When did you last write a letter? Not a letter of complaint or a letter to the tax office, but a real, personal letter? For a long time (since the invention of the postal service and until the invention of telecommunications), letters were the definitive long-distance communication medium. These days, in the age of Facebook, WhatsApp and e-mail, letters somehow seem anachronistic, almost nostalgic. Writing letters takes time and care, something we are no longer automatically willing to invest in the digital age. Hence letters have become something special, and are customary at most for occasions like births, marriages or deaths. As the title itself indicates, Lee Mingwei’s conceptual and processual work “The Letter Writing Project” is about the rehabilitation of analogue letter-writing. Communication and Language
Like many works by Lee Mingwei, “The Letter Writing Project” consists of multiple components. In the exhibition, visitors first meet the physical part of the work designed by the artist: an installation made of three virtually identical spatial elements. These elements are each composed of a wooden platform and three milky translucent walls rising at the sides. The structure is open to the exhibition room on one side and on the top. The spaces thus created in the room appear bright and light. In their clarity and reduction they could be reminiscent of Asian architecture. A step leads up to each platform, inviting the visitor to step up onto it. Each one boasts a different set of furniture inside, one for sitting, one for standing and one for kneeling. On the walls there are narrow, horizontal wooden bars placed at regular distances, which are reminiscent of shelves. All the spaces have paper, pens and envelopes placed ready for the visitor to use.
The open architecture and the prepared material creates an inviting atmosphere. Exhibition visitors are supposed to participate actively in “The Letter Writing Project”. Similarly to “Sonic Blossom” and other works by Lee Mingwei, this work also comes under the umbrella heading of relational art – a type of art that focuses on human relationships and interaction and on the activation and participation of the recipients. Thus it’s already suggested that the installation described is merely the starting point for the actual work itself, which goes far beyond this initial, material level. Lee Mingwei’s concept sets out the framework conditions for this: The spaces must be entered individually and participants are required to remove their shoes before doing so.
Anyone wanting to participate actively may then use the material provided and compose a letter. It should be a letter to a person they are close to. The content is not prescribed, but it should be a constructive, positive message. It should be about things that should have been said a long time ago, things that otherwise are sometimes lost in the rush of everyday life. The letters written can then be placed in envelopes and addressed and put on the shelf-like bars. Either open, so other visitors can look at them, or closed, so they remain private. During the period of the exhibition the letters are franked at certain points in time and taken to the post office so that they actually reach their recipients.
Lee Mingwei explains how the idea for “The Letter Writing Project” has its roots in his own biography. After the death of his grandmother, he thought a lot about the things he would have liked to say to her. This prompted him to start writing letters to her, almost writing down the unsaid words of the soul. With the work that emerged from this idea of the therapeutic effect of writing, he now aims to provide exhibition visitors with a space in which they can do the same right now, and not only when a death in the family interrupts the daily routine. His intention here is threefold: to affect the sender, the recipient and those who participate in the project as silent observers, providing food for thought for their own lives from letters written by strangers to strangers.
Writing down the unsaid words of the soul.
The invitation to participate also brings with it challenges with it, however: How do I find the right words? Who remembers postal addresses these days? Who will be brave enough to reveal their emotions in public? The work eludes a simple consumability, because it remains silent until somebody takes the time and the energy to participate, and in doing so enables others to be involved. It’s about an offer with open access, which requires not only courage and initiative from the participants, but also a great awareness of responsibility. After all, the question of (a lack of) control over content inevitably arises. Who can ensure that it is really only positive messages that are written? Ultimately this kind of control is not possible, which gives the work a vulnerable and fragile moment and appeals to the letter-writers’ own sense of responsibility.
The concept of a “project”, as included in the title of the work, points to the fact that this is not a closed work, but rather a process, the starting point of which is dependent on the participants. Wherever the basic framework conditions are created, the work can be presented and thus used as a catalyst for networks and for cultivating relationships between people. Here it’s crucial that the letters do not stay in the museum, but rather transcend the threshold of the museum space, moving out into the everyday world. The impact they have remains open, since we can only speculate about the reactions of the letters’ recipients. From an art-history perspective, that may be reminiscent of so-called “mail art”, an art form that enjoyed huge popularity among the Fluxus artists in the 1960s in particular. It’s not for nothing that this was also an artistic trend which examined a new relationship between art and life. While here the exchange of letters generally took place between the artists themselves, in “The Letter Writing Project” it is the recipients of the art who take over the task of writing.
Also at the forefront in this work by Lee Mingwei are participation, interaction and communication of and between people. “The Letter Writing Project” makes it clear that communication demands a transformation of feelings into words. The unspoken should be spoken or at least put in writing. Lee Mingwei’s work shows that with all the conflicts and intricacies of human coexistence, it is precisely the constructive forces that require continual activation and cultivation. The artist may provide us with the framework conditions for this, but we must grasp the opportunity for ourselves.
Lisa Beisswanger is an art historian and teaches at Justus Liebig University Giessen. She is currently writing her doctoral thesis on the topic of performative art forms in museum contexts.