Ever since Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal as a work of art to the Society of Independents in 1917, people have had a hard time defining the term. The general public seems to equate art with some level of technical proficiency, often dismissing modern works by saying, "I could make that." Conceptual contemporary artists, on the other hand, tend to view art more as communication where the means of expressing an idea is the primary concern.
To understand Lee Mingwei's work, one need only remember the idea's the thing. To see what we mean, take a look at one of the most elaborate Internet hoaxes/art projects this reporter has ever witnessed at www.malepregnancy.com. There, the artist claims to be the first man to give birth, complete with links to fabricated CNN articles, a Time Man of the Year cover and an ultrasound of the alleged embryo. There's even a fake hospital Web site that allows prospective parents to genetically create their own superbaby on-line.
Or consider his odd brainchild "The Dining Project" at the Whitney Museum of American Art: Mingwei held a lottery to choose people who would have their banter recorded during a meal with the artist. Anyone can press the record button, but it is Mingwei's framework that demonstrated firsthand how every person has his or her own fascinating history to tell. Who cares if the man can draw?
Mingwei's latest low-on-skill but big-on-concept undertaking is "The Tourist Project," happening right now at Rice Gallery. The New York artist is setting out every day with a Houston tour guide, most of whom are again chosen randomly. "A way to know a city is through the people who live in them," Mingwei explains. For this reason, Mingwei asks that each guide take him to places of personal importance. After six tours, someone has yet to take him to NASA.
The only "artistic talent" Mingwei utilizes during an outing is pointing his digital camera. But each day when he returns, he creates a slide show of his collected images and plays a tape of his conversations with the guide in the gallery. He also displays various objects collected on his journey, along with a change of his and the tour guide's clothes.
At the time of this writing, Mingwei has already been canoeing with a "career volunteer," to the childhood home of a policewoman/poet and on a romp through the West End with architectural historian Stephen Fox. After his 20th and final roundabout on February 5, people can peruse the complete collection in the gallery space until February 24.
"Houston's a particularly interesting city to do this in because there's no specific image that you think of," Mingwei says of our lack of obvious landmarks like the Statue of Liberty. "It really makes you think: What makes up the city?" If Mingwei's work prompts you to ask that question, he's done his job.