One of the first things you noticed upon entering the Arsenale during the press days at the 57th International Art Exhibition in Venice, was a man dressed in an elegant suit sewing something at a long table while chatting with a woman sitting in front of him.
Behind them Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei was cheerfully explaining to the press the aims of his installation - "The Mending Project" - while standing in front of a wall dotted with spools of colourful threads, some of them linked to a small pile of neatly folded garments on the table.
Mingwei's project is an installation-cum-performance that has been going on since 2009 and that has so far stopped in various countries, museums and exhibition spaces, before landing in Venice.
"The Mending Project" is very aptly part of the Pavilion of the Common section of the Arsenale, that includes artists who attempt to explore the notion of the common world and try to build a community eliciting the participation of the public in their works to counter individualism and self-interests, two (of the many) threats in today's selfish society.
For this installation - that originated after 9/11 when the artist (who works between Paris and New York) used mending to react to a negative experience and transform it into something positive - Mingwei or one of his collaborators or volunteers (as it happened during the Venice Biennale press days to give Mingwei more time to welcome the members of the press) invites visitors to bring in a damaged item of clothing or textile item. While the artist repairs the item with random colourful threads or decorates them with embroideries, the visitor sits and talks.
The sewing action triggers indeed a dialogue with the person getting the garment mended and, quite often, the visitor recounts a story about their lives linked with that particular garment.
Once the work is finished the article is placed on the table with the thread end still attached and reconnected to one of the spools hanging on the wall.
In this way a new link is created between the artist and that specific visitor, but also with the latter and all the other visitors who pass through the installation.
Visitors usually get back their items at the very end of the installation, when the threads are finally cut, but, in the meantime, something cathartic happens as the mending interaction allows to forge and share new links between human beings.
In a self-referential art world revolving around money, huge exhibitions by celebrity artists and rather vapid yet glorified artworks, performances and installations, hearing an artist talking about sharing as the mission of his art is refreshing.
"I think it is important that, at least with the art form, there is some kind of communication and that this communication is not only one way, but it takes place in multiple ways," Mingwei explains me.
As we talk, I hand Mingwei one of my fingerless gloves: there's a hole between the thumb and the index finger and Mingwei takes it with glee. He or his assistant will mend it as soon as possible as there's a queue at the table while we are chatting, in the meantime, I recount him a fragment of my family's story and in turn he goes deeper into the meaning of his performance.
"With 'The Mending Project', a mender is sitting there repairing someone's clothes and it looks like the mender is giving the gift to the person who brought the item, but it's actually both ways, because I, as the mender, feel so trusted and loved when I receive this very intimate object for me to do a very intimate gesture upon it, I feel honoured and happy since a stranger does that for me."
The participatory approach is a recurrent modus operandi in Mingwei's practice: in previous projects he invited people to enjoy a meal prepared by him, spend one night with him in a museum or write a letter to people they wish they had written to but never did so.
"My art revolves around intimacy between strangers," he highlights, reminding me that, while this project may be linked with fashion, it is not about it or about crafts as the mending is not going to be perfect or impeccable.
Mingwei usually employs a thread in bright colours that immediately reveals the mending or adds embroideries around it almost to point at it (in the same way as the cracks are highlighted in gold in the Japanese art of kintsugi) and at times he builds on other mendings.
"The other day a gentleman who was 85 gave me a tiny sweater to mend," Mingwei recounts me, "I asked him 'Whose sweater is this?' and he said 'It was made by my mother when I was two'. It was so small and while looking at it I saw some mendings on it and I asked him who had worked on them. He said: "My mother", and then started crying. I just thought that was the most beautiful thing that had happened to me, this man entrusting me with such a precious and moving memory."
There are quite a few examples of participatory and relational art in the Pavilion of Common section of the Biennale, but Mingwei's installation has a cathartic effect on most visitors since, while retaining their personalities via the items they give to him, it turns them into one entity, transforming them from isolated individuals into parts of a whole.
When I come back in the late afternoon there are more people surrounding Mingwei's installation. My glove has been neatly arranged on a pile of garments and it has been cutely adorned with two tassel-like decorations - one pink, one yellow - that emphasise the damage, but also make the glove look more funny and original. The glove is also linked to the wall with a thin thread and seeing it makes me feel happy: somehow part of me, part of my story has turned into a line in Lee Mingwei's Venetian chapter of "The Mending Project".