Actualizing Connections: Lee Mingwei and His Relations at Mori Art Museum
Interacting with Lee Mingwei's The Moving Garden

The Japanese noun for "human" is written with two Chinese characters -- the first represents "people" and the second represents "space" ( 人間).  Lee Mingwei's work emblematizes this concept that the space between us helps to define our relationships with others, and in turn defines ourselves.  Mori Art Museum's Lee Mingwei and His Relations; The Art of Participation--Seeing, Conversing, Gift-Giving, Writing, Dining and Getting Connected to the World is a show that re-enacts many of the artist's works from the past 20 years.  Creating open-ended participatory installations, Lee Mingwei invites museum visitors to explore day-to-day interactions and dwell on how quietly magical the mundane can be.

Take, for example, the artist's The Moving Garden, first conceptualized in 2009.  In Mori Art Museum's iteration, a rectangular granite structure installed in the middle of the gallery space contains colorful blooming gerbera daisies.  Visitors are asked to participate in the work by taking a flower with them on two conditions: (i) to take a different route when leaving the museum than the one used to arrive; and (ii) in that detour, to give the flower as a gift to a stranger.  With these directives, Lee Mingwei not only permits visitors to interact with the work, but also sets the scene to create tangible relational effects outside of the museum walls.  The artist has facilitated an unexpected exchange that creates kindness and a connection between strangers.

As I walked about the structure, I noticed other visitors hovering around, enjoying both the unexpected surprise of seeing beautiful fresh flowers installed in the museum, and tentatively deciding whether to participate in the work.  A pair carefully selected some gerbera stems, carefully inserting the flowers into plastic sleeves complete with hydrating gel and the name of the exhibition printed on them available for taking the flowers away.  I myself decided to choose an orange gerbera with a long stalk, later finding out that orange gerberas stand for patience and an adventurous spirit.  (I did give the flower away to a then-stranger and now-acquaintance who I met at an appointment after my museum visit!)

Another piece that stuck with me is The Living Room, first created as a commission for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 2000.  In the original iteration, the artist created a living room in the museum, allowing staff and others to serve as hosts who engaged in "show and tell" dialogues using objects of personal importance.  As originally undertaken, Lee Mingwei created an environment where visitors could reflect on personal collecting and the significance of sharing objects with others -- some of Gardner's very motives for building her own museum.  At the Mori Art Museum's iteration, hosts shared memories of the history of the Roppongi neighborhood in which Mori Art Museum exists.  When I dropped by the space, Yumi spoke about her mother's connection to the Roppongi neighborhood; as a young woman, Yumi's mother worked for Nikka Whiskey, one of Japan's first whiskey distilleries, that had a business office in the area (and also happens to be the basis for an upcoming morning serial drama series).  While the conversation first began as Yumi's storytelling, the dialogue began to flow as more people convened on the sofas within the space.

Lee Mingwei, The Living Room

A section of the exhibition dedicated to works from Hakuin, D. T. Suzuki, John Cage and others served as an interesting interlude to Lee Mingwei's participatory works.  Following a more traditional format, this section of the exhibition posited Lee Mingwei's practice with relational art and happenings, and across history and different cultures.  Seeing the powerful calligraphy and ink brush paintings of 17th century Zen Buddhist painter, Hakuin, and hearing the recorded voice of 19th century theorist, D. T. Suzuki (who was seminal in spreading Zen tenets in the West), I was reminded that one aspect of Zen philosophy is "mindfulness" or the acceptance of one's being in the present moment.  Lee Mingwei's work most certainly helps make visible invisible relationships and connections, and in doing so, aids the visitor in achieving self-awareness within one's environs.  And perhaps that is what it means to be human.

Lee Mingwei and His Relations is at the Mori Art Museum until January 4, 2015.

With gratitude to Ms. Mami Hirose, Senior Consultant at the Mori Art Museum, for graciously allowing me to see the show and for sharing her perspectives.