Lee Mingwei

Take an Artist to Lunch

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Dean was a humorous, good natured man. He was a humble person, full of kindness. Most of all, he was a generous soul, sharing an endless supply of wisdom and curiosity. In his final wishes he asked not for flowers on his grave, but to give generously to the Library for the Blind and to the local bus drivers, who shuttled him to town when he could no longer drive himself. And if those causes strike a chord, Dean and his wife suggest an alternative: “Simply invite a friend to lunch!” That’s Dean, friends would say.

Sharing lunch and a conversation is more than passing idle time before continuing on with the day’s routine. It’s about making something meaningful out of the ordinary. Dean knew this to be true. Extraordinary ideas come from the musings of ordinary people doing ordinary things – just ask the startup entrepreneurs who made their first plans over pizza and a beer. Or think about the great works of artists and musicians, conceived in European cafes and brasseries. Whether in business or artistry, the valuable time in-between spurts of productivity is worthy of appreciation.

The myth of the starving artist is unfortunately no myth at all. Forced to choose between art supplies and dinner, many artists are fueled by creativity alone. Hardship or adversity can have the unintended consequence of nurturing greatness, but so can affordable studio space, good food and the occasional glass of wine among friends.

History books and travel guides from Key West to Paris are full of stories about intimate artist haunts, where painters, writers and philosophers gathered to converse with one another. Except for the occasional patron or benefactor (watch the film about famed art addict Peggy Guggenheim here), these were places of artistic retreat, not social inclusion.

It is time that we cast our net of curiosity wider, including people in our lives who think differently, creatively, inspiringly. Whether it’s a new neighbor, a colleague you met at the corporate offsite, or a person standing next to you in the check-out line, our lives are impacted by them. For better (a helping hand) or for worse (someone just standing in the way), your perspective will likely be shaped by unknown souls who surround you. It is far too human to look away and focus only on selfish needs and wants, but wouldn’t it be nice to just say “hi, how are you?” or even better, “can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

The artistic practice of Lee Mingwei is steeped in conversation and reflection about connections between strangers. In 2014, a solo exhibition of Mingwei’s relational art was on display at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. It included a version of his “Living Room” project originally conceived for the Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In both editions, visitors were invited to spend time in a living room created by Mingwei, reflecting about objects in their lives and sharing their meaning with others. Strangers were even invited to host an afternoon in the living room, sharing their own stories with museum visitors. The point wasn’t to entertain or to celebrate the objects on display, but to create a sense of  connection, an opportunity to reflect and learn about oneself through the rather ordinary act of human interaction.

In the spirit of that simple goal, and in honor of what would be Dean’s 90th birthday, Project Art Lounge is embarking on a bold new project, the “Take an Artist to Lunch” project. We’ll even throw in a few questions as ice breakers. To keep it genuine, there won’t be a film crew or microphones to ruin your appetite, just an opportunity to learn about one another and, hopefully, about oneself in the process.

Our hope is that what begins with a rather ordinary experience at the lunch counter, will provide inspiration and a sense of connectedness going forward. For details and information on how to participate, please respond below, indicating your city and whether you are an artist or would like to be a guest host.*

*Thank you for your interest in participating – the “Take an Artist to Lunch” project. Registration is finished for now. We’ll be back soon with more opportunities to support artists. Nothing stops you from reaching out to or hosting an artists in your community.
So please continue your support!


Strangers in the Living Room

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Lee Mingwei Living Room at Mori Artmuseum

Where I grew up, parents teach you: “Don’t talk to strangers.” That advice is ok if you are a wandering child on a public street. If you are sitting in the living room, though, you are most likely surrounded by friends or relations of some sort – even if you don’t know them by name. Such was the case for me yesterday in “The Living Room” project by artist Lee Mingwei at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills.

Through January 4th, 2015 the Mori Art Museum is hosting the exhibition “Lee Mingwei and His Relations” – a series of projects involving various acts of participation under the motto “Take Part. Make Art.” After the museum invited me to host a session in the Living Room, I met with the artist Lee Mingwei and spent an afternoon in The Living Room on November 10th.

“The Living Room” was originally created for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It is a space where community members are invited to tell stories about their own personal collections and share conversation with visitors, just as Mrs. Gardner might have done in her own art-filled living room. As living with art is a major part of life for me and my partner, and as a member of MAMC, I was delighted at this opportunity.

For Lee Mingwei and visitors, I recounted how the Mori Arts Museum has become a kind of living room for me – a place to enjoy art and meet other art enthusiasts. Living far away from “home” and unable to bring my art to the museum, I shared a collection of my impressions about moving to Tokyo, interacting with artists and how living with art has changed my life since curating the exhibition LIGHT BREAKS last year.

When I visited the Living Room a day earlier, I sat in the beautiful wooden chair that belonged to Lee Mingwei’s grandmother. A glass of water was offered to me and I thought about what stories I might share while staring at the skyline of Tokyo and listening to Lee Mingwei’s voice in the background, where he was having a conversation. I saw my reflection in the window and thought about my Uncle Arthur who had a portrait of himself hanging above his fireplace. I only met Arthur and his partner of 60+ years late in his life when he was 90 years old, and listened to stories about Arthur’s and Walter’s Glass and Wedgwood collection in his living room over the first gin martini I had ever had. If they were still here today, I would share with them my fascination with art how it has enriched my life.

Even in the comfort of The Living Room, engaging others in conversation wasn’t easy. Upon hearing me speak English, many Japanese visitors shied away, perhaps feeling a bit uncomfortable with their own English skills. The language barrier is still quite difficult to overcome in Japan, and while I am learning Japanese, I am not yet fluent enough to engage a native speaker. Perhaps the bravest visitor, though, was a Japanese girl who didn’t say a word. She simply came over and handed me a flower from Lee Mingwei’s “Moving Garden.” With the city view in the background, this “unexpected encounter” with a stranger was clearly a spontaneous act of courage for her and I could see the reflection of her fanning her reddened face as she left The Living Room.

Most of the visitors with whom I spoke in The Living Room were tourists visiting Japan for the first time. Many were eager to share impressions about people in Japan and hear about the places I have visited. I brought along the copy of a book which I had received many years ago before my first trip to Japan. Entitled “Bluff Your Way in Japan,” author Robert Ainsley wrote about Japanese society in the 1980s. Many of his observations are still accurate today. About sightseeing, he encouraged visitors to deliberately bypass popular tourist attractions and observe the more commonplace wonders like the endless variety of vending machines throughout the city. I recounted that a visiting friend from Germany was so fascinated by the “Jihanki” that he returned home with hundreds of photos of them and compiled a book about it, which I brought to show. I shared the story of exploring Tokyo’s unlikely art spaces with two Living Room guests from New York, including a visit to the “container” gallery housed in a hair salon, also featuring a vending machine for art outside. I told them about Design Festa, the most unique assortment of art, design and creative expression that I have yet to experience in Japan.

Not everyone came to the Living Room to talk. Some were there to simply enjoy the gaze out the window or take a break on the comfortable sofa. A couple from Sweden was there with a small baby. While the mother went off to feed the child, I had a chance to converse with the father who was originally from Laos. I recounted that my partner and I had encountered a large community of Swedes in Ko Lanta, Thailand. We talked about the inspirations of cross-boarder experiences and I shared some of my thoughts on the exhibition “Go-Betweens” immediately preceding the Lee Mingwei exhibition at the Mori Art Museum. Among my Japanese conversation partners was a young relational artist, who spoke well about her work on the relationship between mothers and children.

Moving to Tokyo and traveling back and forth between my native homes in Switzerland, Germany and the United States has been a great adventure so far. The opportunity to explore the art world in Japan has given me new insights into the way Japan views itself and new ways for me to think about art in my life. My explorations in Japan inspire me to continue with Project Art Lounge – a sabbatical to my 20 year career in IT and digital media. Thanks to Lee Mingwei and the Mori Art Museum I now have new relations to India, London, Vancouver, Sweden, Laos, New York and Tokyo. From Art Fair Tokyo to the art sites around Naoshima to the Yokohama Triennale – and a chance to meet artist and curator Yasumasa Morimura – I have plenty of stories to bring back to my own living room conversations in the future.

The Living Room Lee Mingwei