First Major US Exhibition of Leading Taiwanese American Artist Lee Mingwei Opens at the de Young This February

Nov 29, 2023

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Lee Mingwei (American, b. Taiwan, 1964). Guernica in Sand, 2006-present. Mixed media interactive installation Sand, wooden island, lighting 1300 x 643 cm. Photo Courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Exhibition Includes New Work by Lee Mingwei, Commissioned by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Singers, Tailors, Painters Invited into the Galleries to Engage Visitors in Art-Making as a Healing Practice  

November 29, 2023, SAN FRANCISCO The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (“the Fine Arts Museums”) today announced leading Taiwanese American artist Lee Mingwei’s first survey exhibition in the United States. Lee Mingwei: Rituals of Care features seven projects made between 1995 and 2024 that place visitors at the center of radical acts of generosity and care, asking how art can be a conduit for social connection and healing. Inspired by personal experiences of loss and resilience and major world events such as September 11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, artist Lee Mingwei (b. 1964) has, over the course of his career, created powerful participatory mixed-media installations and performances that transform ordinary gestures like writing, sweeping, mending, or breathing into rituals of engagement and solace. The exhibition opens at the de Young museum on February 17 and runs through July 7, 2024. Chaque souffle une danse; a new work commissioned by the Fine Arts Museums, will be on view at Minnesota Street Project Foundation from April 5 through 21, and represented by a film at the de Young, on view from April 9 through July 7. 2024.

“Rooted in his own lived experience, Lee Mingwei’s artworks invite museum visitors to participate in collaborative acts of trust, healing, and mindfulness,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Having spent formative years in San Francisco, we are delighted that Lee Mingwei’s first US museum survey also represents a homecoming for this internationally recognized artist. It’s a privilege to make Lee’s healing practice accessible to Bay Area audiences.”

Central to Lee Mingwei’s practice is the act of exchange or gift-giving. Lee Mingwei: Rituals of Care is presented throughout the de Young museum’s free public spaces and its galleries dedicated to art of the 20th and 21st centuries, allowing visitors to happen upon each work serendipitously. Intimate scenarios such as writing a letter, receiving a song, or having a conversation on mending unfold in the galleries through Lee Mingwei’s participatory installations. From the earliest work on view, 100 Days with Lily (1995), to the newly commissioned Chaque souffle une danse (Each Breath a Dance, 2024), Lee Mingwei’s work explores the preciousness of human connections.

“Made for his graduate school application portfolio, 100 Days with Lily already mapped out the overarching and as-yet inexhaustive trajectory for the work Lee Mingwei has done since: participatory experiences that always include another; situations that are never wholly self-contained but contingent on a ‘with’. Whether that is a being or thing or both, his works model a generous and caring way of existence - a philosophy of life” added Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

While 100 Days with Lily (1995) chronicles the time Lee Mingwei spent raising a lily from seed to death in large-scale Ilfochrome prints—documenting his activities with the flower as it progressed through its natural life cycle in honor of his deceased grandmother—The Letter Writing Project (1998–present) draws from the human need to communicate thoughts and feelings left unsaid, keenly felt by the artist after the death of his maternal grandmother. Consisting of three writing booths and an accessible writing station, the latter project invites visitors to write the letter they have always meant to send but never have. Lee Mingwei allows participants to decide whether to address their letters and have the museum post them, or leave the letters unsealed for others to read, creating what he calls “a chain of feelings” that remind us of the larger world of emotions in which we all participate.

In The Mending Project (2009–present), Lee Mingwei transforms the simple act of sewing into an opportunity to connect. Visitors are invited to bring items of clothing that need mending to the installation, which consists of a table, two chairs, and a wall of colorful, cone-shaped spools of thread. Unlike a traditional tailor, who would try to hide repairs, Lee Mingwei’s mending and that of the volunteers activating the installation is done with the idea of celebrating and commemorating the act and its accompanying conversation. Their conscious embrace and embellishment of the fabric’s damages speaks to the emotional work of mending as a means to deal with trauma and loss. The repaired garments remain on the table, if the visitor so chooses, still connected to the spools of thread on the walls, until the last day of the exhibition.

Also concerned with healing is Sonic Blossom (2013–present), which originated when the artist’s mother was recovering from surgery as he played Franz Schubert’s lieder for her, just as she had done for him as a child. In that spirit of unconditional care, Bay Area singers offer the gift of song to museum guests who accept the interaction. In its presentation at the de Young, Sonic Blossom will be presented by local singers for four days monthly during the run of the exhibition.

Hauntingly current in the context of world events, Guernica in Sand (2006–present) comments on the cyclical nature of creation and destruction. Created at the height of the Iraq War, Guernica in Sand draws on the Tibetan Buddhist mandala tradition to remake and unmake Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica (1937). Halfway through the exhibition, the work is both completed and erased, simultaneously. From noon to sunset, Lee Mingwei invites audience members to enter the piece and walk across the sand as he works to finish the image. The performance concludes with the artist and three other invited performers sweeping the sand around a rock-shaped sculpture island placed at the center of the work, leaving it unrecognizable. Also countering the inevitability of conflict is Our Peaceable Kingdom (2020–present). For this work, Lee Mingwei initially invited 14 artists to reinterpret or copy American folk painter and Quaker minister Edward Hicks’s famous painting The Peaceable Kingdom (ca. 1833; Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts), which depicts a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” Those 14 artists then enlisted two more artists each to rework their versions, creating “a family tree of copies, with multiple descendants” that explore the idea of peace. For the de Young iteration, Lee Mingwei asked Bay Area artist Chelsea Ryoko Wong to copy the painting. Wong in turn invited two other local artists, Emily Fromm and Emilio Villalba, to make the next generation of paintings. 

His most recent project, Chaque souffle une danse, that will be presented as a film at the de Young, reflects on the physical and social threats that the simple act of breathing has come to embody since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the circumstances of George Floyd’s murder, while also encapsulating the sensation of a world increasingly running out of breath due to climate change.

Lee Mingwei’s focus on rituals of care—both for the self and for one another in community—places the Fine Arts Museums at the center of a dialogue about art as a mode of healing and replenishing joy.  

Lee Mingwei: Rituals of Care is organized by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming, with Janna Keegan, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Lee Mingwei: Rituals of Care is open to the public Tuesday - Friday 9.30am - 5.15 pm with general admission to the de Young Museum. Admission to the exhibition will be free to Bay Area residents every Saturday with the generous support of Diane B. Wilsey. 

Major Support for the exhibition is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Significant Support provided by Taiwan Academy of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles Generous Support is provided by Bettina S. Bryant, National Endowment for the Arts, and Brook Hartzell and Tad Freese. Additional Support is provided by the Contemporary Support Council, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Kaitlyn and Mike Krieger, and My Lasting Letters.

About Lee Mingwei

Born in Taiwan in 1964, Lee Mingwei currently resides in New York, Paris, and Taipei. He creates participatory installations that enable strangers to engage with concepts of trust, intimacy, and self-awareness. In addition, he conducts one-on-one events in which he and visitors explore these themes through daily activities like eating, sleeping, writing, and conversing. His projects often create open-ended scenarios for everyday interactions, adapting and transforming with participant involvement throughout an exhibition's duration.

Lee Mingwei received his MFA from Yale University in 1997 and has since presented his solo exhibitions internationally at venues including the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Tate Modern, London; Gropius Bau, Berlin; Sydney Modern Project; Taipei Fine Arts Museum; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Australia; Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, New Zealand; Ateneum Art Museum: Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki; Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He has also been featured in biennials in Venice, Lyon, Sharjah, Liverpool, Taipei, Sydney, Echigo-Tsumari, and the Whitney, as well as the Asia Pacific Triennial.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprising the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, are the largest public arts institution in San Francisco.

The de Young museum originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on view include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art. The Legion of Honor museum was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. It offers unique insight into the art historical, political, and social movements of the previous 4,000 years of human history, with holdings including ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; and the largest collection of works on paper in the western United States.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are located on land unceded by the Ramaytush Ohlone, who are the original inhabitants of what is now the San Francisco Peninsula. The greater Bay Area is also the ancestral territory of other Ohlone peoples, as well as the Miwok, Yokuts, and Patwin. We acknowledge, recognize, and honor the Indigenous ancestors, elders, and descendants whose nations and communities have lived in the Bay Area over many generations and continue to do so today. We respect the enduring relationships that exist between Indigenous peoples and their homelands. We are committed to partnering with Indigenous communities to raise awareness of their legacy and engage with the history of the region, the impacts of genocide, and the dynamics of settler colonialism that persist today.

Media Contacts: 

Helena Nordstrom, Director of Communications,

Alison Buchbinder | or 646-688-7826

Maddy Martin | or 860-898-0992