There is nothing new about the beauty of Rome striking at a visitor’s heart and inspiring a new art project, but in the case of internationally acclaimed artist Lee Mingwei it happened in the most unconventional of ways.

While visiting his nephew Sean in Rome a few years back, Taiwanese-born New Yorker Mingwei said he wanted to visit the historic Roman Forum. When they arrived at the ruins, all his young nephew wanted to do was show Mingwei the homes of all the kittens living around the site.

From that visit, an idea was born and has since come to life in his exhibition The Tourist, which is on display at the Sherman Galleries until 22 December.

I thought that day was a fascinating way to see a city, through the eyes of someone who lives there, Mingwei says. While The Forum is one of the amazing architectural spaces in Rome, to my nephew, it was more interesting to see where all the kittens were living.

I loved seeing Rome like that. That day was the seed of the project that has brought me back to Sydney.

Mingwei, who was last in Sydney to compete in swimming at the 2002 Gay Games, arrived here a month ago. He has since been acting out his role as the tourist artist, photographing the harbour city with 10 locals who have been his tour guides.

Mingwei has visited a group of disabled children in Blacktown, an eastern suburbs Jewish temple, an inner-west performance space and spent a day yachting on Sydney Harbour. The photographs have been put together to present a series of short films, accompanied by the sounds Mingwei recorded at each location.

The Sydney version of The Tourist is the third part of this project. In 2002, Mingwei recorded a visit to Houston, and in 2003 he did New York.

But this Sydney version finishes it, otherwise I will be repeating myself, he says. I will do it again in another 15 years to see what has happened to each of the cities as well as to my reaction. So I will be back in Sydney again when I am in my late 50s.

As to why he recorded his hometown for The Tourist, Mingwei explains he almost lost his partner John during the September 11 attacks. John worked in the North Tower of the World Trade Center and it was only because he and Mingwei had been swimming that morning that John is still alive.

After that, we seriously thought about moving away, but we stayed. I was interested to find out why we had stayed and what makes a New Yorker.

Then in my travels I wanted to see what makes other cities unique as well. There is a generosity to Sydney, not only of the people but also of natural resources. I am comfortable here -“ and I do plan to be back before the 15 years are up to complete the next stage of this project.

The Tourist is at the Sherman Galleries until 22 December. For more information visit the Sherman Galleries website.

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