Lee Mingwei

Our Labyrinth


Lee Mingwei born 1964
Performance, people
Overall display dimensions variable
Purchased with funds provided by the Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee 2020


Our Labyrinth is a participatory performance project by Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei in which single dancers, dressed in floor-length sarongs and wearing ankle bells, take it in turns to sweep a mound of rice in patterns on the floor in a designated gallery space. Such forms are described by the artist as ‘a labyrinthine path of their choosing’, a statement which gives the work its title (quoted in ‘Our Labyrinth’ project profile, correspondence with Tate, May 2018).

The artist’s instructions for the performance dictate that it should be activated throughout gallery opening hours, for the entire duration of the exhibition period. Each day a ritual is enacted in which a paper ‘wall’ that surrounds the mound of rice is carefully removed and placed in a dedicated area for safekeeping. The dancers operate on a rota of shifts, bowing to each other before passing on the broom. The performance concludes each day with the tidying of the rice into a mound once more, and the replacement of the paper wall. The rice can be placed directly on the floor of the space or on a large dance mat of a shape that might be likened to a pool of ink. This emphasises the associations with writing, since the broom can be seen as a substitute for a calligraphic brush.

The work was inspired by Lee Mingwei’s visit to Myanmar in the winter of 2014, as outlined in a description which is displayed alongside the work and on the artist’s website:

My visit to Myanmar was the seed for Our Labyrinth, inspired both by the gesture of removing one's shoes before entering any temple, pagoda or mosque, and by the pristine space created for visitors by volunteers who constantly swept the sacred grounds. For this project, I will first ask exhibition visitors to remove their shoes, thereby enhancing the sensations produced by walking. Second, as visitors walk among the projects, a dancer will sweep a mixture of rice, other grains and seeds through the space, along a labyrinthine path of their choosing. This dancer may encounter obstacles along the way, but will navigate these silently and mindfully.

This project is a gift from the performers to the visitors, the providing of a ‘pure’ space, both physically and spiritually, as they explore the sacred space created by the projects.
(Lee Mingwei, project description on artist’s website, http://www.leemingwei.com/mobile/projects.php?id=42, accessed 18 June 2018.)

Even though different faiths are observed in Myanmar, Lee noted that most of the places of worship he entered required visitors to remove their shoes, and that these spaces were constantly maintained by volunteers, sweeping the floor with brooms. This custom is described by the artist as not only a form of meditation, but as a gift to the community. The performance takes place constantly over a period of around twenty-one days, to suggest the commitment with which temple sweepers apply themselves to the task; the act of sweeping is intended as a gift from the performers to the visitors and an exploration of the relationship between spirituality and architectural space.

Our Labyrinth is representative of Lee Mingwei’s broader practice which comprises both installation and participatory performance. He draws upon ideas of memory, cultural exchange and gift-giving as a form of social reciprocity, inviting audiences to contribute to his work through small exchanges of time, conversation or personal items. The dating of this particular piece as ‘ongoing’ reflects the artist’s principle that his participatory works are subject to the context in which they are shown, with the audience’s reactions and even the cultural context affecting the outcome of the work each time.

Our Labyrinth was first performed in May 2015 during the artist’s mid-career survey exhibition Lee Mingwei and His Relations at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan (May–September 2015). It was also presented at the 11th Shanghai Biennale in 2016, where it formed part of the opening night’s performances, and was included in the exhibition Move at the Musée national d’art moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2017. The performance is editioned in an edition of five with one artist’s proof; Tate has number two in the edition.

Further reading
Lee Mingwei, ‘Statement’, artist’s statement about Our Labyrinth on his website, http://www.leemingwei.com/mobile/projects.php?id=42, accessed 18 June 2018.
Darryl Jingwen Wee, ‘Lee Mingwei’, Modern Painters, vol.27, no.9 September 2015, p.99.

Katy Wan
June 2018

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