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 installation was on show in the Pavilion of the Common - part of the Arsenale Complex. In just over four months, on the 11th May 2019, the Venice Biennale 2019 will open. I intend to attend, of course, gathering thoughts and inspiration to feed into my writing and personal 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.

The Mending Project has expanded from a personal coping strategy in the face of uncontrollable events, to an interactive international work. In 2001 the artist Lee Mingwei's partner was working at the Twin Towers in New York. When the planes hit, the artist assumed that he had lost his partner. In order to keep his hands busy with a useful task as he waited for news, he turned to his mending-pile: sewing buttons back on and stitching up tears. Thankfully his partner was safe, but that day they both lost 400 friends and colleagues. As Mingwei continued to work through his mending pile throughout the following weeks, he began to think of the threads as literal expressions of emotional mending: an outward visual for healing.

Approaching the installation your eye is first caught by four hundred spools of thread on the wall, a delicate line is pulled from each and attached to an item of clothing in a vast pile at the end of a very long table. At the other end of the table is sitting a man in black, sewing and talking with a visitor who sits directly opposite him. The spools represent the people who died in the 9/11 attack - the threads linking each spool to an item of clothing ensures a connection across time and space between the moment of their death, and a deliberate, considered moment of mending.

Giving the allusion further depth: Mingwei has previously referred to clothing as our "second skin". And 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. In 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)".

Volunteer Mender with my dress
Lee Mingwei's The Mending Project, (2017)
Mingwei is an artist whose practice is based on hospitality and trust between strangers. Within The Mending Project: hospitality is the creation of a space where visitors are invited; trust between the visitor and the mender is the action of the visitor handing over their clothes to be mended; and the aspect that draws it all together is the act of mending, including the possibilities of the stories that might be shared between the mender and the visitor. By having visitors bring their own clothes (and share their words with the Mender): a collective experience of healing can be created. The stage is set for an experience of mending/emotional healing that reaches far beyond 9/11 into people's own lives, perhaps even touching on their own personal tragedies.

When I first encountered the project sixteen months ago, my response was focused on the event that initially inspired the project: 9/11. Viewing the work as a a direct response to 9/11 left me cold. I felt that such a great amount of time had passed - and there had been so many other more visceral terrorist attacks since - that I struggled to feel a connection. While choosing the colours to mend the disintegrating dress I brought, the volunteer explained to me that the idea was that the mending threads should contrast the fabric's own colours. That way you could always see the mend, wear it as an honour and celebrate the healing: the visible mend proving the healing action took place. Later I learned 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. My harsh view on his use of such a prominent and globally affecting event as a personal touchstone softened and I began to really see that the project was about our humanistic emotional response to tragedy - what comes afterwards - not the actual event itself. 

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 the subsequent, deliberate journey of mending once the cameras have all gone home and that big bad moment becomes black and white text in a history book. There is power in collectivity when it comes to honouring the pain that has made us who we are, but there is a stronger unspoken power: that of mending things, physical or emotional, together. Taking those moments and transforming them into something bigger and better than who we are as individuals, shining a light on the humanistic traits we all share, is something Artists have a unique privilege to be able to do.

Further Reading

In September 2017 I visited the Venice Biennale and discovered many wonderful things. I am looking back at what I saw in a four-part series of short writings. This is the third 'article'.

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