The Zen Commandments

Unlike most exhibits, this one tells you to reach out and touch the art

There may be only three pieces in "Empathic Economies: The Work of Lee Mingwei,"now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, but don't let the spareness of the show fool you. It's as enigmatic and fraught with significance as a Zen koan.

And indeed, Lee is steeped in Ch'an, the form of Chinese Buddhism from which Japanese Zen descended. He was born in Taiwan in 1964, and instead of attending summer camp the way his American counterparts of the time might have, he spent several childhood summers at a Ch'an monastery.

The three works in "Empathic Economies" are installations, and as you approach the area where they're displayed -- which consists of most of the museum's first-floor display area -- you enter a space with its own distinctive aura. The lighting is soft and subdued, and there's a stillness that allows you to pick up on the subtlest of sounds.

The incredible oneness of being: Reflections invites visitors to step into the booth and meld
The incredible oneness of being: Reflections invites visitors to step into the booth and meld

This is not an accident. Lee's work is all about creating and sustaining an ambiance, an atmosphere conducive to tranquility and reflection. When I visited, there was none of the usual busy chitchat among museumgoers, who moved quietly among the installations, speaking, if at all, in hushed tones.

Having established this mood, Lee then invites us to do something that's still relatively uncommon, even in the further reaches of contemporary art: He encourages us to reach out and touch his art, to interact with it in ways that can be highly personal.

In Money For Art (1997), for instance, we are given the opportunity to trade something we have with us at the moment for an actual piece of the installation, which consists of three shallow, wall-mounted shelf units a few feet apart. Each unit comprises 32 small, rectangular compartments that hold origami sculptures made from American one-dollar bills.

The instructions posted alongside the piece spell out the details: "You are invited to take one of the origami-folded dollar bills and leave in its place something you have with you that you deem an appropriate exchange. You are asked to fill in a card to identify yourselves. Is the folded dollar art or money; when does one become the other? Is the substituted object now art? How does one assign value to an object? What is the nature of fairness in an exchange? Many questions may enter your mind as you engage in this project.

"Each day the museum staff will set out ten new folded bills; the artist will keep the exchanged objects, perhaps to incorporate into a future project."

One's inclination, of course, is to look around cautiously to see if it's all a joke, with a punch line in the form of some security guard waiting to swoop down on you as soon as you violate that usually sharply defined gap between art and viewer. But no, it's for real, and on the day that I visited, 17 exchanges had taken place in the first shelf unit, 8 in the next, and 10 in the third.

Among the items traded in for a piece of Money For Art: a black plastic bracelet, four AA batteries, a lock of hair, a small bottle opener/corkscrew, a cigarette, a trio of tiny silkscreen prints by another artist, a package of moist towelettes, a plastic film canister, a black-and-white photograph in a metal frame, a greeting card, a metal case that once held a bottle of Chaps Amore men's cologne, and a roll of toilet tissue. A few people had traded an ordinary dollar bill for one of the origami ones, and one joker had left nothing behind but his ID card, which read "Name -- The Jackal, Profession -- Thief."

When it came time for me to decide what to trade for one of those origami George Washingtons, I was at a loss. All I had in my pockets was loose change, which seemed too mundane an exchange -- money for money. Women, I suspected, had an edge here: A lot of the exchanged items had clearly come from a purse. And then it hit me (a glimmer of the Zen state of enlightenment called satori?). I was carrying a small reporter's notebook. A blank, crumpled page from it went into shelf unit number three, and an origami dollar now sits on a shelf in my home.

An even greater degree of intimacy is asked of us from The Letter-Writing Project (1998), a piece previously featured in Lee's landmark "Way Stations" show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The installation consists of three booths (instead of the two featured at the Whitney), each measuring about ten feet tall, five feet wide, and seven feet deep, made of pale blond wooden frames and translucent glass walls. Within each booth is a table that holds stationery and pens.

Again there are instructions: "Inside the three booths you will find stationery and a private space conducive to reflection and contemplation. You are invited to write a letter to someone, living or dead -- a letter you have always intended to write but have put off for one reason or another. The artist asks that you reflect on the following as you compose your letter: gratitude, an event for which you feel grateful, insight, an event for which you would ask or offer forgiveness. Of course, you are free to write whatever you wish.

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