The Zen Commandments

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.

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.

"Letters can be set in the holders inside the booth; you are invited to read those in unsealed envelopes. All the addressed letters are collected and mailed weekly, while those unaddressed or to the deceased will be ritually burned by the artist."

A subtle link to the positions of meditation in Ch'an Buddhism can be found in the slightly different configurations of the three booths. In the first you stand at the table holding the stationery. In the second there's a shorter table and a stool where you can sit. And in the third you can kneel on a mat before the low-slung table. These postures correspond respectively to the themes of gratitude, insight, and forgiveness Lee asks us to consider when writing our letters.

Some of the letters I observed were addressed to the artist himself, the museum, God, and various beloved friends and family members. One was from a wag who composed "a brief epistle directed at the few of you out there who don't infuriate me," with the letter reading simply "thank you." Most contents, however, were of a more intimate nature, coming from people who had taken the artist's solemn instructions much more seriously.

The final installation in the show is Reflections (1999), another wooden booth with doors at each end and a two-way mirror dividing the space in half. Again, Lee wants to prompt introspection: "As you enter either end of this long chamber, you experience the melding of your image with its reflection, or with that of the visitor occupying the opposite space. Questions of identity may come to mind: Who are we? Are we a composite construct of everybody around us? Do we have an a priori idea of who we are? What experiences do we carry within that define us?"

Some people may be put off by the touchy-feeliness of Lee's art. But he tempers the philosophical and spiritual ramifications of his work with an element of deadpan prankishness that's entirely in keeping with the paradoxes of Zen and Ch'an. (Check out his Website, which is a put-on so elaborately worked out that it's almost frightening.)

The questions Lee poses about the ways life and art overlap and interact may not be answerable in any literal, logical sense, but like Zen koans they prompt us to seek answers that make sense in other, more intuitive ways. I'm glad he has the aesthetic courage to raise such questions, and I'm equally gratified that the Museum of Art has provided him with a hospitable venue for practicing his peculiar but profound variety of art.