Guernica, which was carried out by the Luftwaffe in collaboration with the Italian Aviazione Legionaria. They used a campaign of carpet bombing and set a precedent for intensive destruction during World War II. Within one day the city was brutally flattened. Picasso was, to put it mildly, angry and overwhelmed with sadness and he created this painting in a very short time while he was in Paris. He said that until Spain became democratic, the painting would not be shown there. The creation of sand mandala in Tibetan-Buddhist practice takes weeks and involves four to eight monks making extremely delicate sand paintings. They are heavenly and extremely defined depictions of where Buddha lives. At the end, a ceremony to brush the sand painting together takes place; it is not destroyed, but transformed into something else. On one single day in the middle of the exhibition’s run, from noon until sunset, I try to finish the last part of Guernica in Sand. Simultaneously, one person in the audience is allowed to walk onto the sand. Then a second person takes over and this continues until the day’s end. We conclude the performance as a group of six. Each of us has a broom and we brush the sand, gesturing towards the middle of the work, and then we leave Guernica in Sand in this state for the remainder of the exhibition. I remember when I was presenting this work at the Mori Art Museum, one guest said accusingly, “Why are you destroying the greatest painting in the world?” I could feel and see her anger. She only saw the destruction; she didn’t see the transformation. This work has a political backdrop, but I wish to talk about us as humanity: how do we move on after destruction?

Presenting and performing Guernica in Sand at this site and in Berlin feels like part of a process of healing. How do you approach care, repair and healing in your other works?

Care and repair are present in The Mending Project, 2009/2020 and even in Sonic Blossom, 2013/2020. The process of healing is part of the work. I want to be careful with the word “healing”, as I don’t assume that people are broken or damaged. For example, sometimes people are so moved by the gift of song that they cry, but not necessarily because they are broken – and if they are heart broken, that’s also perfectly fine. I don’t want to suggest that the singers are superior or can cure us. Being the mender in The Mending Project is incredibly healing for me, personally, because of the beautiful stories that people share.

In terms of the link between crafts and mending, and the related shifts in meaning, we could also discuss the Japanese tradition of kintsugi. Is this an approach that interests you?

In Taiwan we actually also have a technique for mending ceramics known as juci. It’s not as elaborate as the mending in Japan, where cracks in ceramics are mended with gold. The repairs to Taiwanese ceramics are rougher: rice glue is used and cracks are nailed together. The idea is that when something is broken and you have a personal relationship to it – to a piece of clothing or a bowl – then the repair makes it even more beautiful and also functional. Kintsugi and juci are similar traditions in this sense – this way of thinking is deeply embedded in East Asian cultures.

That undermines the capitalist ideal of the consumption of goods. Currently an awareness is re-emerging that questions this “ideal” and instead celebrates the repair of objects. Another facet of The Mending Project or Sonic Blossom is the way you consider them to be gifts – the gift of repair or the gift of song. Many philosophical traditions make us aware of the underlying power relations of gift giving. By giving something, someone is indebted to you. How do you feel about this?

As someone from a Confucian society, I have a very different relationship to gifts. One of the five virtues of Confucianism is li, which could be translated as “rite”, “ritual” or “gift”. So when we say liwu, which means “the object of the rite”, it means we always prepare a gift when going anywhere. In Confucianism, the gift is a way of me gratefully saying, “thank you”. It’s not about what you can do for me in return. It’s the same with Sonic Blossom: the person who is offered the song has the right to say, “I don’t want a song to be sung for me,” or they could openly receive a Schubert song. Usually, the gift is quickly reciprocated back to the singer and, within a few seconds, the singer is also emotionally moved – sometimes they can’t finish singing because the gift is returned in such a powerful way.

The full-length interview between Lee Mingwei and Stephanie Rosenthal can be found in the exhibition catalogue Lee Mingwei: 禮 Li, Gifts & Rituals, published by Silvana Editoriale.