In Lee Mingwei’s ‘Sonic Blossom’ at the Met, Schubert Is Intimate Installation Art
Ahead to the left on Friday morning was Yvonne Jacquette’s painting“Little River Farm”; to the right, Chuck Close’s “Lucas I,” a portrait of the artist Lucas Samaras. Straight ahead, some dozen yards away, a young soprano, Beibei Guan, having politely inquired, “May I offer you the gift of a song?” and seated me in the lone chair, sang Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume” (“Night and Dreams”) directly to me.
Since this was an open gallery, the Blanche and A. L. Levine Court, in the modern and contemporary art area of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we were not alone. A dozen or so others, appreciative or merely curious, gathered around to listen. But Ms. Guan’s focus was so intense, her delivery so riveting, her singing so beautiful that those others, and the Jacquette and the Close, all faded from consciousness.
That is the gist of the current interactive performance installation “Sonic Blossom,” conceived by the Taiwanese-born artist Lee Mingwei, formerly resident in New York, now in Paris. The spare physical elements — a chair; a delicate stand for the small speaker system placed behind the singer, replacing live piano; exotic cloaks for the vocalists — are all of Mr. Lee’s design.
The soprano Margaret Newcomb walks through the Blanche and A. L. Levine Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. CreditJulieta Cervantes for The New York Times
The 11 rotating singers are from the Manhattan School of Music except Ms. Guan, 27, who hails from Zhejiang in mainland China. Ms. Guan completed her master’s studies at the Boston Conservatory and took part in the American premiere of “Sonic Blossom” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in March.
New Yorkers may recall Mr. Lee from previous installations, including “The Moving Garden” at the Brooklyn Museum in 2011. There each visitor was invited to pick a flower from a row lining a long granite table and, once back on the street, present it to a stranger.
Mr. Lee’s current concerns, obviously, are with direct human contact, communication and giving, and in “Sonic Blossom,” the contact is as direct as could be. The singers — two alternate in any given three-and-a-half-hour segment — circulate among the visitors in the gallery or neighboring ones and choose their marks not quite at random.
“The only thing I told them,” Mr. Lee said in an interview, “was to use their hearts.” The cloaks, he added, are meant to make the singers feel like demigods, bringing beauty into the world.
The singers choose from among five Schubert lieder. No texts, translations or explanations are provided, and since the typical museumgoer cannot be expected to understand German, be familiar with the individual songs or perhaps even know who Schubert was, it is just singer and listener, communing over a distance.
“I don’t consider myself a performer,” Ms. Guan said in an interview. “I’m a giver and receiver. I try to carry my heart through the space. It inspires me to pour my heart out.”
Indeed she does, and I can attest that for an attentive listener the effect can be intense and powerful. I was reduced to tears after the performance and couldn’t even compose myself to thank Ms. Guan properly.
This wasn’t entirely surprising, since I do know something about Schubert and his songs, and the impact that the composer and his music have on me. And as — still blubbering — I told Mr. Lee, I’ve always been sentimental about many things, and since my open-heart surgery of four years ago, anything that moves me deeply can make me cry, leaving me embarrassed and unable to explain.
“That’s exactly how this piece came about,” Mr. Lee said, taking slight license. He talked of his music-loving mother, who, when he was a rambunctious child, would play recordings of Schubert songs to calm him down. More, she played them quietly, so he would have to concentrate to take them in.
He developed a lifelong taste for them, and when his mother had open-heart surgery three years ago in Taiwan he attended her recovery, playing for her the Schubert songs used here. Asked to create something for the inauguration of a branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, in Seoul, he replied that he would have to wait some months because of his mother’s operation, and it was during those months that “Sonic Blossom” came together in his mind.
It would be nice to be able to report that everyone had a response to the work as deeply emotional as mine, and some seemed to. Others simply took it in stride — when aren’t you accosted in New York by strangers wanting to give you something? — and simply walked away, probably scratching their heads internally.
I heard only eight of the singers over two days, and the performance level, hardly the point of the exercise, varied.
“I want to work with students,” Mr. Lee said, “because there’s something not quite so perfect about their work. They’re humble, not thinking, ‘My work is so beautiful.’ They’re just giving it out.”
But one other singer must be singled out: Dominick Corbacio, a tenor, who gave one excellent performance after another of the sublime “Du Bist die Ruh” (“You Are the Calm”) on Saturday afternoon, almost too much of a good thing for us sentimentalists to bear.
“Sonic Blossom” has moved to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the Asian art area of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it runs through Thursday, and will return to the Levine Court from Friday through Sunday. Metropolitan Museum of Art; 212-570-3949, metmuseum.org.
Last Wednesday, Vanessa Moroney brought her 7-year-old son, Aidan, on a special mother-son outing to the Museum of Fine Arts. In the William I. Koch Gallery, they spotted a woman wearing an ornate costume made of two embroidered silk kimono obis. She was soprano Teresa Winner Blume, and she approached the pair.
“May I offer you the gift of song?” she asked Aidan. He agreed, and she led him to a special chair in the gallery, a regal space with a salon-style installation of European paintings and gleaming Hanover silver. Blume stood a short distance away, and sang to Aidan an art song by Franz Schubert. Her voluptuous voice resounded through the gallery.
“It was wonderful, and very exciting,” Aidan reported afterward. “I loved it.”
“I was crying,” Vanessa Moroney said. “As a mother, what a gift, to be able to watch my son experience opera for the first time.”’
Aidan was among the first museum visitors to take part in artist Lee Mingwei’s “Sonic Blossom,” a performance art project running through April 9, during which classically trained singers bestow songs from Schubert’s lieder on individuals.
Lee, who was born in Taiwan and is based in New York, specializes in works that celebrate the intimacy of gift exchange. In 2000, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, his project “The Living Room” invited museum staff to share their own collections in a domestic-style space. For “The Moving Garden,” at the Lyon Biennial in 2009, he encouraged visitors to take flowers from a 45-foot-long installation, provided that the flowers be given to strangers.
He was inspired by cultural critic Lewis Hyde’s book “The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.” He has befriended Hyde, who visited “Sonic Blossom” on Wednesday.
“It’s astounding,” said Hyde. “A trained voice like that penetrates your body, and it’s as if it calls into the body emotion that you’ve related to the song. It’s a feeling you don’t get from looking at a painting.”
The point of a gift, said Lee, is that it is freely bestowed. “A gift is not monetary. It can transcend boundaries between strangers,” he said. “The response can be in the moment or years later."
For those in the Koch Gallery, the response was immediate. Blume’s next recipient was Sherrill Hunnibell, Aidan’s grandmother, who, together with another grandchild, had met up with the family at the museum. Blume didn’t realize the two were related.
When Hunnibell sat down, “she looked so serene,” Blume said. “I saw her take a deep breath and exhale, and turn her palms upward, which I took as a signal that she was ready to receive.”
As Blume sang, the connection between the performer and her listener transcended the hubbub of school groups in the gallery.
“Her voice was just entering my body in so many ways, I had to open to it,” Hunnibell said.
“Sonic Blossom” debuted at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul in 2013, and has been performed in contemporary-art spaces in Beijing and Tokyo. This is its US premiere, and the first time it has been staged in an encyclopedic museum.
Schubert fits in this European gallery, which spotlights narrative works and portraits by painters such as Titian, Poussin, and El Greco. Indeed, if you can take your eyes away from the singer and the listener, you’ll find that the Schubert lieder provide a stirring complement to the paintings.
Lee has trained eight soloists, who choose one of five songs to sing. The songs are roughly four minutes long. They revolve around a central idea, said Jen Mergel, the MFA’s senior curator of contemporary art: “The beauty of a fleeting moment. Moonlight recalls lost love. The sun shimmering on water, the brevity of life.”
The inspiration for “Sonic Blossom” came when Lee was home in Taiwan, taking care of his mother, who was ill with heart disease.
“When I was growing up, summers in Taiwan were hot, and I’d run around,” he said. “My mom would play Schubert at a low volume. I asked her to turn it up, and she’d say, ‘Be quiet and listen.’ She tricked me into being a quiet child.”
The artist played Schubert for his mother while she was in the hospital. When he was commissioned to create “Sonic Blossom,” Schubert was his soundtrack. He understands the composer’s magic, and created the trappings of the project — the costume, the chair, the rituals around the performance — as a conduit for that magic.
A tag sewn into the costume reads: “This cloak transforms the wearer into a magical being, bestowed with the power to give the gift of music.”
Singers usually sing into the dark of a theater. “On stage, we perform into the void,” said Blume. “We know it’s landing on faces and ears, but it’s different to hold one person’s gaze.”
Such a personal exchange can crack open social defenses. When Blume sang to Aidan Moroney, she was reminded of her own children, who are 7 and 9. But she kept the focus on Aidan — and on the song.
“His mother began sobbing, and he was just rapt and engaged and present,” said Blume. “I was moved. I felt the need to give the gift and not — if I broke down, I would take something away. When it was over, I was crying.”
Lee Mingwei: Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street
October 20–March 26
Lee Mingwei, who emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in his adolescence, presents a pair of installations as a contemporary coda to this museum’s permanent exhibition on 150 years of Chinese-American history. The Quartet Project, 2005, comprises four computers, each showing a video that features one member of a string ensemble in an otherwise dark gallery. The musicians play Antonín Dvořák’s 1893 American Quartet, which the Czech composer wrote in Iowa and which, like his New World Symphony, pays a debt to American folk music, not least African-American and Native American sources. The monitors are hidden behind L-shaped baffles and facing the wall, so that all you can see is a hazy light from the musical source. One’s impulse may be to peek around the partitions—but that trips a motion detector, cutting both sound and image with a hideous click. To hear the full piece, especially its aching second movement, you’ll have to stay put in the center of the space. There might be beauty in the story of migration, but try to get to the level of the individual and it’s access denied. (Lee is also presenting a participatory installation in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum, on view until January 22.)
For The Travelers, 2010–11, the artist sent one hundred empty notebooks to friends and art-world acquaintances, as well as to strangers, whom he asked to “write a personal story of leaving home.” (“I still see myself as a Midwesterner, not a true New Yorker,” writes Maya Lin—who also confesses that “it took years to get a New York driver’s license.”) These correspondents then sent the books onward to their own relatives or friends; some have since returned to MoCA, and some are probably lost. Part chain letter, part exquisite corpse, the books have bounced from Vancouver and London to Beijing and Guangzhou, and one went as far as the arctic Svalbard archipelago. Visitors have to wear protective gloves to handle them, which freights the at times stunningly personal stories with an added fragility—as if, in this new Chinese century as much as the lapsed American one, the individual character of our lives and movements risks crumbling in our hands. — Jason Farago
MOUNT Stuart, the late Victorian palace of the Third Marquess of Bute, is a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture and decoration. Every inch of wall, floor or ceiling has a carving, a painting, a piece of an allegory. Not so much a feast as the kind of pleasurable overindulgence which leaves you needing the visual equivalent of antacid tablets. So the contemporary artists who take part in the annual programme here need a certain amount of brass neck. Every year, an artist is invited to respond to an aspect of the house, gardens or grounds. But what's a visual artist to do in the midst of so much ocular stimulation?
That's what makes the strategy of this year's artist, Lee Mingwei, so clever: he doesn't attempt to add anything visual, instead he has added sound. Near the bottom of the marble staircase, you can begin to make out the sounds of someone practising a woodwind instrument - an oboe, perhaps, or a bassoon. The source is indeterminate, though perhaps it comes from the corridor behind the 18th century organ, one of the parts of the house not open to the public.
The player is not an experienced musician - some of the notes feel uncertain; there are false starts, snatches of scale, the occasional mistake. At times, a small group is playing together, accompanied by a piano. A little later, a group of children seem to be playing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
A melancholy folk song echoes up the marble staircase, lined with portraits of the ancestral Butes, by artists including Ramsay and Reynolds. It also carries softly into the long Drawing Room, where the Titian and the Tintoretto hang. The visitor guide grimaces: "Could they not have chosen a better tune?"
But, of course, Mingwei's choice is entirely deliberate. His works are often subtle, domestic in scale -these are musicians from a local school, Rothesay Joint Campus. At times they will play live, at other times the music is a recording; visitors will never know which they are listening to. And the sound of their playing brings a gentle air of domesticity into this gorgeous museum piece of a house, full of priceless works of art and signs asking you politely not to touch.
Mingwei has noticed, and makes good use of, the building's dramatic response to sound. It has its own quality of silence. Voices from the Marble Hall echo in and out of the surrounding rooms. Visitors might find themselves walking softly, lest they disturb the echoing quiet.
You might think your ears were deceiving you if, in the upstairs hallway, you thought you heard birdsong.
In fact, if you trust your ears and follow the sound, it will lead you to the Horoscope Room, built by the third marquess as his sitting room, and its conservatory. Here, Mingwei has placed three canaries in ornate cages, little yellow puff-balls, tweeting, warbling and occasionally shrieking. Absurd and anarchic, they assert their small, vigorous voices in the house's great silence. And the visitors respond. We may have seen countless great works of art since darkening the door, but we are unaccountably charmed by a little yellow bird, preening, pecking, fluffing its feathers, bursting with life.
Since the Mount Stuart Visual Arts Programme was launched in 2001, few artists have been so bold in their interventions, or so subtle. Many have preferred to work outdoors - the tree which was coated in silver by Anya Gallaccio still glitters in the Pinetum. By daring to work within the house, Mingwei is challenging us to be attentive to more than just the treasures on display. But we need to meet him halfway. Often his work requires some participation - viewers have been asked to eat a meal or write a letter in his exhibitions. It's the same here: we need to pay attention, these works can be missed. If we choose not to find our imaginations sparked by his musicians, or to find ourselves charmed by his yellow birds, the loss is ours.
The third piece of his trilogy is in the grounds, a large circular windchime made of bronze and wood suspended in a grove of four lime trees. On the perfectly still day on which I visited, it was issuing only the rarest, softest chimes. But listening for it did make me attentive to other sounds: seagulls wheeling, a tractor cutting the grass, the pitter-patter of rain on leaves. Made in Taiwan (Mingwei's country of birth, although he now lives in New York) it both looks and sounds Eastern, in this highly Western-looking landscaped park.
The symbols inherent in its simple shapes are the circle (enlightenment or the realisation of the ideal) and square (earth): the transcendent and the mundane. If you were not looking for it, you might happen upon it here, catching the soft sounds of its music on the wind and wondering what magic produced them. Or you might not. The challenge of Mingwei's subtle, undemanding interventions is that they may be too easily missed.
“Generation 1.5” refers to people who emigrate during their adolescent years, whose identity, unlike those of adult immigrants or children born in their parents’ adopted country, is shaped by both their old and new cultures.
Cross-cultural identity is addressed by some of the works in “Generation 1.5.” Elsewhere the show floats into general meditations on globalization and cultural dislocation.
One of the best expressions of the “Generation 1.5” sensibility is Lee Mingwei’s “Quartet Project,” a sound and video installation. Monitors turned toward the walls in a dark room play a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s “American Quartet”. Each time you approach a monitor, the sound and image cease — although they continue on other monitors in the room. The inability to simultaneously experience both aural and visual aspects of the performance is an apt metaphor for an individual ricocheting between cultures.
Hybridization is approached in Seher Shah’s drawings, which combine lotus patterns, Mecca cubes and Western architectural motifs. The successful contemporary artist as globalized citizen is made concrete in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s painstakingly recreated passport filled with stamps from nearly every continent and Emily Jacir’s Webcam stills taken during a residency in Linz, Austria.
Becoming an American artist is explored in Ellen Harvey’s miniaturized copies of every work in the Whithey Museum of American Art’s publication “American Visionaries.” Pablo Helguera’s installations of journals, drawings and memorabilia, Shirin Neshat’s video about censorship and Nari Ward’s installation with wheelchairs on stilts are some of the most dramatic and physically imposing works, but they feel the least connected to meditations on “Generation 1.5.”
The show is emblematic of the Queens Museum’s program, which is increasingly devoted to reflecting the borough’s extensive diversity. But a risk in this approach is that it may turn the immigrant experience into a platitude. At times, despite the sexy, cyber-sociology title, “Generation 1.5” moves toward this.
Fittingly titled "Impermanence" LEE Mingwei's interactive installation at the Chicago Cultural Center confronts us with the transitory nature of life and human connection. Each of his four highly conceptual pieces considers the poignancy of passing time, encouraging us to think about -- and, in the participatory work, experience -- the edge between life and death, trust and fear, intimacy and absence.
The simplest expression of this idea -- and the only non-participatory work in the show -- is "100 Days with Lily," an oddly moving photographic work that documents the artist's relationship with a flower he planted as a bulb and then nurtured through its growth, blossoming, wilting and death. If most of us consider a houseplant an almost inanimate object, Mingwei's attention to its life cycle makes it seem more like a pet or a friend and inevitably its death is sad.
But it is the obsessiveness of Mingwei's documentation that makes this work psychologically interesting. The five photographs tell of his ongoing daily activities with the plant, which he carried with him everywhere for 100 days, even after it died on day 79. The work is a little reminiscent of the weird short story by Guy de Maupassant about the man who falls in love with a coil of woman's hair he finds in a secret drawer in an antique desk. He takes the hair everywhere, even buying it its own seat at the opera. Unlike De Maupassant, though, Mingwei does not consider the relationship of attachment to madness; his subject is devotion, death and letting go.
"Gernika in Sand" approaches impermanence from a different point of view. In this work, Mingwei has reproduced Picasso's classic painting about war in sand, a most impermanent medium, on the galley floor several times the size of the original. The work is interactive; viewers were invited to watch the artist make the sand painting and, at intervals, to walk on it, destroying it even as he created it. Part of our enjoyment of the work is the knowledge that at the end of the show it will disappear and viewers further enjoy participating in a trusting agreement with the artist throughout its exhibition: We choose to preserve it although we easily could destroy it.
Sand painting is a traditional form; Buddhist artists spend many hours creating sand mandalas that will disappear in far less time than they took to make. Here Mingwei's intentions and Eastern origins -- he was born in Taiwan -- seem especially clear. Artistic practice and religious practice are one, and in a changeable world attention to the present is all.
Thoughts of death are implicit in much of Mingwei's work but it is the explicit subject of "The Letter Writing Project" which consists of three booths equipped with stationery where viewers are invited to write letters to absent or deceased loved ones. Writers may then address and seal these letters, to be posted by the Cultural Center, or leave them open to be read by others and posted through a kind of psychic mail on little shelves Mingwei provides.
The temple-like environment here is conducive to confession and the number of letters posted -- some sealed, some not -- suggest that a lot of viewers have taken this opportunity to communicate with their dead and departed. It's such a good idea and so beautifully executed that one almost wants it to be institutionalized. Every post office and funeral home should have one.
Mingwei is probably best known for his most outrageous work, "The Sleeping Project” a version of which is on view here. First introduced at the Venice Biennale in 2003, the installation features a grouping of platform beds and nightstands and an invitation to viewers to enter a lottery, which, if won, offers a night alone with the artist in the gallery. Volunteers are asked to bring personal items for the night that they then leave behind on view.
This work flirts with sexual humor, punning on the meaning of the phrase "sleeping with" the artist. Also, though, it makes us think about the riskiness as well as the opportunity for self-knowledge inherent in any intense encounter with a stranger. Even entering the lottery feels risky and that, of course, is Mingwei's point. Life is a lottery, his work suggests, and the only certain thing is change.
Interested parties may enter "The Sleeping Project" lottery at the Cultural Center; available nights are June 21-24.
When is a copy of a work of art not just a copy but a work of art itself? And when is copying not merely an exercise in imitation or homage but an act of creativity and self-awareness?
These are among the tricky questions raised in "Through Masters' Eyes" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA commissioned Lee Mingwei, a Taiwan-born conceptual artist now based in Berkeley and New York, to come up with a project that would showcase contemporary Asian art. The result is an aesthetic version of the children's game "Telephone" in which 11 artists have created works derived from a single 17th century Chinese landscape painting and their immediate predecessor.
"Often there's a very heated argument between classical and contemporary departments at museums about what art is," Lee says by telephone from New York. Whereas traditional art is largely defined by materials and presentation, he says, "contemporary art is very much about process, experience, memory, concept."
The artist's work often involves interaction with viewers. For example, in his "Sleeping Project" at the 2003 Venice Biennale, the artist invited visitors to sign up to spend the night with him - in a separate bed - in the pavilion.
Stephanie Barron, LACMA's chief curator of the Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, had seen Lee's work at New York's Museum of Modern Art and in Venice. Last spring, she approached Lee about doing a project she and J. Keith Wilson, her counterpart in the museum's Center for Asian Art, would curate.
The artist came to L.A. to meet with the curators at LACMA, where he discovered a treasure that would become the focal point for the show: an album of small landscapes by Shitao (1642-1707), one of the most celebrated Chinese literati painters. "This is one of the best-known Shitao works outside the National Palace Museum in Taipei. I had no idea it was at the museum," Lee says. "It was an overwhelming experience for me, because I'd only seen these paintings in reproduction,"
The album contained eight brush paintings that Shitao had created as a gift for a friend. One image in particular struck a chord with Lee. In it, Shitao depicts a steep mountain path descending the peaks of Huang Shan, a famous mountain in Anhui province. Nearly monochromatic, with hints of ocher and blue, it was painted in 1694. The mountain, Lee explains, "is iconic. Poets and painters go there to be inspired."
This, he decided, would be the starting point for a collaborative project. "For two or three years I've wanted to do a project on creative emulation," says Lee, whose plan echoes the tradition of Chinese classical painting in which students learn technique by copying the calligraphy and paintings of their teachers.
He decided to have a group of artists in Taiwan and a group in the West work simultaneously on parallel assignments. With the help of assistants in Taiwan and in New York, he chose 11 artists. "Some haven't been shown much at all, a few are extremely well known," he says. While all of the Taiwan artists have some training in Chinese brush painting, the Western artists work in mediums ranging from oil painting to multimedia.
The first set of two artists received a high-quality copy of the Shitao painting to work from, the second set got a copy of the Shitao painting and the original of the previous artist's work, the third a copy of the Shitao painting and the second artist's work, and so on. Each artist had about a week to complete his or her portion of the project.
In Taiwan, Victoria Lu, an artist with classical ink-brush training, was the first to tackle the project. Her work emulates the composition of Shitao's work but softens it. She also eliminated the people going up and down the path in the original and painted her own lyrical rendition of a stream trickling over rocks on the lower left.
The second Taiwan iteration, by Yuan Jai, further simplified and stylized the image, with the upper mountains depicted as triangular shapes, while a stream in the lower left corner flows over candy-colored squares.
On the Western side, Lee chose Arnold Chang, a New York-based artist steeped in classical Chinese painting, to do the first iteration. Even though he had only a week, Chang says, he spent a lot of time thinking through the project before putting brush to paper.
His logic was that if he had made a close copy, "I would make the same thing but not as good - so what's the point of that?" Instead, he says, "I came into it with my own ideas."
Still, Chang kept in mind the history of Chinese art. He took the theme of mountains shrouded in mist but changed the path into a meandering waterfall. His painting is more monochromatic than the Shitao, to adhere to the traditional emphasis on tonalities and to make the work identifiably Arnold Chang's. "Who says originality is the goal?" he says. "The point is to look deeper."
Subsequent artists took further liberties. Mexican American artist Sergio Teran, the artist following Chang, decided to present his "creative emulation" as an oil painting, adding a cozy hut to the side of the mountain. Su-Mei Tse, a prize-winning multimedia artist from Luxembourg, created an embossed landscape that is perceived by touching the surface. Others used photo collage, video and animation for their Shitao-inspired work.
The LACMA exhibition will display all eight leaves of Shitao's album - rarely shown in its entirety - in one case. The works of 11 modern artists will also be displayed in their original form as well as in facsimile in a bound album. This allows one or two visitors at a time to see and handle the creations - simulating the traditional way a Shitao album would be viewed.
What visitors won't see is any physical object by Lee, who serves only as the conceptual mastermind of the installation. "Lee has taken the format to a contemporary environment," Wilson says. "It's a serial format, it's a format that involves an additive viewing experience."
For her part, Barron came to realize how deliberate each component of a Chinese painting is. "Every single mark means something, every centimeter carries meaning," she says. "It demands incredibly close-looking. To find the nuances and differences that each iteration produces, I find that fascinating."
Call it "creative emulation." For the Los Angeles County Museum of Art show, a progression of works by contemporary artists stemmed from a 1694 Chinese landscape painting.
The sidewalks of New York are never too crowded for my taste. I like being caught up in crowds of tourists or shoppers, hearing languages from German and Hindi to New Jersey. A traveler's enthusiasm can refresh a spirit of place. I end up wanting to share my own be-sure-to-see list of esoteric attractions.
Something like this interchange is the basis for Lee Mingwei's project "The Tourist." Mr. Lee, who was born in Taiwan and lives in the United States, is a conceptual performance artist whose medium is hospitality. He cooks for strangers, engages them in conversation, invites them to gallery sleep-overs, making them collaborators in a private, personal art.
For his project at the Modern, he issued an open call for New Yorkers to give him tours of favorite parts of their multiethnic city. The responses took him on insider rambles to Coney Island, the Apollo Theater in Harlem and various parts of the Bronx, with Mr. Lee and his guides taking pictures and recording their conversation. The installation is made up of mementos of the trips: pictures, audiotapes and objects from Saddam Hussein playing cards, to a Black Panther Film Festival brochure, to a fold-up umbrella.
If you are after highly wrought visual matter, you won't find it here. You will find cosmopolitan ideas, delineated in an excellent brochure by Roxana Marcoci, an assistant curator at the Modern. As a social conceptualist — or conceptual socialist — Mr. Lee has many precursors, from Daniel Spoerri to Rirkrit Tiravanija. To their work he adds one-on-one intimacy, which is, after all, an ideal condition for an art experience. May he have many successors.
When Lee Mingwei was growing up in Taiwan, his grandmother consulted a seer, asking her to write books about his parents, his three siblings, and himself.
They were biographies of lives yet to be completely lived. Lee has read them all - except his. "I don't want to know what's going to happen," he says, sitting in the Office for the Arts at Harvard. "Maybe I'll read it when I'm 70, to see if it was right."
He's 39 now, an internationally celebrated artist, and, at the moment, he's hoping other people will be a bit more eager than he to discover their destinies, through his "Harvard Seers Project," which premieres today at the university's Memorial Hall.
"Seers are rarely visible in the circle of major academic institutions," the press release notes with thundering understatement. Nonetheless, after Harvard put out the word, 10 volunteers from the university community - faculty, staff, and students - came forward, all women, for what reason Lee knows not.
Starting today, they'll take turns sitting in a muslin pavilion Lee has built inside one of Harvard's most sacred spaces, Memorial Hall. A cross between the Oracle at Delphi and a priest in the confessional, Lee's seers will each sit in an antique chair and receive supplicants one by one, in complete privacy. Neither seers nor seekers are required to reveal their identities. The seers can use any means - tarot cards, tea leaves, or less traditional approaches - to weigh in.
"I've always been interested in the paranormal," says Lee, who has vivid recollections of shamen performing at night in Taipei when he was a child. "During the day, the person could be anyone - the mayor, a fish seller, whatever - but by night they'd become possessed by spirits. It was especially eerie when a male shaman was possessed by a female or child spirit, taking on their voices and mannerisms."
"I think that kind of insight is in all of us," he adds. "But in the West, people who want to tap into it tend to become artists rather than shamen," categories that, for him, blur together.
The only startling aspect of Harvard's hosting the "Seers Project" is that Lee is a Yale grad. He's had plenty of local exposure to prepare audiences hereabouts. While based in New York and exhibiting internationally - he'll represent Taiwan at this year's Venice Biennale - he's done more projects in the Boston area lately than anywhere else. At Phillips Academy in Andover last summer and at Wellesley College three years ago he presented versions of "The Letter-Writing Project;" in the "Living Room Project" at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2000, he created a homey place for conversation.
All Lee's works deal with people meeting and connecting in hospitable settings. If this sounds a bit like a high-end dating service, it is, although Lee hasn't kept track of how many relationships have resulted. Each piece he does is beautifully conceived and meticulously crafted. At Wellesley, for instance, he created three pavilions of pale wood and translucent glass. The furnishings allowed one to kneel, sit, or stand - the three postures of many faiths - while writing a letter that could be left for others to read, or have the museum staff post. In the age of e- mail, Lee forced visitors to join head, heart, and hand - and brush up on their third-grade penmanship.
The various incarnations of "The Letter-Writing Project" have elicited many missives to the dead. Death is a subject Lee also addressed in a commission from David Ross, the erstwhile director of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art and other museums: a series of meticulously constructed boxes, each designed to hold the ashes of a Ross family member. As they pass away, they rejoin those who have gone before.
The "Seers Project" is a natural next step for Lee, given his interest in exploring life-and-death issues through art. He recognizes its risks. What if no one shows up? What if skeptics show up to make fun of or challenge the very premise of the project? "If someone comes in with honesty, integrity, and openness, it will work," Lee says.
When "Seers" is over, there will be no tangible evidence of its existence, just the memories in the minds of the participants. That's often the case with Lee's work. One exception was his "Dining Project" that was part of the inaugural exhibitions at COPIA: the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, in Napa, Calif., in 2001. Each week two strangers - a "host" and a "guest" chosen in a lottery - met to dine and converse in a soothing setting of tatami mats with a carpet of white rice underneath. When the participants agreed, the meetings were videotaped. (In Napa while Lee was setting up the project, I was an inadvertent guinea pig. Lee taped me surreptitiously, then showed me the footage and said, "Aren't you glad you weren't picking your nose?" - he often lets the Buddhist serenity thing lapse: He has an earthy sense of humor.)
Lee's entry in the Venice Biennale will be a variation on "The Sleeping Project." It involves the artist and a volunteer spending the night together - in separate beds. Going to bed and sleeping are among life's most private activities. Sharing the experience requires "great mutual trust," Lee says. He'll have no trouble finding fellow sleepers for the 14-night run of the piece. Just try getting a hotel room during the opening.
THE buzz began the moment i heard the instructions. I would be sleeping with the artist Mingwei Lee. He was inviting me to spend the night alone with him in the Lombard-Freid Fine Arts gallery: 9 p.m. until 9 a.m. I was to bring nightwear and other things of mine to leave on a table for public display.
"Jammies?" I thought. "I wouldn't dare wear what I normally put on for bed: a pair of flannel pants and a T-shirt. I'll need to buy something other people will see."
So much for critical distance.
In the 18-odd installations Mr. Lee has created throughout the world in the last three years, since he graduated from Yale with a master's degree in fine arts, he has laid bare the intimate textures of ordinary life. For "The Dining Project," he cooked for one person nightly, usually a stranger, and over dinner the two talked, sharing the practical nurturing space of a meal. For "The Letter Writing Project," he invited people to step into a booth, one at a time, and write a letter expressing gratitude, insight or forgiveness; more than 10,000 reportedly did.
"The Sleeping Project" extends this progressive intimacy even further. For 20 nights, Mr. Lee will crawl into one of two twin beds while a stranger gets into the other. Mr. Lee will be gone by 7 a.m. The gallery reopens to the public at 10 a.m. The guest is instructed to deposit something personal on a bedside table, each guest getting a separate table. During the day, Mr. Lee changes the sheets and brings the other guests' tables back from an alcove where they have spent the night, out of the way. The tables and the items left by the guests will be on view during the day until the exhibition ends, on Nov. 22.
Even before i got there I could see the power of the idea. We all share spaces with others, and we always leave parts of ourselves behind. Mr. Lee has cleared out a normally public traffic area, the gallery, until there is nothing in it but him and me. Into this empty space, what do I deposit? How do I define myself by my leavings? I will be arriving with all my baggage, real and imagined: the mind that analyzes, judges, discriminates; that creates the distance in "critical distance." Am I to think about this task consciously, setting down my baggage with awareness? Or do I just drop my junk - the stuff I carry around unconsciously - and bolt for the door?
I met Mr. Lee in Chelsea at 9:05 p.m. on a Thursday. He led me upstairs to the second-floor gallery, an all-white room with the vintage flavor of a stage set for a 1920's Surrealist film. The bedtables look like spiky cutouts from a Constructivist poster. The two beds, fitted out with natural cotton sheets and deep, cozy-looking comforters, resemble oversize wheelbarrows with long handles and wheels.
Mr. Lee wheeled his bed over so we could talk. I asked how this project had begun. It's not an analytical process, he said. Riding a train to Prague one night, he shared a sleeping compartment with an elderly man who began talking about people who had lived and died in the concentration camps. Overwhelmed, Mr. Lee stayed awake all night listening to the snores of his companion. He was struck, he said, by the lives contained within the shell of the self, and by the stories we carry with us.
Stuffing pillows under one arm, Mr. Lee stretched out on the bed in the gallery. I sat crosslegged, not at ease enough to lie down. The critic and the artist let go of roles and began excavating common ground. We discover mutual interests - in Ch'an, the Chinese version of Zen (Mr. Lee was born in Taiwan); in Empress Wu, the only woman to rule China; in the noblewomen who created the Japanese novel; and in family histories. His own relatives, he said, were doctors a long way back. He got up and led me over to his bedside table. He picked up a framed photograph taken, he said, in the 1920's. Three rows of serious-looking young women in white head-bands stood stiffly behind a partly dissected male cadaver.
"My grandmother," he said, pointing.
So what else would Mr. Lee's table show? Three books, two of them in Chinese. A Deco clock. An Absolut bottle filled with water. Hanging from a prong, a little red-and-yellow stuffed bee. "It's my guardian angel," said Mr. Lee. "I take him with me all over the world."
Curious now, I asked to see the tables left by my three predecessors. Mr. Lee took me around a corner. Each table held a card noting only the guest's first name, for anonymity, and arrival and departure times. Most of the guests have been women. Sandra arrives at 9:42 p.m. and left at 10:30 a.m. depositing a pile of magazines topped off by The Economist. She added a gentle thank you note. Mary came at 11:27 p.m., taking Mr. Lee bar-hopping with her. He begged off at 1:30, he said, after seeing a side of New York he rarely encounters. Mary came back at 4:25 a.m. and left at 9:06 a.m. Her table holds an unopened bottle of wine, an open overnight kit, a necklace, a gilt pendant of the Virgin and Child, and a wilted flower from a dot-com company.
Even in our comings and goings, we identify ourselves. Carolee gave Mr. Lee a bowl of nuts, two audio tapes, the candle she read by in bed and a silky rose-embroidered night shift. I began to feel I was peeking into someone's lighted windows.
The night was deepening, and the air between Mr. Lee and me was charged with subtle alarm. Mr. Lee had warned me: "There will be a moment when you realize, 'Uh-oh, it's time for bed.'" Just after 11, both of us knew it. What had been normal a minute ago became fraught with unspoken cues and questions. Who goes to the bathroom first? What will he wear to bed?
I asked Mr. Lee whether he was concerned about who might meet in this space. He said his mother was worried. She makes him call her in Taiwan every morning. She thinks everyone in New York is crazy. I had been aware of my own vulnerability, but now I sensed his.
Mr. Lee came out of the bathroom in a kimono. I thought, "It's O.K." I didn't know why. I jumped into bed and pulled up the luxurious comforter. The space seemed snug and close, filled with a sweet, gentle perfume. The lights went out, and in the dark Mr. Lee came over, said goodnight and kissed me on the head.
I heard the rustle of his sheets. A thought occurred. "Mingwei," I said, "did you do this as a child?"
"Oh sure," he said. "We'd have 10 cousins in the same room. The adults would turn out the lights and we'd all start talking." An intuition crystallized. There is a boyish innocence about Mr. Lee. This is a sleepover.
I woke up to a dark and empty gallery. I found a note from Mr. Lee signed "hugs and kisses." The space was now all mine, at least for a while, and it was both relaxing and disappointing.
Before I left, I deposited my own record on my bedtable: an apple I never got around to eating, an empty water bottle, a little purple bottle of oil of lavendar - and the flannels.
BOSTON -- CAN I get you some coffee? A cookie?'' Lee Mingwei, wearing a short gray cotton Chinese robe over his chinos and shirt, welcomes me into his work of art in the temporary exhibition gallery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here. A sofa and chairs are grouped around a coffee table with a glass display top; the furniture, bland and half-familiar, turns out to be mail order. A museum guard perches in a chair near the sideboard that holds refreshments. A vaguely Victorian jungle of potted palms and blooming clivia looms in back. Finches in two hanging cages chirp and hop from perch to perch; Mrs. Gardner, Mr. Lee tells me, kept birds.
By the end of this month, 40 museum staff members -- curators, guards, conservators and a few trustees -- will have taken turns being hosts for two days each in the living room. Each host brings an object or a collection that has personal significance, and each shares these artifacts with the living room's visitors. One guard, for instance, brought in a vintage motorcycle he is restoring.
Mr. Lee, 34, is a conceptual artist whose installations have been shown at the Whitney Museum and are currently on view near here at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. He was born in Taiwan and came to this country when he was 14. In ''The Living Room'' he arranged his collection of uncarved Chinese seal stones, an old silk Chinese robe, a book in Chinese on kites, and a photograph of his grandmother's medical school class in China in the 1920's. Facing the camera are three rows of young women. ''There are only two men,'' Mr. Lee says. ''The professor and the other, the cadaver the class has been dissecting.'' He hands me the photograph. I remember my own grandmother teaching mathematics on a Navajo reservation in Arizona at about the same time and think of the complicated, untold lives of women.
In ''The Living Room,'' as in all of Mr. Lee's installations, like ''The Letter Writing Project'' and ''The Dining Project,'' strangers exchange intimate experiences and confidences. It is a work of art made interactive, in which the act of telling is not entirely confined to the artist. The project grew out of Mr. Lee's residency at the Gardner, one of this country's most respected and innovative contemporary-arts programs. The most unconventional of the exhibitions that have resulted from these residencies, it comes closest to capturing the heady, charged atmosphere of the Gardner Museum while it was Isabella Stewart Gardner's house.
Mrs. Gardner built Fenway Court, her 19th-century take on a Venetian palazzo, to house her art. She collected ancient mosaics, Chinese carvings, paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, Botticelli and Rubens, a bronze bust by Cellini, and works by her contemporaries Whistler, Degas and Sargent. She cultivated artists and intellectuals: Henry James and William Butler Yeats were her friends, Sargent set up his studio at her palace when he visited Boston, and the dancer Ruth St. Denis performed in her music room, as did Nellie Melba and the entire Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Mrs. Gardner constantly rearranged and augmented her collection, and her acquaintances. ''She was an installation artist,'' says Anne Hawley, the museum's director, and Fenway Court -- with its changing displays, its entertainments, its mix of guests -- was Mrs. Gardner's masterpiece. She did not claim to be an artist; she lived at a time when art was still required to aspire to eternity.
She did want her invention to last, however, and her will stipulated that if anything was ever altered, the museum's entire contents were to be sold at auction. Needless to say, the place became frozen in time. The lush horticultural displays in the courtyard gave the building the air of being more a mausoleum than a museum containing some of the most important works of art in this country.
Soon after she became the Gardner's director in 1990, Ms. Hawley established the museum's residency program, betting that the presence of artists would bring the museum back to life. Using Mrs. Gardner's own methods to get around the restrictions of her will, Ms. Hawley addressed a current issue as well. ''It's essential for American museums to be patrons of artists,'' Ms. Hawley says. ''We've isolated them from our community. The art world is dominated by commercial culture, which is not about thinking or feeling or expressiveness, and by giving artists time to reflect and work, financial support and a display or presentation so they can interact with the public, we enrich them and ourselves.''
The artists, while reacting to the objects and atmosphere of the museum, also impose on those objects and atmosphere a contemporary eye and contemporary meanings and stories. Since 1992, the museum's artists in residence have included the theater director Elizabeth Swados, the lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, the photographer Abelardo Morell, the glass blower Josiah McElheny, the author Edwidge Danticat and the poet Ann Lauterbach. The artists live in an apartment in a carriage house beside the main building; they have round-the-clock access to the museum, and the freedom to spend their time in any way they want. For the public part of their residencies, Ms. Danticat and Ms. Lauterbach gave lectures; Mr. Morell produced a series of photographs, ''Face to Face,'' juxtaposing images of objects in the collection with each other, and sometimes with portraits of the staff.
JENNIFER GROSS, the museum's program director and curator of contemporary art, explains that people do not apply for these residencies; the staff seeks them out. ''It's not an aesthetic match that we're looking for, more a match of sensibility,'' she says. ''The museum reflects the complexity of Mrs. Gardner's life and character; it's as if she says to the artists, 'Come with me on this ride.' We asked Mingwei to come because I thought it was time we had a conversation here.''
This is Mr. Lee's first residency. ''I love the museum,'' he says. ''I know their collection, and I planned to do a project of resanctifying a statue of the Buddha. But Jennifer said, 'Why don't you think about it for a while?' '' So Mr. Lee roller-skated through the streets of Boston and swam at the Y.M.C.A. ''I came with a strong idea of what the museum wanted, instead of what made sense,'' he says. ''Rollerblading and swimming relieved me of the pressure to do. I came back with a fresh eye.''
In ''The Living Room,'' Mr. Lee pares the circumstance of art to its most fundamental interaction: revelation. It is a stage-set room, a generic space. ''I don't want to give my audience too much information, because that will not provoke them to think,'' Mr. Lee says. The finches announce each entrance. The sofa is angled so the audience -- those coming into the gallery -- can see who is already there.
''Mrs. Gardner kept birds,'' Mr. Lee mentions. The guard moves to an armchair and joins the conversation with a story about how he traveled through Poland without speaking a word of the language. A few other people wander in.
Mr. Lee invites us to pick up his seals. The polished rocks and semiprecious stones fit cold and smooth in my palm. ''They remain without carvings until the person decides what his symbol will be,'' Mr. Lee says. ''Chinese emperors used to carve into stones the achievements of their reign. But there was once an empress -- the only one -- and she left her stele blank. When her courtiers asked why, she answered that she did not want to boast; she would rather that other people told of what she accomplished.''
It is not quite a natural conversation. It is more intense, more self-aware. A question hovers beneath our words. Mr. Lee points out a man just leaving the room. ''He is a psychologist,'' he explains. ''He works with me on all my projects. He knows me very well, and I trust him. He is working with the hosts, to help them talk to visitors, to help them respond if people ask questions like, 'So this is supposed to be art?' '' He smiles.
That is the question all of his installations ask: just what do we mean by art? Mr. Lee says: ''This is my role as an artist. All I need to do is provide the platform, the space and the time.'' Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
REVIEW EMPATHIC ECONOMIES: THE WORK OF LEE MINGWEI Organized by Judith Hoos Fox. At: the Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, through June 14 THE LIVING ROOM Organized by Jennifer Gross. At: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, through April 30
WELLESLEY - Ever yearn to write a letter to someone, or feel guilty that you haven't, even though you've meant to for years, or feel especially bad that you didn't take that last opportunity to communicate with a loved one who has died?
The 34-year-old Taiwan-born, New York-based artist Lee Mingwei gives you your chance, in a Wellesley College exhibition, "Empathic Economies," that, by happy coincidence rather than curatorial design, overlaps with a commissioned installation by the artist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, "The Living Room." Here visitors are invited to sit in a contemporary domestic setting, sip coffee and munch on homemade cookies, and talk to a "host" - either the artist, a museum staff member
or someone from the wider art community. It's part of Lee's desire to erase the distinction between art and life, something artists from Duchamp, with his Readymades, to Joseph Beuys, with his social actions, to Allan Kaprow, with his participatory Happenings, have been working toward throughout the 20th century.
While there was something impromptu and sometimes even slapdash about the works of these predecessors, Lee's installations are not only exquisitely conceived but exquisitely crafted, reflecting his training in architecture and weaving in US art schools, and his dual Buddhist-Catholic upbringing in Taiwan.
Paradoxically, for someone who cares about craft, his art is also about immateriality. He's made elaborate silk weavings, then staged their ceremonial burning. And in previous incarnations of "The Letter Writing Project" now at Wellesley, he's massed unsent letters into lantern-like sculptures, floated them downriver and set them on fire, echoing a traditional Asian way of communicating with the dead. Ironically, for an artist who never expects to sell anything, New York's Whitney Museum bought part of "The Letter Writing Project" after showing it in 1998.
You're not passive in Lee's installations. You do something, whether it's writing letters or trading an object of your choice for a dollar bill folded like intricate origami. At Wellesley, you first see Lee's work from above, from the lobby balcony. There, below, are a trio of exquisite roomlets, their shape based on both ancient ziggurats and tapered lanterns. The pale wood horizontals of the walls are filled in with translucent glass that looks like rice paper; it permits both privacy and light. (So perfect a setting for Lee's work is the soaring Wellesley gallery, designed by light- loving architect Rafael Moneo, that people assume the installations are site-specific. )
The furnishings in the three letter-writing rooms, all made of striated, laminated wood that recalls Lee's weaving background, dictate that you either sit, kneel, or stand, the three traditional postures of Zen meditation and Christian worship. A supply of cream- colored stationery is available, as are pens. In the age of e-mail, Lee forces you to revive your third-grade penmanship and the connection between your head, heart, and hand without the alien intermediary of a glowing green screen. Once you've finished your letter, you can seal and address it, in which case the Wellesley staff will stamp and mail it for you; or you can leave it unsealed, for future visitors to read and for Lee eventually to collect. The letters live in little trapezoidal slots on the wall; you bring them to life by taking them down and perusing them.
In New York, the only significant criticism of "The Letter Writing Project" was that Lee should have included a box of tissues in each booth. Letters addressed "to my grandfather, whom I never knew. Died: Dec. 21, 1939," or to "my once husband, be well," or labeled "Please read," expressing the author's urgent need to share her sadness over a lost relationship, may well make you weep. Many letters are to the dead, their tone "if only . . ." Not all are sad. One, "to the man who used to be my father" burns with an angry tale of abuse. Several letters, on the day I visited, were addressed to the artist. One concluded that "Maybe this will help us to be more open to each other." Lee's elegant, chapel-like setting is conducive to our doing that.
He's interested in choreographing the routes of visitors to his shows. In "Reflections," you enter one end or the other of a long, narrow wooden corridor divided down the middle by mirrored glass that allows you to see both yourself and the person on the other side. In fact, you merge with that person, an eerie effect that must be compounded when the two people are blood relatives with a natural resemblance anyhow. The sudden porosity of your person reminds you that you are not alone in the world. The overlap also reminds me of Doug and Mike Starn's photographs of famous paintings like the "Mona Lisa," with faces of spectators reflected in the glass, blending in with the Leonardo face, or even of the put-yourself-in-the-picture tradition of donor portraits in Renaissance altars.
The platform in "Reflections" ends shortly before the mirror, encouraging you and your opposite to sit, which means your bare feet (all Lee's works at Wellesley are no-shoes) are visible to outsiders, a bathroom-stall effect that has its humorous side. The narrowness of the corridor resembles the claustrophobic, forced-march spaces of such artists as Bruce Nauman, but Lee's space is gentle rather than domineering. Translucent fabric walls give you a sense of those outside, and the open roof gives a sense of sky.
In the 1997 "Money for Art," the earliest work at Wellesley and the most straightforward, Lee questions art and value with shelves laden with the aforementioned origami dollars. When you take one away, do you flatten it and buy a cup of coffee, or have it framed? At Wellesley, people have left in exchange everything from a lime- green bra to a matchstick sculpture whose intricacy matches that of the crisply creased bills. There is a trend toward leaving exact change for a dollar, sometimes with a gratuity added. At a moment when so many artists are making inherently unsalable work while iconic canvases sell for millions, "Money for Art" brings up the issue of how we assign value to art - which is, of course, partly according to the artist's fame. Now if Picasso had drawn on those dollars . . .
Lee's earnest efforts to interact with others led to his mid-'90s "The Dining Project," an outgrowth of his habit, while growing up in Taiwan, of striking up conversations with strangers in tea shops. He tried the same thing while at graduate school at Yale, only to be told to buzz off. Undaunted, he put up signs around campus and found dining companions. Ultimately, "The Dining Project" went to the Whitney: David Ross's last act as director there in 1998 was to be Lee's dinner date. "The Dining Project" will evolve into "The Sleeping Project" this fall, in which Lee will bed down with a different stranger each night. (He's designing pajamas for them and has reassured his mother he'll have a phone handy in case he needs to dial 911.)
Meanwhile, he's meeting people at the Gardner. He's furnished the temporary exhibition gallery with potted palms, songbirds, and a CD player, and invited the other hosts to bring their personal props and professional expertise along when it's their turn. Musicians have played there, just as they've always concertized at Fenway Court. A portraitist has painted in the room, just as John Singer Sargent once did upstairs.
Lee himself was host the day of my visit, reassuring a group of high school students that "You can touch things in this exhibition. The salons upstairs are dead, because you can't touch anything, and Mrs. Gardner isn't there anymore." He was very much there, showing the students treasures like his photograph of his grandmother's class at the Tokyo Female Medical College: She was a pioneering woman doctor in an era when other Chinese women still had their feet bound. He'd also brought along the polished semiprecious stones that "are my protectors," he says. "When I pass away, they'll be thrown into the ocean. But they will find me again. I also give them to people in crisis."
Isabella Gardner was the ultimate pack rat; Lee's work usually has a Zen spareness that his residency at Fenway Court has led him to break. His gallery here is stuffed with stuff. The idea of a casual, evolving room in a place that is otherwise stagnant is appealing. So is the idea of using a domestic setting to spark conversations about art and its contexts, a goal shared by Trevor Fairbrother's provocative 1994 "The Label Show" at the MFA, which included a contemporary period room furnished with Memphis chairs, a glass and chrome coffee table, and brand-name art, a space that looked like it was auditioning for Architectural Digest and provoked thoughts about the role of the period room.
The Gardner's "Living Room" doesn't work as well, and that's because, were Gardner herself alive today, she wouldn't have furnished it with the middlebrow motel-level tables and chairs Lee's limited budget mandated. Her taste was audacious and eclectic. She liked commissioning contemporary artists. My guess is she would have had some of the great young studio furniture makers now in the Boston area produce some cool works for "The Living Room." Now that would prompt even livelier discussion among visitors.
IN the doorway of the room that houses ''The Letter Writing Project,'' a graceful, meditative installation by the 34-year-old Taiwan-born artist Lee Mingwei, you duck under a noren curtain. The noren -- a common feature in Japanese architecture -- is a translucent white scrim that lowers the height of the doorway by about a foot. Your head nods, your back bends, and suddenly you are bowing.
Westerners don't expect to bow at an exhibition. But throughout Buddhist Asia, bowing is more than common courtesy. It signifies acceptance of the way of the universe: the importance of setting aside ego, of acknowledging the web that unites all beings, and of expressing gratitude for this miraculous gift of life.
Bowing, it turns out, is integral to Mr. Lee's exhibition, on view here at the Fabric Workshop and Museum through Saturday. Mr. Lee, who lives in New York City, has minded the teachings he received for six summers, beginning at age 6, in a Chan monastery. (Chan is the Chinese ancestor of Zen.) Sent by his dissident parents, who were busy demonstrating for Taiwanese independence, Mr. Lee rose for meditation at 3 A.M. and learned the simple power of concentrating on daily activities at the side of his Chan master, Mou-chan. Before he became subject to the draft -- and possibly to the ''accidents'' that had claimed the lives of sons of dissidents -- his parents packed him off to San Francisco, to a high school run by Benedictines. College and graduate school followed.
''The Letter Writing Project'' is about bending to the mysterious necessity of loss: the commonplace transfigurations of death and passage. Three booths -- with walls of blond wood and frosted glass, akin to shoji screens -- offer stationery and envelopes on small tables. You are invited to express the unsayable to those who are beyond reach. (Next fall, letters will be ceremonially floated down a river on paper lanterns and burned, in accordance with Asian Bon festival practice.)
Slats in the walls display previous efforts -- envelopes addressed 'To my father which I will never see'' or ''In memory of Jamal,'' testaments to the shared difficulties of letting go.
When you take up the pen, the act of writing gives thoughts a curious weight. Some words seem to obstruct the pen, others to encourage it. The actuality of having written changes the writer subtly. Something is made real, then given away. In Mr. Lee's view, this ''emptying out'' is a healing.
To that end, he has varied the height of the table, obliging you to assume one of the three meditative postures of Buddhism: standing, sitting, kneeling. Each posture has its mental correlate: gratitude, insight, forgiveness. Thus the three components that create karma -- body, speech and thought -- are all activated as you write.
The karma has been great for Mr. Lee ever since he arrived at Yale, from which he earned a master of fine arts degree. Knowing no one, he put up notices all over campus promising to cook an intimate dinner for anyone who signed up. His mother asked what he was doing in school, and he said, ''Hanging out at Stop & Shop.'' He explains: ''My interest was to find a connection with a community through food. My grandmother used to do this.''
Dinner became Mr. Lee's first gallery show, ''The Dining Project,'' which opened at Lombard-Fried Fine Arts in SoHo on May 31, 1997, a week after his graduation from Yale. On an elegant tatami-mat platform, Mr. Lee served one person a night, chosen by lottery. Among the guests were David A. Ross and Eugenie Tsai of the Whitney Museum. Ms. Tsai's ancestors, like Mr. Lee's, came from mainland China, though they bypassed Taiwan and settled in the United States. At dinner, Ms. Tsai was initially nervous but quickly charmed. ''I found myself talking about very personal things,'' she says, ''although I had just met this person.''
Ms. Tsai took ''The Dining Project'' to the Whitney last May; it was Mr. Lee's first museum show. Photographs of Mr. Lee serving dinner on tatami mats at the museum recently occupied half an issue of the French art magazine Ninety. The Whitney installation included the first two booths of ''The Letter Writing Project.'' Mr. Lee's grandmother had recently died, and he had been composing long epistles to her containing everything he could not say during life to this forceful woman who studied Western medicine and lived in Japan (hence Mr. Lee's love of things Japanese). In its completed form at the Fabric Workshop, ''The Letter Writing Project'' is his tribute to her, and to the strange power of releasing strong emotions to the air and water.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company