The Letter Writing Project, 1998-2007. Wood, glass, lighting, and paper, multiple booths, 290 x 170 x 231 cm.

Lee Mingwei: Beyond Labels

The trapezoidal booths made of pale wood and translucent glass have the hushed atmosphere of small chapels big enough for just one worshipper at a time. They encourage you to enter reverently and purposefully, and once inside, you find materials to write a letter. When you’re finished, you select a place on one of the rows of shelves lining the wall and place your letter there. If you address and seal the envelope, it will be mailed. If you leave it unsealed, other people are allowed to read it. Your thoughts will be there to inspire others. The letters tend to be on sensitive subjects: why you’ve lost contact with someone; why something has gone wrong—or right—with a relationship; how you have coped with a death. Perhaps it’s the anonymity of the letters—signatures aren’t necessary—that encourages the writers to pour out their hearts.

This is Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei’s The Letter Writing Project, part of his recent retrospective at the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, which included installations from 1993 to 2007. The exhibition, the largest presentation of Lee’s work to date, was called “Duologue,” because he shared it with Tse Su-Mei, a half-Chinese, half-English artist who lives in Luxembourg and Paris and whose haunting videos have an affinity with Lee’s work. Lee has become the most internationally prominent representative of an explosion of contemporary art in Taiwan, encouraged by the Taiwanese government. He was also featured in the impressive 2007 Asian Art Biennial at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung. Before this success, Lee’s father “wanted me to be a doctor,” he says, sitting in an office in Taipei MoCA. If he had become a physician, it would have been easy to categorize him: surgeon, dermatologist, or another type of specialist. Instead Lee became an artist, a non-specialist who is difficult to label. His work spans sculpture, installation, and performance. His practice involves cooking for people, conversing with them, treating a lily bulb as if it were a human child, and pretending to be the first pregnant man.