Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

If you can't stand a little conceptual heat, stay out of Lee Mingwei's kitchen.

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Conceptual art can be a real snore; one need only think of Ohio native Jenny Holzer, who coins one-liners like "Expiring for Love is beautiful but stupid," puts them on posters and billboards, and then places them in public spaces where they can stimulate weary pedestrians into thinking about something other than yesterday's ball game.

When artists deliberately render their work visually uninteresting so that they can direct attention to an underlying idea, they take an enormous risk. All bets are off under such circumstances, and a bad case of ennui is often in the cards for the unlucky viewer.

Sometimes, though, a conceptual artist comes along who knows how to raise important questions without forgetting his audience. New York-based conceptual artist Lee Mingwei, whose work is on display at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art in Lee Mingwei 1994-1999, is such an artist. In his "Dining Project," Mingwei tests an unusual hypothesis: namely, can the act of sharing a meal with a gallery-goer picked by lottery be the starting point for art that stimulates thought about the meaning of everyday rituals? The answer is yes--and, what's more, the resulting work is free of the dimestore psychology one would expect, given the intellectual setup.

The 35-year-old Mingwei has a history of rewriting traditional artistic menus. He's already had one-man shows in prestigious venues like the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which housed the "Dining Project" last summer. The Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art is now hosting a retrospective of his four major works, of which "The Dining Project" is the undeniable standout.

The Taiwan-born Mingwei first tried his movable feast at Lombard-Fried Fine Arts in New York's Soho in May 1997, and he has since set about perfecting it. Here's how it works: First, he prepares a home-cooked Asian meal for a gallery-goer who, picked by lottery earlier in the week, arrives at the now-closed gallery to share the repast with him. Mingwei does the shopping himself and tailors the menu to include his guest's favorite dishes. He then captures the dinner-table conversation with a tape recorder. Over a plate of fried noodles, the guest might share personal information with the artist, whose capacity for undivided attention has been frequently cited. Indeed, this sounds like the stuff of a therapy session, not an art exhibit, and participants have likened these dinners with Mingwei to sessions with a particularly sensitive therapist.

Mingwei, it turns out, doesn't see much difference between the two. Staking a claim for art as an exercise in nurturance and self-disclosure, his installations are an attempt to cleave a contemplative space in a chaotic premillennial world. Fittingly, the artist is fascinated with the process of interpersonal communication; he's on record as calling himself a "public artist," and he has asserted that playing such a role in the 1990s requires him to be both social worker and psychologist. Hence the close connection between art and personal revelation in these works.

To preserve the anonymity of his subjects, Mingwei mixes their dinner comments with excerpts from other people's conversations and then plays the new mix at a barely audible level during the gallery's official visiting hours. Even though only snippets of conversation can be heard, this blurring of the line between private and public communication sets the mind racing. The only physical items on display are the table and chairs that were used for the meal, but viewing those items while Mingwei's aural sampler plays in the background has the effect of triggering a private remembrance of dinners past. A kinship with Mingwei's dinner guests is confirmed as one recalls meals and discussions with family members and friends. Dimly apprehended through the tape-recorded scrim, Mingwei's dinner is like the Proustian cookie dunked in tea: a mundane ritual which awakens memories of one's own rituals and the significance they've acquired over the years.

Although "Dining Project" calls for Mingwei to remain at the gallery after closing time, such indifference to the nine-to-five world is a sign not of caprice but of the lengths to which he'll go to give his dinner guest a meaningful experience. It makes sense that Mingwei would stay after hours; his art, after all, is about penetrating the surface of society's defined limits, making the case that art goes on whether there are art galleries or not--and whether or not they happen to be open to the public. And there's another message here: that living well can be an art, and that the way we do things every day determines whether we're good artists or poor ones.

Another variation on this theme is Mingwei's unassuming yet powerful "Letter Writing Project," for which the artist has fashioned three lantern-like booths from smooth wood and frosted glass. In these booths he has placed stationery and envelopes; gallery visitors are invited to write the letters they've always wanted to write but haven't dared. Slots in the frosted glass display previous efforts (one mother addresses her daughter and tells her how much she loves her in a large childlike script). In Mingwei's view, this sort of "emptying out" is the same as healing, and his piece seems to suggest that letter writing is the archetypal expression of this idea.

There's a gentle irony in the fact that the booths which house these letters are, but for a table and a writing bench, empty at the center. Turbulent on the edges but peaceful at the core, they recall the works of Japanese film director Jasujiro Ozu, which similarly find the calm at the center of the storm. Ozu's films often close with the motif of the circle, which, for the director, seemed to symbolize the way we end up where we've started, but are transformed by what we see along the way.

In Ozu's 1959 classic Late Spring, a widowed old man, now completely alone because his daughter has just gotten married, sits down in his apartment, takes an apple, and peels it in one long, uninterrupted motion. Mingwei also has his circle: it's the cylindrical light that hangs above the booth and connects the act of writing to the acceptance of loss.

Less effective because it's more didactic is the piece "Money for Art." Mingwei creates wood shelving that mimics the highly organized honeycomb structure of a beehive (one of his mentors was a beekeeper and philosopher, whom he credits with helping him understand how everyday activity can be the subject of art). In the individual cells, Mingwei places origami sculptures fashioned from dollar bills. The gallery-goer is asked to take one of these sculptures, but to replace it with an object of his choosing. In an adjacent text panel, Mingwei asks the viewer to consider the question of whether the exchange is a fair one, but doesn't lay out any other ground rules.

The news is mixed on these exchanges. Mingwei's fanciful little sculptures are sometimes traded for business cards, and that doesn't seem like a fair exchange until one remembers that many people define themselves by their profession. One visitor left a lock of hair tied with a rubber band and thus seemed far more in tune with Mingwei's aesthetic. "Money for Art" is notable in one important respect: Like all the other works in this retrospective, it's as much about the spectator as it is about Mingwei. Dozens of people have responded to Mingwei's request, but divining motives and attitudes about art and life from these personal possessions is a dicey proposition. Perhaps that's the point: These souvenirs of a person's presence are mysterious, and one should not jump to any conclusions based on what people are willing to trade for a dollar bill. This work could even be read as a satirical dig on all of those sociological research projects which draw sweeping conclusions about human behavior, based on evidence which seems flimsy in the extreme.

Come to think of it, even past participants in "The Dining Project" could stand to be a bit more mindful of the complex ways that people communicate. It's surprising, for example, to read about the bewilderment expressed by some of Mingwei's dinner companions over how easily they were able to confide in the artist. Part of that ease might be attributed to the artist and the unique atmosphere he's able to create with his artwork. But much of it undoubtedly stems from the fact that self-disclosure is relatively easy when you don't expect to ever see someone again.

Such knowledge doesn't lessen Mingwei's achievement, but it does suggest an additional explanation for the high comfort level and ease of interaction in "The Dining Project." Art can certainly be therapeutic and--in theory--might even be capable of healing. But we overstate the case if we say that it truly does heal anybody, even part of the time. The notion of the doctor as artist has a long and distinguished history, right up from the days of shamans and medicine men. But it's a genealogical tree that bears conundrums in lieu of fruit. For one thing, does one judge the effectiveness of a piece of art by how many people it helps? Does it matter if it sets out to help no one?

Not all of Mingwei's artworks are so ambitious. The fourth and final work in the retrospective, "Reflections," consists merely of a pavilion divided by a two-way mirror. Viewers can see their images gradually merge--another variation on the themes of introspection and self-reflection explored elsewhere in the exhibit. Compared to "The Dining Project" and "The Letter Writing Project," this is pretty simple stuff, and it lacks the resonant overtones of those efforts.

One thing is abundantly clear after spending some time in Mingwei's world, though: These thought-provoking installations are a sane corrective for every lame TV infomercial that offers a panacea for what ails you. There are no easy fixes here. Mingwei invites complexity to dinner, takes it seriously, and creates work greater than the sum of its parts. That's a special talent, and one is grateful for the opportunity of seeing it in action.

Lee Mingwei 1994-1999, through August 1 at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Avenue, 216-421-8671.

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