Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

At the Kimball, Lee Mingwei Offers Utah Residents the Gift of Connection

Lee Mingwei, “The Mending Project,” 2009-present. Mixed media interactive installation with tables, chairs, thread, fabric items. Image credit: Claire Sipos, courtesy of Kimball Art Center.

With their latest installation, Park City’s Kimball Art Center adds itself to a prestigious international list of exhibition hosts for internationally renowned artist Lee Mingwei. The Taiwanese-American artist’s work focuses on (among other things) intimacy and connection. He explores the ubiquitous nature of these raw human moments and focuses on everyday moments that facilitate these interactions.  In The Gift of Connection, the Kimball  hosts four of Mingwei’s celebrated works. While any one of these installations would be moving on their own, a bit of magic happens when this many are under one roof. Like the human participants in Mingwei’s art, Like the human participants in Mingwei’s art, these pieces engage in a dialogue with one another and in doing so, create a dialogue with visitors.

The conversation begins with the first of two installations of “The Tourist,” a continuous collaborative work in which Mingwei acts as an unconventional tourist who is led on private tours throughout cities that span the globe. In each city, Mingwei’s tour guide is a resident who invites the artist to view the city through their eyes. Rather than visiting widely anticipated attractions, Mingwei is interested in what makes the locale unique to his guide. Tchotchkes and curiosities unique to each destination are on display. Sixteen shadow boxes act as time capsule and memento. Thirteen contain objects collected on the artist’s journeys thus far, with three left empty — space holders for future tours. Within the presentation, the individual boxes are askew, yet together they form a straight path — perhaps an artistic nod to the root of the project. Our cultures may fill our journeys with different sights, traditions, and beliefs, but humanity is on a singular path together. The artifacts displayed highlight both the distinct characteristics of each place as well as celebrate their connections.  The artist has arranged the boxes on a large platform in the center of the room. Viewed from above, this placement, in combination with pale timber used to form square boxes, creates a structure reminiscent of an architectural model. From this vantage point, each city’s time capsule looks like a room in a home mock-up. Just as the posters papering the walls of a teens’ rooms give us insight into their interests and desires, the souvenirs placed in each city box offer a glance into the life of someone else. 

Lee Mingwei, “The Tourist,” 2001-present. Mixed media installation. Image credit: Claire Sipos, courtesy of Kimball Art Center.

Lee Mingwei, “The Living Room,” 2000-present. Mixed media interactive installation with sofa, coffee table, carpet, lamp, canary and plants. Image credit: Claire Sipos, courtesy of Kimball Art Center.

In the second gallery, the conversation moves from the outside to the inside. As the name implies, “The Living Room(2000-present)” is set up as a domestic living space. A sofa, chairs, a coffee table, a lamp and a rug serve as a foundational space for different community members to personalize and act as host for two weeks. Each host brings personal items to transform the space into one that is representative of who they are and what they hold dear. On Saturdays throughout the exhibition, the current host occupies the space for two hours interacting with visitors. When the host is not there in person, they greet visitors via video to speak about the items they have chosen. Due to the nature of items displayed, these objects often create discussion going much deeper than appearances. A Peruvian print leads to an immigration story, a pet bird initiates an exchange on how the sounds of home shape us. Both “The Tourist” and “The Living Room” call attention to the objects we collect, asking viewers to ruminate on what objects they gravitate toward and why. With this work Mingwei sets the foundation for connection between host and visitor.

Relying on visitor participation for artwork poses several potential challenges for the artist and gallery.  In a time when more and more routine tasks are carried out virtually, and AI art is more discussed than the art of conversation, is it reasonable to expect that strangers will willingly engage with one another? The solution to this looming problem seems to be vulnerability. Lee Mingwei had to be vulnerable to follow his tour guides without interference. The guides answered that show of vulnerability by offering a stranger access to cherished pieces of their homes. Seeing the connections consequently formed inspires visitors too, to open themselves up to connection. Even among the Kimball staff, there is a notable intentionality behind their interactions with visitors — an openness to discuss much more than the exhibition.

Artist Lee Mingwei, left, speaks with a visitor in his installation “The Mending Project,” at the Kimball Art Center. Image credit: Claire Sipos, courtesy of Kimball Art Center.

As visitors migrate into the third exhibition space, both the dialogue between works and the conversation on connection crescendos. With vibrant spools of thread protruding from two walls, “The Mending Project(2009-present)” is visually arresting. Thread from several spools stretches from the wall to a pile of freshly mended clothes on one end of a table. For each mended item there is a corresponding spool that aided in its repair. These lines of connection form a network of threads that blur so that one is indistinguishable from the next. Once the spool has offered a part of itself to the cloth in need of repair, separation between the two evaporates. At the opposite end of the table visitors will encounter a mender. The interactive portion of this project happens between a visitor who has brought in a piece of clothing in need of repair, and the mender who gifts their time to complete the repair. 

The inspiration for this work was a result of the artist’s own reaction to a traumatic event in his life. Overwhelmed with uncertainty, Mingwei took his nervous energy and began mending tattered items in his home. Once physical mending occurred, emotional mending followed. The way this project works in a museum setting is as an exchange, once more, between strangers. Visitors are encouraged to bring in an item in need of patching. Sitting opposite the mender as they work, visitors may share if the article is significant to them, or the story of how the mending came to be needed. Or as in the case of this writer, one may come without an item in need of mending, and spontaneously yank a button off their blazer to participate. (There is no need to damage your clothes, the menders are also happy to add embellishments to any item.)  There are no rules, no guidelines, just the possibility of connection. As evident in grandmothers lovingly sewing on buttons, and the formation of sewing circles during WWII, the act of mending with thread has historically been one of intimacy and care. Though mender and visitor may tearily ponder the broken state of the world, feeling helpless (as was the case for this writer) together they mend a bit of each other. Visitors leave with their newly embellished article as a memento to carry. Rather than concealing the mends made, the bright repairs are visual reminders of life lived, and a celebration of all that entails. 

In the penultimate gallery, Mingwei explores a solitary form of connection. In the wake of his own grandmother’s death and inspired by the unique grieving process of his Taiwanese culture, Mingwei embarked on a 100-day farewell to his loved one. In “100 Days of Lily (1995),” the artist chronicles spending 100 days closely living with a lily. From seed, to sprout, to flourishing flower, then through the wilting and death of the flower, Mingwei lives with the plant and interacts with it as it lives a full life cycle. In experiencing this cycle of life and death Mingwei must recognize the impermanence of life. To acknowledge death and loved ones lost is to honor their life cycle and experience gratitude for the impermanence — as that tragic fact is also the beauty in life. This work is a testament that death does not sever the connection between those we’ve lost.

100 Days with Lily, 1995. 5 silver dye bleach prints, 166.5 x 115 cm each. Image credit: Claire Sipos, courtesy of Kimball Art Center.

In the final gallery, the exhibition bring the works’ dialogue to a close with part two of “The Tourist.” The items acquired on Mingwei’s travels can now be matched with the cities visited. Two screens scroll through photos of the guided trips explored in the first gallery. One screen shows snapshots captured by Mingwei, and the other presents photos from the tour guide’s perspective. While visitors compare the same journey from two points of view, each tour guide narrates their experience. Though strangers from around the world showing vastly different environments, nearly all had a connection. The word path came up again and again. One guide mentioned the lights of a nearby city signifying a path to her family that lived there. Another enjoyed the path from tranquil nature into the bustling city. Finally, one guide summed it up simply “To live is to lay a path from you to me.” If that isn’t the gift of connection, what is?

The Gift of Connection, Kimball Art Center, Park City, through Feb. 25, 2024.
To catch the hosts of “The Living Room” in person, visit Saturdays between 2:00 and 4:00pm. Menders for “The Mending Project” will be on site Tuesday – Fridays, 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. as well as Saturday and Sundays 10:00 am-4:00 pm. For other related events still to come keep an eye on the Kimball’s website and Instagram.

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