I glided across Sydney’s life-force, the harbour, in a swift Manly ferry, and arrived at Circular Quay with just enough time to slip in to my Friday Kahlo Exhibition adventure, a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, before heading off on a train to the airport to return back to Melbourne. I teetered on the edge of this decision. I could leave it and just trundle on to the airport at a leisurely pace or I could speed walk to the gallery, speed walk through the gallery then speed walk back to the train. I chose the latter.
To be honest, this wasn’t too great an obstacle as its not uncommon for me to find myself walking through art galleries at a comparatively fast pace, ruthlessly dismissing the art that doesn’t catch me immediately, pausing only when I’m lured enough to do so.
On this occasion I did the usual skimming and pausing, coming across some fabulous, beautiful and intriguing art here and there, until I came across a crowded room, with many viewers or actually it would be more apt to call them participants.
I was immediately intrigued. We all love interactive art, no? Well I’m sure there are some that don’t yet there seemed to be quite a few that liked this one.
I tried to lean in to get a better understanding of what was happening in the artwork. I remember seeing two structures with steps leading up to them… small, delicate rooms with three walls, all of which were lined with evenly distributed rows of envelopes perched as if they were each treasured works of art.
I had to weave myself through engaged bodies, to get closer to the entrance to one of the little rooms. I was hovering and leaning in, as I could see that the person inside had no shoes on, when an attendant approached me to let me know that to enter the space not only does one have to remove shoes, but also only one person was permitted to enter at one time. She also graciously gave me a quick summation of the artwork, somewhat akin to the blurb on the wall (see pic).
The artist is inviting participants to write a letter expressing either gratitude, insight or forgiveness, providing an ‘opportunity to put into words the things that so often remain unsaid in our lives; or those things that we too often do not find the time to say to the people around us, including loved ones and family.’1
My desire to write a letter was sparked even though I had no idea what I would say nor to whom. I quickly scanned my brain – do I have people in my life I need to forgive, thank or share insights with? No answer came. Nor did it have time.
Waiting for an answer to come, taking off shoes and waiting for my turn, was out of the question as I was due to speed walk back to Circular Quay, so I took a photo of the information about the artwork and another of the inside of a room. And as I reflect now on it, it was as though I took an energetic snapshot of the artwork in to my being and told myself I would look it up later, feeling enormous gratitude for the artwork, the artist and the modern aids of smart phones and the web.
The statement informed me that Taiwanese American artist Lee Mingwei titled the work, ‘The Letter Writing Project 1998- present’. It’s form was made up of ‘wooden booths, writing papers, envelopes’1… and pens/pencils perhaps?
According to the blurb, there were three of these rooms. I can’t remember seeing three but memories are often selective of information when in a hurry (my excuse for a decline in mine). The number three though, as I’ve learnt through reading the blurb, is a reverberating part of the work and it weaves itself through a few domains.
Domain one: Three letter types: The letter writing project relies on participant involvement. The participants though, are not ‘instructed’ to do anything, but rather ‘invited’1 to write a letter to someone of their choice in response to the theme of:
Domain two: Three avenues for your letter: Participants have another choice of three options. If they:
leave their letter unsealed, other gallery visitors may read the letter
seal their letter, it will remain private
seal and address the letter, the Museum will post it on their behalf
Domain three: Three postures/booths for letter writing: The significance of the ‘three semi-transparent, timber structures that resemble pagodas or softly glowing lanterns’1 were that each was designed to accommodate writing in the rooms in a particular posture aligned with the three ‘positions associated with Buddhist contemplation’1:
I feel that Mingwei reiterates the reference of the Buddhist positions through the use of three forms and three avenues of letter writing, in order to subtly but surely place the spiritual context of the work on the page.
What struck me about this work the most back then and still now, is it’s life-giving, freeing and ultimately spiritual, qualities. I personally felt elevated by the work, even though I didn’t actually write a letter, nor read any. I remember holding on to that feeling as I sped my way back to the train, the echo of knowing, that people were tapping in to gratitude, insight or forgiveness that may have been lingering within, waiting for an opportunity, stuck inside and now being gifted with a free ticket to fly. In fact, that was it. It felt like the artist was offering the viewer a precious gift, through this work.
This, I feel, is art as a force for healing. Art as a necessary medicine for a society focussed on gifts of a different kind, those that involve quick pleasure, monetary value or glitter, shallow comfort. This, on the other hand, is almost an uncomfortable gift. Just as sometimes we are confronted with an uncomfortable truth and need to choose what to do with it. For those who participate, or even for those who don’t (like me), one is brought in to contact with the the unspoken – those feelings that have not yet had a voice. And, in my experience in the healing fields, it is these voices that have not yet been heard, that tend to lead to internal blockages of all kinds such as Spiritual crisis and at times, illness.
The MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) website has a link to a video of Lee talking about his artwork. Here, I learned that the ‘origin’2 of this artwork was his ‘own experience’2 of the loss of his maternal grandmother, who passed away quite unexpectedly around twenty years prior. He felt he had a lot of things he wanted to tell her and she wasn’t there to share those with him. He then spent around a year writing at least around a hundred letters to her which he later burned ceremoniously to ritualistically send those messages to her.
This is what he intends to also do at the ‘natural conclusion’2 (I wonder when this will be… already its had 18 years of life) of this project with the letters he has accumulated from its journey to various galleries. At the time of the video’s making he had around 50,000 letters in his studio.
So, the full list of materials for this work perhaps should include not only pencils/pens but also fire.
Ritual and particularly that associated with the use of fire is a common element in traditions and spiritual practices of a variety of cultures. Not only this, but a fire, is often a place we humans have come to stand or sit around, to share stories, sing songs and create connection. And connection is surely, a major component of Mingwei’s artwork. Not only connecting to those that we feel to forgive or share insight or gratitude with but also to oneself, as we resolve our inner conflict with this sense of something unspoken, lingering.
The piece works, or finds access to the viewer, by operating on so many levels. Someone can become a participant, or rather, a recipient of this work, purely by receiving a letter that someone writes at the exhibition. When a letter is received, I wonder what the following ramifications may be. How many relationships have been patched up or resurrected? How many new depths to relationships have been forged? Then one can contemplate those that let go of an unforgiveness, and even if its been sealed, may walk that little bit ( or a lot in some cases) lighter and freer. And then there are those who, perchance, pick a letter to read, that someone else wrote, and find that it touches them deeply.
What I also resonate with as an artist, is Lee Mingwei’s practice of using his own life experience in a direct way through his work. He has beautifully distilled the essence of his own experience, that he found transforming or healing and given others a pathway to also access this. Art, in such instances, in my opinion, has the capacity to initiate at the very least, a metamorphosis in the viewer.
I have also found that he has made another beautiful artwork for the MCA, titled Sonic Blossom 2013 – present in which he also distills his personal experience in to a beautiful gift for the viewer. I’ll let you have a look. It’s quite moving.
BLURB ABOUT ARTWORK: Lee Mingwei, The Letter Writing Project. (2017). [wooden booths, writing papers, envelopes] Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.
VIDEOS ON WEBSITE: Lee Mingwei, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. (2017). Telling Tales: Lee Mingwei: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. [online] Available at: https://www.mca.com.au/telling-tales/telling-tales-lee-mingwei/ [Accessed 27 Mar. 2017].