Thoughts On: Venice Biennale 2017 (Part Three: Lee Mingwei)

Lee Mingwei

The Mending Project, Room Two (Pavilion of the Common), Arsenale, Venice Biennale 2017

Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, (2017)
It is January 2019, almost two years since this show. In just over four months, on the 11th May 2019, the Venice Biennale 2019 will open. I intend to attend, of course, and bring some thoughts and inspiration back here into my writing and own practice. For now, I continue to look back at a few of the stand-out works I saw sixteen months ago at La Biennale di Venezia Viva Arte Viva, curated by Christine Macel.

Mingwei is an artist whose practice is based on hospitality and trust between strangers. These themes, intermixed with a personally cathartic approach, are more than evident within The Mending Project. In 2001 Mingwei's partner was working at the Twin Towers in New York. When the planes hit, he assumed he had lost his partner. In order to try and keep his hands busy as he waited for news he began to mend all of the clothes lying around his apartment. As he mended, he began to think of the threads as literal expressions of emotional healing. Extrapolating outwards and creating a space for visitors to bring their own clothes to the gallery space to be mended by him (or a volunteer), The Mending Project has expanded from private and inner coping strategy, to an outward and interactive work.

When I first encountered the project, sixteen months ago, my response was focused on the tragic event that initially inspired the project: 9/11. I felt that as a direct response to 9/11, the work left me cold. Such a great amount of time has passed since then - and there have been so many other more visceral terrorist attacks since that I struggled to feel a connection. Understanding as I do now, that it took Mingwei a good nine years to come to terms with the emotions and shock he felt in the moments after 9/11 (that he was really there, his partner could have been killed, that they lost 400 friends and colleagues) softened me to the idea of this kind of collective tragedy (that was played out so publicly and globally at the time) as a personal touchstone.
Volunteer Mender on Lee Mingwei's The Mending Project, (2017)

The focus of the project truly was on healing, transforming healing into a literal metaphor through mending a physical object. By having visitors bring their own clothes (Mingwei has referred to clothing as our "second skin"), and share their words with the Mender a collective experience of healing was created: one that reached beyond 9/11 into people's own lives, perhaps even touching on their own personal tragedies. The four hundred spools on the wall stood to represent those lost in the attack - and the threads linking each spool to an item of clothing ensured a connection across time and space between that moment, and the moment of mending. 

The use of thread to link items and us, or the imagery of thread as a life-line or connection is rooted deep in our common-history - from the Greek myths of the three fates: "Clotho spun the “thread” of human fate, Lachesis dispensed it, and Atropos cut the thread (thus determining the individual's moment of death). (Britannica)". While choosing the colours to mend the disintegrating dress I brought along, the volunteer explained to me that the thread should contrast the fabric so you could see the mend, thereby celebrating the healing: the mend proves it can be fixed, the scars prove the fact of the healing. 

In the sixteen months it has taken me to write this response, I have been working on and off on my own cathartic healing, mending, creating and destroying project: Detr: i/us. During that time I've all too often found myself asking: how long is too long to grieve? How long is too long to take to heal? Is it OK to make this so public? What Mingwei's project has given me is a strong sense of universality within grief, tragedy and struggle: and the power of collectivity when it comes to honouring the pain that has made us who we are. Taking those moments and transforming them into something bigger and better than who we are as individuals is something Artists have a unique privilege to be able to do.

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