Sieng Lee is a 1.5.
The St. Paul artist prefers the term “generation 1.5” to capture his experiences as a Hmong-American.
“We are the generation of kids brought here really young, at age 8 and under,” Lee said. “The first-generation immigrants came as teenagers or in their early 20s, so they had both the best and worst of both worlds. We 1.5’ers did not.”
Sorting through that cross-cultural identity inspired Lee’s exhibition “Siv Yis and His Wooden Horses,” which opened Thursday at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Curated by Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art Nicole Soukup, the show features three distinct installations that meld sacred themes with mundane materials — paper, wood. That mix, Lee said, is a metaphor for balancing the two cultures he inhabits. And it’s apropos territory here in Minnesota, which has approximately 66,000 Hmong-American residents, the second largest population by state after California.
But it’s been just 44 years since the first Hmong refugees arrived in the U.S. Lee himself arrived in 1991. At age 3, he settled in Appleton, Wis., with his four siblings and parents. “Our community is so new,” Lee said. “We are artisans and craftsmen from Laos and Thailand, but to develop a language around art, we are still very young in that way of communicating what we do.”
As an adult, Lee moved to the Twin Cities to be closer to the nation’s largest urban Hmong-American community — and for graduate school at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Though he has observed tension between generation 1.5 and the first generation, Lee was pleasantly surprised by the Twin Cities elders’ reactions to “We Are Hmong,” the 2015 show he helped create for the Minnesota History Center.
“I was very fearful of what our elders or the traditionalists would say,” Lee remembered. “They were kind of mind-blown that the objects really shaped the space and the space helped elevate or honor their heritage at the same time.”
‘They are just wood’
Housed in Mia’s Minneapolis Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) gallery, one installation from Lee’s new exhibit features hundreds of pieces of gold paper folded into boat-like shapes. The paper is known in certain Asian cultures (including the Hmong culture) as “spirit money,” believed to guarantee wealth for ancestors in the afterlife. “When I started looking more into this particular material I became really enthralled,” Lee explained. “But it’s just mass-produced in a factory in China or Southeast Asia.”
Even though the paper is widely available at Asian markets, Lee said, in his community you’re not supposed to touch it. “I think bringing it into spaces like this ... allows me to get rid of those barriers I have had about myself, my culture and the community at large.”
Another installation, “Siv Yis and his Wooden Horses,” cascades with ordinary wooden benches, hanging from the ceiling as though leading to the heavens. In fact, the benches reference the ancient story of the first Hmong shaman’s ascension to heaven. Lee worked closely with his uncle Wa Leng Lee, a well-known shaman, to tell the story of Siv Yis’ journey. These “shaman horses,” or benches, are not just meant for Siv Yis, Lee said. They invite people to sit, offering a place to enter a trance and relive the Hmong shaman’s experience.
“I draw a lot on Renaissance and medieval paintings of these ethereal landscapes,” Lee said of the work’s dramatic effect. “Even with simple objects, with the right amount of space and lighting you can add some importance to it.”
A third installation features a series of posters, including one with a ripped piece of spirit money. With a background in graphic design, Lee got more comfortable with installation work by creating these simple works.
All in all, the exhibition is richly layered with personal and cultural meanings. But Lee also wants his work to be accessible. “Sometimes art is so ‘up there,’ ” he said.
After all, that paper is super gold and shiny. “I am not building these benches out of obsidian,” Lee said. “They are just wood. You can get them at Menards.”