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Lee Mingwei’s idea of public art doesn’t involve tossing big chunks of lead haphazardly into open spaces. His projects are instead designed to reflect the sites that they occupy. Unlike the site-specific artists of the 1960s, whose works were meant to reflect their immediate physical surroundings, Lee aims for what he calls “psychological site-specificity.”
Lee, who is currently in residence at Harvard as the Office for the Arts’ Marshall S. Cogan Visiting Artist , says he hopes his work will be a “catalyst that could change the community.”
That’s the idea behind his new “Harvard Seers Project,” which will be installed in the transept of Memorial Hall next week. Since last fall, Lee has visited the campus once or twice each month, trying to envision a project best fit for an academic environment—one much different from the museums in which he usually works.
For Lee, whose public art installations appear around the world, Harvard’s emphasis on the right brain—the analytic, logical side—has significant implications for his project.
“I think the context is integral because the project deals with a different part of our human activity,” he says. “It’s more about creativity and intuition, the left brain sort of thing. To put this activity in the heart of Harvard has a different resonance than if I’m doing this project at MoMA or something like that.”
The Harvard Seers Project will give visitors—or “seekers”—the opportunity to talk to “seers” about any aspect of their lives.
“When I have gone to seers, it has been at a time when I had personal problems or was in a crisis,” Lee says. “Hopefully, the seer can be there to be a listener and to give some tips about what is happening in [visitors’] lives. It’s very much about trust or our fantasy of the unknown and how these two strangers can interact under these systems.”
Harvard provides a fitting environment for an artist like Lee, who attended the Yale Graduate School of Art and has studied not only the fine arts, but architecture and biology as well.
Born in Taiwan in 1964, he did not move to America until he was 14. Six summers spent in monasteries taught him the value of quiet places and of spirituality, he says, both of which have become prominent elements of his work. Focusing on issues such as intimacy, relationships, the importance of everyday tasks (such as meeting or eating) and self-awareness, many scholars have argued that Lee’s work shows influences from Eastern religion, although he is hesitant to accept this assertion.
“I don’t really associate too much with Buddhist practice,” he says. “In all major religions, there are basic things that are similar: solitude, respect, serenity, harmony. It is not only Buddhism that deals with these issues. It is easy for a Western audience to see me through that gauze.”
Although his work is often related to that of other prominent contemporary artists of Asian heritage, including Rirkrit Tiravanija and Cai Quo-Qiang, Lee finds guidance in life experiences beyond his Asian heritage.
With projects such as “The Letter Writing Project” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “The Sleeping Project” at Lombard/Fried Fine Arts in New York and “The Male Pregnancy Project,” a celebrated web-based event, he has risen to prominence by integrating science and architecture with the most mundane human activities.
In focusing on sleeping, eating or basic forms of communication, Lee says he hopes to give greater significance to these quotidian acts.
“When the project is over, the physicality of the project is gone—but the memory or the emotion [of the project] really remains in the community,” Lee says. “I want people to say, ‘There was an artist that did this in their artwork; how can I incorporate this in my life?’”
Upon his graduation from Yale, Lee immediately had a solo show in Soho—a dream opportunity for any artist—and soon found himself presenting his work to curators at the Whitney Museum. But because of the transient nature of his work and its large scale, Lee has had just one other gallery show since his first. But he has shown at numerous museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Since his projects lack anything that can be easily sold, Lee depends on the generosity of institutions to continue making his art.
The Harvard Seers Project is the first part of a busy summer that will have Lee at two of contemporary art’s most prominent venues. He will be Taiwan’s representative at the Venice Biennale—one of the world’s major art exhibitions—where he will show “The Sleeping Project,” which fosters intimacy between the artist and his viewer by having both sleep in the same room. In September, as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Projects series, he will exhibit “The Tourist Project.”
Although the emphasis is on the participants in “The Harvard Seers Project,” like his other works it takes place in a carefully planned architectural space.
“I have a fabricator and also have an architect who works with me,” Lee says. “I am usually very open to what they have in terms of suggestions; it is a very good example of a collaborative team. The physical project is of three people’s talents and vision.”
Lee says he hopes “seekers” will feel comfortable in the space he creates in Memorial Hall and will take seriously their interaction with the “seers.” All of the seers, who will utilize different methods—ranging from intuition to the I Ching—to help visitors reflect on various concerns, have volunteered to assist in the project. All are from the Harvard community, which Lee sees as essential to the work’s emphasis on pushing the boundaries within which we search for understanding.
—The Harvard Seers Project will be on display in the Memorial Hall transept from April 25 to May 4.
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