Rice and ritual: Lee Mingwei’s Our Labyrinth

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London
May 31, 2022

You spy them almost as soon as you walk in: two distant figures minute in the vastness of the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall.

They are the active participants, artists, dancers, call them what you will, in Our Labyrinth (如實曲徑), the installation by Paris and New York City-based Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei (李明維) that has finally come to London after two years of postponement.

The installation takes the simple act of sweeping and moulds it into a deeply thoughtful performance. It’s inspired by Lee’s experiences in Myanmar, where paths leading from huts to ancient temples are swept by volunteers.

Our Labyrinth features dancers dressed in floor-length sarongs and wearing ankle bells, although so smoothly do they move that I never heard them once. The Tate edition, is unique in that two dancers from a roster of ten always work simultaneously, their ‘performances’ overlapping. Previous iterations of the installation have always featured only solo performers.

Lee Mingwei’s Our Labyrinth at the Tate Modern
Photo David Mead

At first, the mind inevitably makes connections with the finale of Songs of the Wanderers (流浪者之歌) by Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集), that sees a single dancer raking rice into circles. It soon becomes apparent that Our Labyrinth is very different, however.

Here, each dancer with a pile of rice, which they brush rice into ever-changing patterns or forms on the floor. Seemingly oblivious to each other, their surroundings and those watching, each creates a “labyrinthine path of their choosing,” to quote Lee. After about thirty minutes, the rice is slowly tidied into a mound once more, before sweeping duties are passed on with a deep bow to the next performer.

At the Tate, it all takes place on a black mat that can be likened to a pool of ink, the brooms being a substitute for a calligraphy brush. On my visit, two dancers brushed smoothly but strongly, forming the rice into broad arcs sprayed out from a core. The other took a more contemplative approach, creating more lines which she then made delicate changes to, not unlike an artist touching up a new painting. While it was interesting to compare the different styles, I’m not entirely convinced having two dancers working at the same time works well. When their approaches are different, it does create some disharmony.

Lee Mingwei’s Our Labyrinth at the Tate Modern
Photo David Mead

Patterns and shapes appear and disappear before your eyes. They sometimes reminded me of the around 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines, the group of ancient geoglyphs etched into desert sands in southern Peru. You also can’t help but see pictures, for me, usually sea creatures: a crab, an octopus, a skate.

Almost all of those watching, especially from the cushions and benches at ground level, did so in silence. And that is the place to watch. While the view from the balcony above emphasises the vastness of the space, the dancers appearing almost like insects leaving trails, there is no sense of connection that you get from being closer. Downstairs it really does feel like the performers and rice are engaged in a duet.

A sort of exploration of the relationship between spirituality and architectural space, Our Labyrinth creates a sense of peace. It is a very absorbing experience.

Our Labyrinth is in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, Bankside, London, daily to June 15, 2022.
It is performed continuously 10.30am-5.30pm.
Admission free.
For more details, visit www.tate.org.uk.