Among the many inherited assumptions trafficked by the traditions of hospitality with which I started this book, the equation of hospitality with femininity remains the hardest to challenge. This heteronormative foundation on which hospitality was built has been reinforced by contemporary philosophers such as Levinas and Derrida, and by many of their followers. One of these reinforcements is an insistence that hospitality is essentially tied to femininity, and that therefore a man becomes “feminine” if he welcomes others.1
Even in the absence of a person who identifies as a woman, Levinas and Derrida tell us, the man is welcomed by the house, by a space that is always already tied to femininity, such that any feeling of being at home with oneself, of experiencing one’s own interiority (that space inside one’s own head, language, being), is somehow enabled by an abstracted notion of the maternal-feminine. In her performance Waiting, Faith Wilding expressed a refusal to be a function of hospitality as an abstracted universal waiting woman because this essentializing connection between women and hospitality is also heterosexist. It creates a hierarchy in which femininity is associated with negative connotations of passivity, lack of control and choice, and subservient subjectivity. Even when hospitality is praised, it is still labeled as an unimportant pursuit, unlike investments of energy in politics or the economy, and the language used to describe welcoming men is condescending. Thus, when Immanuel Kant, an important figure for contemporary discussions on hospitality, wrote approvingly about Frenchmen’s “willingness to serve,” he explained it as related to their being “lady-like” and effeminate.2
This approach is also harmful because by this logic men are assumed to be willing beneficiaries of women’s hospitality without consideration for the material and emotional resources that this hospitality requires. As discussed in chapter 2, regarding the process of waiting for others, men are not only supposed to expect women to wait for them, no matter how long and for whatever reason, but they are also presented as exploiting that waiting emotionally (as a sign of love) and durationally (as a time-consuming activity). But what if persons who identify as men, of various races, sexualities, and national origins, are not interested in taking advantage of women’s sacrifices? What if they want to become welcoming hosts in their own right? Outside of a cisgendered notion of hospitality as essentially feminine, there is a world that has not yet been considered. How can we envision alternatives to such heteronormative hospitality relations? This chapter focuses on one of these new forms of hospitality, opening up a space for a welcoming man and examining how the prospect of a self-identified “man who welcomes” unsettles the hospitality dynamic as it has existed up until now.
The artist Lee Mingwei challenges key expectations and stereotypes about men and hospitality in contemporary art and offers his unique style, his own aesthetic of hospitality, in the process. In this chapter, I consider the following questions based on lessons from Lee’s art projects: Is the world ready for a welcoming man? Am I, a self-identified cisgender woman, ready for a welcoming man? What could Lee’s audience—which includes scholars, curators, artists, and others of different genders and sexualities and from various cultural backgrounds—learn from a welcoming man? Lee’s work shows that in order for women, who have been taught not to trust strangers, to become more trusting, men need to become more welcoming. And Lee provides a blueprint for a welcoming man.
Lee’s philosophy of art making is summarized in this statement posted on his website:
Born in Taiwan in 1964 and currently living in Paris and New York City, Lee Mingwei creates participatory installations, where strangers can explore issues of trust, intimacy, and self-awareness, and one-on-one events, where visitors contemplate these issues with the artist through eating, sleeping, walking and conversation. Lee’s projects are often open-ended scenarios for everyday interaction, and take on different forms with the involvement of participants and change during the course of an exhibition.3
Lee calls his audience members “visitors” and “participants,” terms that are carefully chosen to indicate the settings of his “installations.” Intimacy is a shared quality in the aesthetics of the art of welcome. A situation of hospitality unfolds as an experience of one-on-one interaction, and the language of “participatory installation” is important, too. Lee has expressed disagreement regarding the labeling of his work as “performance art,” because, unlike performances such as Wilding’s Waiting, his work is not directed at an audience. Rather, it is focused on individual participants and their sensory experiences of hearing his voice, eating the food he has prepared, sleeping in a bed he has made, or sitting in a room that he has arranged. The situations of hospitality in which the artist serves as host are “participatory installations,” in which the artist prepares the space, his body and mind, and the activities in which his visitors choose to participate (or not). In that sense, the invitation is extended, and the other responds to it.
Focusing on developing his own hospitality aesthetic over the past two decades across multiple countries in Asia and Europe as well as in the United States, Lee has created an ambitious blueprint for becoming a welcoming man, a man who seeks to build trust and make his “guests” (exhibition and project participants) feel uniquely welcomed. In 1997, he started his career by inviting a guest for a meal (The Dining Project, 1997–2005). This was followed by a string of projects through which he developed an aesthetics of hospitality. The Tourist (2001, 2003) expressed Lee’s communal welcome, when he offered guided tours to visitors to New York, his hometown at the time. The Sleeping Project (2000, 2003) provided each participant with a roof and company for the night, and The Living Room (ongoing since 2000) created a welcoming space for visitors to a museum. From 1999 to 2002, Lee collaborated with Virgil Wong in a project called Male Pregnancy, which imagined what it would be like for a man to be pregnant and to welcome a child into the world.4 And in Artists as Residents (2006) Lee provided hospitality to Japanese residents of the Echigo-Tsumari region by transforming a house in the village into a gathering place. In all of these works Lee was attentive to the most minute acts of the day, to the ecology of the self in the environment of an artwork.
My point in listing these specific projects is that becoming a welcoming man takes time and many steps, some more difficult and demanding than others. However, the works mentioned represent only a small selection from Lee’s wide-ranging practice, which has been on display in recent years in a traveling midcareer survey exhibition titled Lee Mingwei and His Relations, curated by Mami Kataoka. The exhibition appeared at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo (2014), the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (2015), and the Auckland Art Gallery (2016), and its accompanying catalog provides in-depth discussion of Lee’s work.5 Lee’s hospitality practice did not develop in a day. Lee often speaks about the importance of his mentors, such as Suzanne Lacy, who has been a pioneer of participatory performances and an active member of the feminist art movement together with Faith Wilding, whose work is the subject of the preceding chapter (I mention the connection between Lacy and Wilding to demonstrate the continuation of influences among the artists, and the attention that Lee pays to such connections). In this chapter, I focus on three of Lee’s works, addressing first The Dining Project and The Sleeping Project, before moving to a sustained discussion of The Living Room.
An Unexpected Host
When Lee started working on The Dining Project in 1995, as an MFA student at Yale University, the idea of artists serving meals to expand their outreach to a community was not new. In Lee’s practice, dining was an occasion for developing his unique aesthetics of hospitality into the sustained style of his one-on-one welcoming situations.6 Lee’s practice and he himself as a welcoming man are memorable to visitors of his “participatory installations.” A current colleague of mine at the University of Michigan, whom I will call Mary, happened to be one of the earliest to experience The Dining Project. Mary recollected in an interview with me that when she was in her junior year at Yale, she was waiting for an elevator in her dormitory when she noticed an advertisement posted on the wall inviting students to dine with an artist, Lee Mingwei, as part of his graduate art exhibition project. Curious, Mary wrote down the phone number provided. Upon hearing of her plans to call a stranger and then go dine with him at his place, supposedly “for an art project,” Mary’s friends feared for her safety and tried to dissuade her, but they were unsuccessful.7
Was Mary too trusting? How would she know whether Lee really was an artist without accepting his invitation? Mary remembers entering a room and immediately noticing how well Lee was dressed, how beautifully the food was arranged, and how nicely his room was decorated (by a student’s standards). Dinner was to be several courses, formally arranged with “proper” bowls and cutlery, rather than something casual, like pizza. This was the beginning of Lee’s signature hospitality aesthetic, of offering his “participants” the best food he could cook, rather than something quick and simple, to represent “his culture” for the occasion. Here a reminder is warranted about how guests receive clues about their own importance to the host from such sensory, form-driven indicators as whether simple or more complex dishes are served, how long the meal has taken to prepare, and how much the host has kept the guests in mind, putting time into their enjoyment of the food, into their tasting of all those elements of hospitality.
As a student, Mary had not expected Lee to go so much out of his way to welcome her. His actions complicated the social dynamic because Mary was confronted by traditional requirements of hospitality, with their specific gendered expectations of femininity and masculinity. A work like Lee’s highlights those expectations viscerally and not in abstract or imaginative forms. To be present, one-on-one with Lee, to be so well received by a person older than she was, when she had not dressed up or brought a gift to dinner (which would have been the polite thing to do, according to the hospitality customs she had grown up with as a Korean American), caused her to feel embarrassed. She also felt welcomed in a very special way, as a precious guest. And here another anxiety of hospitality reveals itself in her response: because Lee had prepared a formal sit-down dinner, Mary could not help feeling uneasy and shy. That is, for those who are not accustomed to being welcomed like that, such a special welcome might make them feel uncomfortable rather than entitled and comforted. Hospitality can become a burden when traditional roles weigh too heavily on our immediate, in-the-situation reactions to an actual welcome. Comparisons and awareness of hierarchies in gender, seniority, class, and status are activated. Lee’s visitors had to deal with these dynamics.
Mary’s response to Lee’s hospitality was complicated by the fact that, at the time, her immediate living environment in New Haven was “quite a mess”—a dirty, crime-ridden neighborhood with few good places to eat—“and it was hard to imagine something more unlike the city than Mingwei’s room!” The contrast between her life as an undergraduate student who ate and dressed rather simply every day and the special way she was treated by this man, a stranger, who had prepared a multicourse dinner and was so attentive, meant that Mary would remember this meal well, even after many years. It also meant that her expectations for her dinner with Lee changed, even though she had not been sure what to expect in the first place. She wished that she had brought at least a small gift when she visited Lee: a scarf, a tea box, some inexpensive trifle that would signify her mindfulness about the host’s efforts and the occasion. Such little gifts are aesthetically mediated steps in hospitality relations, where the objects are signs of preparation for a visit, of being considerate about the encounter. These objects are often inexpensive and beautiful at the same time: a tea box in elaborate packaging, a scarf that can be worn later as a memory of the encounter and the concern that another person had. When Lee visited Ann Arbor to give a lecture in 2013, he brought along a beautiful box of Taiwanese tea for his Michigan hosts.
One can already see in The Dining Project the beginning of a pattern of Lee having a strong impact on guests with his art-as-hospitality practice. The intimacy of The Dining Project was demonstrated by its direct focus on Lee’s one guest (Mary and, later, others like her) rather than on some other intentions of this artwork or the artist himself. As mentioned above, Lee does not call his hospitality-related projects “performances,” as he believes that this could potentially diminish the authentic feeling of welcome that he wishes his visitors to experience. He is not performing in front of the audience, or putting on a show; he is inviting, one person at a time. This feeling of intimacy and being invited, attended to, and served by Lee in this special way left Mary feeling more than welcomed. As she spoke to me, I could imagine that at the time she felt somewhat astonished, as if this hospitality was something unexpected.
Lee’s aesthetic choices meant that he went out of his way, beyond the cultural norms of a graduate student hosting an undergraduate student for dinner at his MFA studio. He used beautiful dishes, and he wore clothes that were more formal than Mary’s jeans and T-shirt, as she recollected. Lee was developing his aesthetic of hospitality, in which he treats all guests the same, rather than dressing up only for “special” and “important” guests. Mary mentioned the strangeness of this formality between two foreigners in America, herself and Lee, from similar cultures of hospitality (Lee is Taiwanese American, Mary is Korean American). When host and guest are from similar cultural backgrounds, both are likely to make assumptions about the knowledge of a certain code of conduct for visits and meals, with particular expectations of gender and class differences in hospitality.
Perhaps Mary was going through those cultural expectations in her mind, prompted by the propriety and aesthetic qualities of Lee’s preparations. Where do such expectations come from? Why do they create feelings of tension in a guest rather than relaxation? And the reverse: Where does an entitlement to being hosted, the expectation of welcome, come from? What enables one guest to feel comfortable with being dressed informally even when the host is dressed up, while another guest is uncomfortable in casual clothes? I have described some sources of these expectations in the Introduction: religious, political, and cultural texts (such as Emma Lazarus’s poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty) that set up “proper” behavior; the ideals of hospitality expressed in fables, fairy tales, and other stories passed from one generation to the next; and family customs practiced at home, for example, during the Thanksgiving holiday. Another source is the etiquette aesthetic, as explored in chapter 1 in relation to Ana Prvački’s art.
Mary’s reactions also highlight how other markers of self-identification and social identification—cultural background, race, and national and ethnic origin, in addition to gender and sexuality—complicate the scene of hospitality, and how important it is that these be taken into account in the consideration of new forms of welcome. Lee informed me that visitors to his exhibitions who are unfamiliar with his work often assume that the artworks in front of them have been made by a woman; they do not expect that a male artist could be interested in creating art that is healing and welcoming to everyone, equally and openly. (Another reason for this assumption could be a lack of familiarity with Chinese names; Mingwei is a male name, like John in English.) There is also the history of racist and sexist feminization of men of East Asian descent, who have been stereotyped as more feminine and passive than men of other ethnicities.8 Lee is aware of such connotations, and in interviews he often resists attempts to apply one type of explanation—cultural, ethnic, sexual, religious, or art historical—to his practice. Thus, speaking with Tom Finkelpearl for his book What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Lee expressed that his personal interest and cultural background in Buddhism have played a role in his aesthetic, but he also noted that he has been influenced as much by contemporary art practices.9
Cultural, religious, and ethnic differences matter in approaches to hospitality as much as in any other cultural practice. I have affirmed the need to recognize and study those different places of hospitality in Western cultural traditions in relation to, for example, the Indian tradition.10 Some traditions have made hospitality a much more important marker of their philosophy and ethics than have others, and such differences need to be acknowledged. At the same time, contemporary artists such as Ana Prvački and Lee Mingwei, as well as others discussed in this book, work globally, presenting the same projects in different countries and cultures of hospitality. Some of their audience members travel as much as they do or have mixed cultural backgrounds, and some have never traveled outside their culturally homogeneous communities of hospitality. The global nature of contemporary art challenges traditions of hospitality between artists and audiences, letting artists experience their own work from various points of view. This is a complicated dynamic for the artists discussed in this book, who challenge traditional roles in hospitality and question how power is distributed in terms of gender, class, race, and other markers of identity that have been instrumental in discriminating among certain hosts and guests in various settings. At the same time, these artists use hospitality to bring back its original promise of a democratic, indiscriminate, unconditional welcome. Some elements of their work, therefore, may be seen as familiar and others as radical, depending on who is experiencing the work and when and where they are experiencing it.
Thus, Lee Mingwei’s work might be interpreted through multiple reference points in Buddhism, through his Taiwanese American background, through relational aesthetics and social practice in contemporary art, or, employing my take on it, through the new formation and imagination of a welcoming man. In interviews with other scholars and critics and my conversations with him, Lee has made it clear that he welcomes diverse interpretations; his work cannot be reduced to one identity marker, and it is not my intention to do so. It is important to acknowledge Lee’s cultural background, but his work is not derived directly from that background, nor does his cultural heritage fully explain his unique style.11
There is a danger in a reductive reading such that when audience members learn that Lee is a male Taiwanese American artist, they might explain (away) his art of welcome by crediting it to his cultural background. Just as Immanuel Kant believed that a general disposition to serve would lead the men of France (and the French nation as a whole) to be more “hospitable” to strangers and foreigners than men of other nations, the supposed “effeminate” qualities commonly attributed to men of East Asian descent could be understood as a factor in their being more welcoming than other men.12 A real problematic logic is at work here that might prevent the turn to hospitality and the culture of welcome: across various cultures men are supposed to be wary of being overtly welcoming, especially to women and others “below” their own social status. The art of welcome makes men lesser men, their cultures tell them. This is what Lee’s work is up against, and his choice of the aesthetic of hospitality requires courage, I would argue, in the face of such double-negative cultural stereotyping of race and gender.
These are the topics that Lee’s work prompts his participants to consider further, but in ways that are not always direct, apparent, or visible. What is actually happening in the work is not necessarily an open call to resist cultural, racial, or gender stereotypes. Lee wants his participants and collaborators to become aware of their own “comfort levels” with being welcomed, and in my conversations with the artist his thoughtfulness about these topics has come through clearly in his aesthetic choices and decisions. In my several studio visits, interviews, and other encounters with Lee, I have observed that he is very particular about two aspects related to hospitality. First, he seeks to treat each guest as the person most precious to him in that moment, and second, he strives to present each guest with the highest-quality offerings he is able to provide (to be a perfect host).
The Dining Project was Lee’s final work for his MFA degree. After graduating, he was asked to repeat the project at a gallery in New York City. When I asked him what he changed in adapting his MFA project to the gallery, he replied, “I could afford much better ingredients, and guests were chosen through [a] public lottery rather than through an ad in a dormitory to manage the schedule and the signing-up process.”13 From Mary’s perspective, her friends might have worried less about her safety if they had known that her dinner with Lee would take place in the public space of a gallery rather than in his MFA studio.
Acknowledging this division between a personal space, or nongallery space, and the more formal space of a gallery or museum is important in considering a new hospitality and understanding the risks that artists take—or do not take—in their art of welcome. Most of the artists discussed in this book have done both: they have worked in contemporary art spaces, such as galleries and museums, and they have also challenged the boundaries between the real world and the art world. There is a tendency in some critical and scholarly circles to diminish the impact of projects that take place in galleries or that seek participation of the audience under the art world umbrella.14
Indeed, gallery and museum spaces might be considered “safer” than the “real world,” and Lee Mingwei’s friends and family would probably support such a view—otherwise, they would not have worried about him in the contexts described below. The wider implication of the criticism, however, is that the more dangerous it is for artists to do their work, the more real and significant the work is, especially when it involves hosting strangers. From my point of view, this is a problematic position that fetishizes danger as an element that makes some forms of welcome somehow more “authentic” than others. While I agree that the gallery space is often more circumscribed, and therefore supposedly more predictable, as a space of hosting, I doubt that Lee would welcome a guest in a gallery with more or less genuine hospitality than he would show to a guest outside a gallery space.15 The artists discussed in the following chapters have challenged the too-rigid separation between formal and informal art spaces by engaging with projects in places other than galleries and museums.
Asexual “Sleeping With”
The undercurrent of questions of trust versus fear in Lee’s work—trust and fear for him as a host as well as for his projects’ guests—continued after The Dining Project. At the 2003 Venice Biennale, Lee invited visitors who had been chosen through a lottery to spend a night with him. He prepared a bed for and entertained each visitor individually, and each was asked to leave something behind in the morning. In this way, Lee developed a collection of personal artifacts for others to discuss when they visited. Titled The Sleeping Project, this installation represented another form of hospitality of a welcoming man.
The Sleeping Project developed from an earlier version in which Lee used an advertisement to invite strangers to spend a night with him at a New York space of the Lombard Freid Gallery. When Lee’s family and friends first heard of his idea, they were especially worried for his safety. Like Linda Hattendorf, who, as described in the Introduction, “impulsively” invited the homeless artist Jimmy Mirikitani to stay in her Manhattan apartment after 9/11, or Greg Schiller, who on a dangerously cold night in Illinois invited homeless men to stay in the basement of his house, Lee was pushing the boundaries of expected hospitality to strangers and raising anxiety among those who knew and cared about him. In post-9/11 New York City the fear of new terrorist attacks and the so-called war on terror led to Islamophobia, a general atmosphere of vigilance, and a heightened sense of insecurity around strangers and in public spaces. By inviting strangers to spend a night with him, Lee challenged himself and his family to trust the strangers who responded to his invitation. He also challenged his guests to trust him, just as Mary trusted him despite her own friends’ fears.
Lee does not offer grand statements about morality and ethics—or politics, for that matter—when he is asked about the ideas behind his works. He often mentions moments of human contact or personal childhood experiences as offering inspiration for particular works or challenging more “common” responses to his works. Thus, when discussing The Sleeping Project, he has offered innocent memories of his childhood experience of “sleeping with ten cousins in the same room” to contrast and displace the “sexual humor, punning on the meaning of the phrase ‘sleeping with’ the artist.”16 On his website, Lee states that the project developed from an encounter he had on a train from Paris to Prague, “sharing my sleeper compartment with an elderly Polish gentleman who was going back to receive his compensation after surviving the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.” Lee asked the man to share his memories about his and his family’s time in the camp, with him being the only survivor. The man told Lee about his experiences, and then he went to sleep, but Lee was unable to fall asleep, imagining the lives of Holocaust survivors and how one had come to be on a train such as this one. He explains:
It is only after all these years that I am able to create a project in response to the emotions I experienced that night.
In “The Sleeping Project,” I examine the differences between “sleeping” and “sleeping with.” How do two strangers shape a night together into an open, profound, mutually influential encounter that they know will not be sexual?17
Learning about Lee’s intentions, his iterative process, and his inspirations enriches one’s understanding of the depth of his work as the art of a welcoming man whose hospitality aesthetic is multilayered, years in the making, and considerate. However, although Lee’s hospitality is desexualized, it is not asensual. His work is sensual in terms of how he presents himself (his demeanor, style, clothes, soft and welcoming gesturing, and voice tonality) as well as in the materials he uses (the quality of the textiles, the lighting, the plants and flowers, the serving dishes, and the taste of the food). His work’s sensuality, however, is not about—or mostly about—eroticism. This is what makes the work open, I argue, to the new form of a welcoming man’s hospitality. It is an art in itself to be able to be sensual in one’s hospitality, hovering on the verge of the erotic but without its explicit assertion. This is especially challenging in the context of Western art history, with its creation of explicitly hypersexualized imagery in the relationships between men and women, in which women often appear only as sexualized or not at all.
Kay Larson’s account of Lee’s record of what happened each night during The Sleeping Project when he presented the work in 2000 in New York provides a glimpse into this new gender dynamic: “Sandra arrived at 9:42 p.m. and left at 10:30 a.m., depositing a pile of magazines topped off by The Economist. She added a gentle thank you note. . . . Mary came at 11:27 p.m. and left at 11:45 p.m., taking Mr. Lee bar-hopping with her. He begged off at 1:30 a.m., he said, after seeing a side of New York he rarely encounters. Mary came back at 4:25 a.m. and left at 9:06 a.m. Her table holds an unopened bottle of wine, an open overnight kit, a necklace, a gift pendant of the Virgin and Child, and a wilted flower from a dot-com company.”18 How many other times had Sandra and Mary been welcomed—sheltered and entertained, asexually—for a night, simply as a matter of fact, by a man who was a stranger? My rhetorical question points to the cultural norm in which men—perceived by default as cisgender—who offer women hospitality are suspect, because they are supposed to be benefiting from women sexually or in some other way, such as by having them pose nude for paintings. Lee treated women and men as equally valid and valued guests of his hospitality, and—as my interviews with some of his guests as well as my own reactions to his works attest—this experience was impactful for many of his visitors, particularly women.
As discussed in chapter 2 in relation to Faith Wilding’s performance Waiting, women have historically lived in a world where they are expected to welcome others, men and children, and do not feel entitled to or expect to be waited on or welcomed by men, especially male strangers, unconditionally. This is particularly true when the context of welcome is divorced from sexualized overtones. To reinforce my earlier points: hospitality is a matter of power and class (one can “buy” hospitality if one is wealthy, but that is an aspect of the hospitality industry, and not the hospitality that interests Lee Mingwei or me), but it is also linked to gender in terms of expectations of femininity and masculinity as they relate to welcome.
Compared to its earlier iteration in New York, The Sleeping Project as presented in Venice, at an important exhibition, was certainly different. But the two versions illustrate the consistency of Lee’s strategy of hospitality, of not discriminating among those who invite him or those he invites. His early works, such as The Dining Project and The Sleeping Project, often had gallery and nongallery components, starting in smaller nongallery spaces and then scaling to larger, more formalized institutions of contemporary art.
Arguably, The Dining Project had less at stake, in terms of hospitality, than The Sleeping Project. Cooking a meal and then entertaining one’s guest for a few hours is not as challenging as preparing a bed and providing a guest with company for an entire night, staying awake and being inconvenienced for a guest over several hours. In the overall atmosphere of suspicion at that time in New York especially, Lee’s art project targeted the needs of the other person, the stranger. During a time of mistrust the artist allowed himself to be vulnerable and hopeful in relation to strangers. Through his unique public exploration of his art practice as a man of welcome, Lee taught himself and his guests the value of becoming attuned to another person’s wants and needs.
In August 2013 and August 2017, I had the opportunity to experience three works in which Lee Mingwei created welcoming scenarios: The Mending Project and When Beauty Visits, both at the Venice Biennale in 2017, and The Living Room, an installation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which I have visited on several occasions since 2013. The Living Room exemplifies the lasting and expanding impact of Lee’s hospitality as his work has moved from his own personal impact with regard to individual hosting to permanent installations, public spaces, and institutions. This new scale in Lee’s work opens up the art world to the question of institutional hospitality. The Living Room reimagines previously elitist and exclusionary spaces as democratic. The work also highlights the challenges that capitalist accumulation and its resulting inequality present for art institutions, such as museums and collections, that are striving to expand their visitor bases.
An Unexpected Room in the Gardner Museum
On a beautiful warm day in August 2013, I spent an afternoon in The Living Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In addition to its extensive collection of artworks acquired by the Gardners, the museum houses a number of works that have resulted from its artist-in-residence program, which is unique in many ways. As part of this program, each invited artist spends a month or more living in an apartment at the museum or nearby and then proposes a work; the final product does not need to be realized exactly as the artist envisioned it in the proposal.
As I entered the museum to experience The Living Room of Lee Mingwei, I was skeptical, expecting to be bored. I was thinking, What is the purpose of having a “living room” in a museum? Will it be used for corporate events and weddings? Isn’t a living room an architectural fixture of a middle-class life, a symbol of striving toward a lifestyle of leisure and “wasting time”? If I were more cynical, I might even have expected that a living room in a museum would be similar to a museum café or restaurant, a place where visitors would be less interested in encountering art than they would be in socializing, meeting with friends of similar status and persuasion at the museum to show their appreciation for “culture.” I certainly did not expect to feel welcomed.
The Living Room is situated in the new wing of the museum designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Several elements in this living room make it a distinct space, especially within the museum context, and made me feel welcome. I was greeted by a staff person who was standing right next to a poster inviting me into the living room. The poster features a portrait of Lee Mingwei in which he wears a beautiful silk robe, holds an opened book, and smiles, looking at his guests as they experience the space. A description of The Living Room was placed right at the entrance to welcome me. According to the description, I did not need to pay any museum admission fee, as the living room has a separate entrance and the new wing provides some facilities free of charge, including a classroom (where I later found objects made by students of the Raqs Media Collective, an artists’ group whose members had stayed at the Gardner as part of the artist-in-residence program), a restroom, a flower nursery with colorful plants, a meeting room, and a café.
Aside from this welcoming beginning, what truly separated my visit to The Living Room and the new wing at the Gardner from similar museum experiences was this: I was not monitored or scrutinized by security or any other museum personnel. Thanks to administrative decisions made by the museum in relation to The Living Room, I did not feel like I was under surveillance every step of the way, and that made a real difference to my experience. I could work on my computer for hours, and no one came in to “check on me.” Sitting on a comfortable sofa, I could observe, through a large glass wall, a sculpture garden outside. Such gardens are common fixtures in many museums, but Lee had conceptualized this one not just for visitors walking outside but also to serve as a respite for the eyes of visitors inside the installation who might be seeking shelter from the cold Boston climate.
There was also a bird in a cage, which was supposed to sing for visitors. Lee mentioned to me that the bird was taken care of according to the professional advice of an ornithologist, and it was moved elsewhere to rest on a regular basis. (The garden and the bird were part of Lee’s original installation of The Living Room in 2000.) I noticed that others felt comfortable and welcomed in The Living Room, too. A couple came in to change their child’s diaper, visibly grateful that they were able to do it in comfort, surrounded by flowers and a bird, rather than in a restroom. The toddler stared at the bird, and both made chirping sounds. A family peeked in, perhaps not sure what to expect, and looked around with curious, somewhat surprised glances. Others talked on their cell phones or read books they found on shelves in the room, including books about the museum’s history and a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner. By including books about her, the original hostess, Lee had essentially invited her, too, and she was there in spirit (see Plate 3).
Other elements also contributed to making the space feel welcoming. Despite the room’s glass outer walls—which could potentially cause the people in the room to feel exposed and under surveillance—the lighting created a pleasant effect. Rays of light overlaid each other, and reflections filled various spaces outside the room. Museum visitors outside could not easily see inside the room despite the glass walls. Some rays of light fell on the stairs and then reflected off the walls and ceiling. The floor was placed on the same level as the grass outside the building, inviting visitors to step out effortlessly. This leveling was important to Lee because he wanted his guests to feel immersed in greenery. Purple, white, and pink flowers supplied by the museum’s flower nursery were everywhere, both outdoors and in The Living Room.
This room, which is now a permanent installation in the museum’s new wing, was inspired by an earlier, temporary project created by Lee for the Gardner. That first Living Room was the result of an invitation from Jennifer Gross, then, in 1999, the contemporary art curator at the museum. Lee was a visiting artist who spent a few months at the museum, doing research on various rooms of the Gardner house (which today is the older wing of the museum) and focusing on the history of the main living room where Isabella Stewart Gardner used to welcome her guests. Lee’s special style as an artist, mentioned above in relation to The Sleeping Project, here reveals itself in his attentiveness to the Gardners’ family history. Isabella Stewart Gardner built the house after her wealthy husband passed away. It was important to her that she regularly invite artists, writers, and performers (in other words, “people of culture”) into her space. When she decided to open her vast collection of art to the public, Lee noticed, she was not interested in the democratization of museum visitors. Lee wanted to change that. Hospitality for Lee is also resistance to the history of unequal welcoming, especially when it comes to economic inequality. In his own small way, he made this museum more accessible and enjoyable, for example, for students from nearby colleges who otherwise might not have had such a sensually welcoming place, free of charge.
In writing about The Living Room, Lewis Hyde emphasizes the distance between Gardner’s generosity to some guests and the way she displayed her elitist, exclusionary, class sensibilities on other occasions. Hyde mentions that Gardner’s will was written to make sure her nondemocratic preferences would control the museum’s functioning long after she died.19 The only room the hostess did not control posthumously was a recently created contemporary art space. This space was what Lee used for his Living Room project in the spring of 2000, and for which he wrote a proposal to convert the space into a living room for all visitors. With The Living Room, Lee shows that one can pay homage to the original owners for allowing this space to exist without accepting their gift uncritically and apolitically; his critique is so hidden that it might actually be missed entirely by those who need more visible signs of politically activist art.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was a representative of a patronage class who divided the public into those who are “cultured” and those who are not. What else can a “Venetian palazzo”—the model for her house, now the museum’s main building—be but an elitist space in Boston? Lee had a challenge on his hands. Museums value their collections based on their current market price, and they expect visitors to do the same (for example, the Louvre can charge high admission fees because it has Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa). That is why I was especially pleased to notice that, together with the new Living Room that I visited, the new wing of the Gardner museum was built with democratic principles in mind, and visitors were not required to purchase entry tickets to access toilets and educational spaces (a restaurant does not count because it is a revenue-generating space). How to make museums more welcoming to the public, a principle that private institutions such as the Gardner might not have had in mind when they first opened, has become a topic of ongoing conversation. The times have changed, and many museums (willingly or not) want to change too, because unless they can attract socially and economically diverse visitors by making them feel connected to their collections and events, museums will increasingly be perceived as no more than elite clubs housing valuable commodities.
With time, Lee’s carefully planned aesthetic of hospitality changed how the Gardner Museum viewed its public, and I experienced that. In her essay for the museum publication that accompanied Lee’s 2000 exhibition, Jennifer Gross quotes the artist: “Two notions that form my work are hospitality and collection.”20 These notions were important to the museum’s new building as it used Lee’s work to redefine its own sense of itself as a welcoming space. After the exhibition proper, Lee created programming for this space, inviting volunteers and then training them to be hosts for a few hours at a time (see Plate 4). The lengthy preparation that went into The Living Room’s existence in the new wing is further evidence of the persistence and consistency that Lee applies in his rather nonspectacular way of working. In addition, Lee’s work demonstrates how much of hospitality, as I argue across this book, is experienced and received sensorially, aesthetically. I focus on this project also to show how Lee’s art can make one feel wanted, acknowledged, whole, as the guest of a great host is made to feel. My hope is that, by writing about Lee’s work, I may help to expand his audience, if only in an indirect way.
In contrast to Isabella Stewart Gardner, who wanted to restrict public access to her museum and was very conscious of social hierarchy and its maintenance, Lee built a new room in the new wing of her old museum that seeks to welcome all equally. Educated in Lee’s ethos of hospitality and with a new wing in the works, museum administrators and curators decided to continue Lee’s Living Room by making it a permanent part of the new building. This is how The Living Room was transformed from a temporary idea for an initial exhibition to a lasting change to the museum. Discussions about the room became more collaborative, with various people involved, including the artist and the architect.
The Renzo Piano wing of the Gardner Museum is an airy, open, opaque light-blue building, in stark contrast to the dark, enclosed villa. It is as if Lee tells us that new hospitality—true hospitality to all—begins only when there is a general move toward equality, when museums stop being signs of separation between the rich and the poor. A museum might not be expected to be a welcoming space, especially for those who do not feel entitled to be welcomed there and who may not know much about the museum’s art collection. Being part of neither a house nor a museum, The Living Room represents a new hybrid, a place that fosters a new type of relationship between those who own and run a museum and those who visit it. After centuries of cultivating a select, educated, elite audience, museums are now trying to survive by pursuing democratization.
In designing The Living Room, Lee created the most “democratic” piece in his repertoire of hospitality art. Democratization of a museum, Lee shows, can be achieved through the creation of a welcoming place for “others”: those who do not know what they are looking at in a typical Western museum of art, and those who feel intimidated and alienated by museums in general, especially those presenting contemporary art.
It takes many people to make a museum space welcoming, more than one artist whose temporary position is precarious. After all, Lee is a guest at the Gardner—that is why his ambitious project had to be collaborative. He worked with museum director Anne Hawley, the architect Piano, donors to the new wing, and museum staff members. His efforts and their leadership paid off and transformed the museum into a new kind of space. Lee’s seeking to welcome all types of people through The Living Room project shows how invested he is in the practice of hospitality. His original vision needs to be sustained by the museum staff. Lee still visits the museum on a regular basis to conduct two-hour sessions centered on hosting. At a time when the architectural profession is trying to become more welcoming, especially to women and underrepresented minorities, Lee’s Living Room provides an example of where a welcoming architectural practice can go.21
The space, however, is primarily the consequence of Lee’s intention to welcome—it is not remarkable because of its walls and couches. Pieranna Cavalchini, the current contemporary art curator at the Gardner Museum, has also contributed greatly to this vision of a welcoming and relevant museum in today’s changing times. She and other members of the team at the museum have enabled The Living Room to become an extension of Lee as a hospitable man. When visitors sit in The Living Room, they are surrounded by beauty: a beautiful garden, beautiful flowers, beautiful light, beautiful architecture. This beauty is not cold like marble or stainless steel. It is cozy, inviting, and warm, as a truly welcoming space should be. Lee, as an artist, uses the resources made available to him to extend similar resources to others.
When Lee is not at the Gardner, trained volunteer hosts welcome visitors to The Living Room. People from the Boston area can sign up to host for two hours at a time. Before hosting, they receive training in how to be welcoming; they are taught to use welcoming facial expressions and are instructed in how to invite people to engage with them, how to anticipate visitors’ reactions, and how to show attention and concern (see Plate 4). They are also encouraged to try to share something about themselves even when they are feeling shy. Of course, spending two hours being hospitable to any stranger who shows up in a public place requires effort and stamina. But in addition to the job’s demands, it provides an opportunity for those volunteers who are so inclined to share their own artworks; for this reason, students from nearby art colleges often become volunteer hosts.
The first time I visited The Living Room, an art student was the volunteer host. She had placed a few family photographs and her own creative works on a table as conversation starters, and she was engaging in conversations with any visitors who entered and were interested in talking. She explained Lee’s ideas and talked about the museum. When I chatted with her, she mentioned how tired she was at the end of each of her two-hour hosting sessions. Of course, in addition to not expecting praise or acknowledgment, the etiquette of being a good host includes not showing how tired one is. Lee has also mentioned to me on several occasions that he no longer participates in every iteration of his projects because he feels so drained afterward that he needs months to recuperate; The Dining Project and The Sleeping Project are especially exhausting for him. (Ana Prvački has also talked about her need for recovery time after art performances.)
Anyone who would like to become a welcoming man like Lee Mingwei ought to know: the art of welcome takes a lot of time and effort. Hospitality is rewarding but also exhausting. It is not easy, no matter how effortless the host’s welcoming smile and gracious gestures appear. The room needs to be cleaned. The clothes need to be laundered and ironed. Guests, however, are not expecting to hear about that. They praise the host’s cooking skills and welcoming atmosphere because they do not hear about how hard it was to cook, how long it took to clean the room, and how exhausting the entertaining conversation can be. To speak about that would be a faux pas, as Ana Prvački has taught us. But to speak about that would also be a political, rebellious act, as Wilding’s Waiting was, especially if there is an expectation of being welcomed as an entitlement, and not a mutually equal, chosen act of “waiting-with.” Rather than showing his labor and his fatigue in his creative work, Lee always acknowledges the hospitality of others in his interviews and his artistic statements about his inspirations, pointing out that he learned about hospitality from others.
Lee’s Living Room creates a space that is no longer domestic (unlike a private room in Gardner’s house), but that does not feel fully public either (unlike a concert hall or a post office). Lee creates a new kind of place.22 Likewise, in The Sleeping Project, Lee challenged the separation of hospitality traditions into domestic and public spaces, blurring the distinction between home and community. The gallery became a place to spend a night with an artist as a guest. Lee makes us feel as if what we do outside our homes is no longer different from what we do at home. This is also a liminal space of art, between the private and the public.
When Linda Hattendorf invited Jimmy Mirikitani into her apartment, her documentary film followed him inside. The aesthetic, sensual quality of hospitality—where taste, vision, and touch are all engaged—signals intimacy, and the artist’s intention is to re-create that feeling of being a host’s only guest. Mary felt this way when she responded to Lee’s ad for The Dining Project, and I had a similar feeling when I experienced Lee’s hospitality while visiting The Living Room.
Lee also notes the absence of men responding to his work. The curators who have invited him to their galleries and museums to be part of their exhibitions, those who have commissioned his new works, the audience members who have responded to his calls for one-on-one interactions, and the volunteer hosts he has trained have been primarily, though not exclusively, women. In my own one-on-one encounters with the hosts of The Mending Project in 2017 and The Living Room in 2013, I was welcomed by women volunteers. Lee has mentioned to me a number of times that for “some reason,” so far, most of the people who have volunteered to become hosts have been women: “For example, The Mending Project now at Richmond ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art], there are three or four male hosts, out of thirty to forty.”23 These low numbers testify to anxieties surrounding the gendered definitions of hospitality that I outlined in the Introduction.
If femininity equals passivity, and both are defined as negative, weak characteristics, then men of various cultural backgrounds are discouraged from pursuing welcoming practices. That is, one simple reason that so few men volunteer to participate in or respond to Lee’s work could be fear. The fear men have (or are supposed to have) of being perceived and labeled as weak, feminine, passive, and subservient—what women are supposed to be—could be a deterrent to men’s involvement in hospitality practices.24 If Faith Wilding’s work, discussed in chapter 2, shows how damaging such an assumed welcoming norm is for women, while her later work redefines hospitality on her own terms, Lee redefines hospitality for men by raising cultural expectations of men’s welcome.
This raises another problematic reaction to Lee’s work: misogyny and the homophobia attached to hospitality traditions, such that men are supposed to “fear” for their masculinity if they dare to practice the “feminine welcome.” Other than misogyny and homophobia, or a type of disdain for “effeminate men,” what can explain the fear of becoming a welcoming man?25 Lee goes out of his way to offer each guest, each audience member, the best food he can, the most time he has. Lee’s affirmation of hospitality in his art supports my larger argument about the uniqueness and courage of Lee’s aesthetic of welcome and the radical, albeit unstated and easily missed, change that Lee creates as a welcoming man. Lee tells us that this is what the norm should look like. As if playing with expectations and stereotypes associated with race, gender, sexuality, and cultural background, Lee affirms hospitality in his art with a matter-of-fact and unique style. He partakes of several cultural forms that might appear to his audience as identity markers. He chooses what to cultivate, keeping what he is most comfortable with and what he thinks will indicate to his guests the highest level of welcome. He seems to be saying, “Why even talk about gender here, or ethnicity, or cultural background? Shouldn’t we all be striving to make our artwork open to all kinds of people just as we enjoy being who we are?”
A man who welcomes does not feel threatened in his masculinity or creativity in hosting all people, including women. In his interviews and artworks, Lee often praises and acknowledges the women in his personal and professional life. This makes him a rather rare model of new hospitality in contemporary art. Lee’s work has certainly shown me my own evolution. The same year he was serving a lavish meal to Mary in his Yale studio in 1995, surprising her with his special, attentive welcome, I was sitting in a London flat with a new friend, having been invited to her place for dinner and to discuss our dissertations. After a short chat, my friend said, “My boyfriend is making dinner in the kitchen so we will eat soon.” I jumped from the sofa and asked if he needed help with dinner. She simply said, “Sit down, don’t worry, we need time to finish our dissertation discussion.”
I was so startled I do not remember if he joined us, what kind of food we ate, or what happened afterward. Although my father had cooked for our family on occasion, unbeknown to liberated and confident me, I had been enculturated to feel uncomfortable when two women are talking in the living room while a man is in the kitchen, behind the scenes, cooking dinner for them. I know in this time and age my shock of 1995 might reveal how traditional I was in my gendered expectations of hosting. I certainly did not see myself that way. Judging by how I have reacted on other occasions, I know I would not have been startled or jumped up to help if my friend had said, “My mother is cooking us dinner.”
A lot has changed since then, as I noted while I sat comfortably in The Living Room, judging every little detail I could notice in this space that was carefully prepared for my enjoyment. I understand those who assume that Lee Mingwei is a woman artist. They do not necessarily hold any ill feelings about connecting men, masculinity, and hospitality—it is just not done, whether in theory or in practice. I live in a society where women do not grow up expecting men to go out of their way to serve and welcome them, and men do not grow up expecting that of themselves.26 Those expectations might be changing, but Lee remains unique in contemporary art and a model of an unexpected host.27 The unexpected host reveals and transforms his guest’s expectations.