Sensual bodies, erotic flowers, urban settings. That would give a somewhat accurate description of New York-based Chinese artist, Shen Wei’s work. His style is elusive, soothing and sensual. Blossoming trees, water, exotic flowers, unmade bed sheets are the perfect frames for Shen Wei ‘s muscled body. He is well-known for his raw, intimate self-portraits in natural settings and portraits of others, as well as his brutally realistic images of contemporary China. In fact, he is one of the most prominent photographers of his generation.
“Exhaustively tragic or breathtakingly joyful”
Flowers Gallery in London has brought together works from his series between 2009 to the present day, beautifully curated by Hannah Hughes, incorporating photography and moving image.
Shen Wei’s work has already been published and exhibited in many international galleries from Shanghai to New York, his photos have been selected for the permanent collection of MoMA, Getty Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. He has also participated in artist-in-residence programmes of the Rockefeller Foundation and Bellagio Center in Italy.
Whether photographing objects, individuals, loving couples or himself, Shen Wei imbues his images with dimmed lights of old Dutch paintings and often combines them with his studies on the human impact of China’s current economic ascendency.
“Self-portrait (Fountain)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
On the day of our meeting, just a day before the private view, I met Shen Wei at the gallery. It was a well-coordinated ant’s nest, the team was still fixing the last details but everything seemed to be ready for the opening.
Zolton+ “It was back in 2016 in Paris during ParisPhoto when we last saw each other. After more than a dozen international solo exhibitions and over 50 group shows around the world, you haven’t changed; you are undoubtedly still a very young man. Is it some kind of a Chinese character, or are you the incarnation of Dorian Grey?”
Shen Wei smiles and kindly avoids my entire question.
Shen Wei “I always count my artist career from the time I graduated. I had to think about working and making a living as an artist. It is quite a complex task with many responsibilities but also with much creative freedom. I suppose I had always been an artist all my life.”
Z+ “You studied design in Shanghai well before you got interested in photography. What was your journey like at the beginning?”
S.W. “I studied graphic design at Shanghai Light Industry College, worked many years with advertising agencies, then upon arrival in the U.S. in 2000, I continued my studies at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design in Minnesota, but, in fact, I always wanted to be a painter.”
Z+ “A painter?”
S.W. “Well, after Minneapolis, I moved to New York for my Masters. I took the Fine Arts Photography, Video & Media class at the School of Visual Arts but it was really in Minneapolis that I was exposed to contemporary art and photography. It was there that I discovered photography and one of my favourite photographers, Diane Arbus. I became inspired to create pictures of nude people resulting in my series “Almost Naked”, a series of tender portraits of Americans. I explored myself through other people.
Painting, however, always had a huge impact on my life, in my work … the grand classics, the Renaissance masters. In Shanghai, I only knew some big names, but only in my art school, I discovered contemporary artists.”
“Self-portrait (Garden)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Z+ “What was your relationship with contemporary art in Shanghai?”
S.W. “Surprisingly not much, I was not so exposed to it. In fact, the Chinese Contemporary Art boom started more or less when I left China. It was concentrated primarily in Beijing, which is still the cultural and political centre of China.”
Z+ “Ten years ago, the West seemed to wake up to Chinese contemporary art, and we saw a boom in the Western market. That reminds me of Jérôme Sans, the former founding director of Palais Tokyo in Paris and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.
He said about Chinese contemporary artists: “Since the 1980s, the scene has changed a great deal and is now into its third generation. The birth of what we call “Contemporary Chinese Art” emerged from an explosion of creativity in the late 70s and early 80s by several successive movements taking a revolutionary stance in opposition to official art with artists such as Chen Zhen, Cai Guo-Qiang, Yan Pei-Ming, Liu Wei, among others.
Unlike the 20th-century avant-garde movements in the West, this generation did not proclaim a break from the previous one. It was from one reality to another, almost like the China of isolation to the China of globalization. This new generation of artists has also benefitted from the massive growth of technology and access to information and to the internet as well as opening up to the global culture and reflecting a greater diversity of artistic approaches and styles that has ever existed in China. We are still at the beginning of this amazing story.”
Z+ “…not to mention one of my favourite artists, Shanghai-based Zhang Huan.”
S.W. “Zhang Huan? I only discovered his art in the States. He began his career as a painter, then transitioned to performance art. He has been using photography to document his work, but now he is back to paintings again, his ash pieces are absolutely marvellous.”
Z+ “You often describe yourself as a melancholic, dreamlike person. So melancholic, erotic or sensual?”
S.W. “Melancholic can also be very sensual.”
“Self-portrait (Touch)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Z+ “You seem to be quite liberated in your life.”
S.W. “Yes, I feel very relaxed with my work and with myself … it is part of my personality, I guess, however, it wasn’t always like that. Living in the States gave me a lot of freedom and education. Moving to the States was a major step and also a culture clash. I wanted to experience something radically different, that’s why I did not move to another big city like New York; that would have been, apart from the cultural differences, almost like staying in Shanghai.”
Z+ “You had a rather strict and conservative upbringing, although your images are far from being conservative.”
S.W. “I was in an underground cinema in Shanghai, when I first saw the film “Basic Instinct” as a teenager. I was not shocked by the sex and violent scenes, I was more surprised by the reaction of how other people, including myself, were so numb to the idea of intimacy, sexuality and love.
My family, coming from the 1940s, raised me as they have been raised. We don’t talk much about feelings and certainly not about my work. They know that my work is well-received, recognized all around the world, but in Chines culture, we don’t express emotions easily. It is not that they are not proud of me; it’s just they do not know how to express it. It is also not our culture to show how sensitive a man is, how sensitive I am. It could be visually and intellectually quite provoking.”
Z+ “How do people perceive your photographic work?”
S.W. “There are all kinds of reactions. People from Asia have a very different understanding of sexuality; it is not very common to see naked bodies or sensitive men. The Western audience is more open to my work. You see a lot of nudity in museums, but not so much in Asia. Westerners seem to be more relaxed with such images.
Because of the full-frontal nudity, my self-portrait series has only been shown twice in China. It was not a traditional show; we did a slideshow instead of hanging the pictures. That defused a bit of the awkwardness as each picture stayed only 10 seconds on the wall. Censorship still remains a problem for Chinese artists.”
Z+ “How do you respond to these cultural differences? Somehow, you made a loop, between Chinese culture, the Western world and yourself.”
S.W. “The most important thing is to have complete freedom in my work. It is a statement for me to break through these stereotyped images of Chinese men being not sensitive, not emotional. My self-portraits, nudes and landscapes explore notions of identity, memory and sexuality and draw a connection between the influence of Chinese culture and my own personal process of self-discovery.
Since moving to the States, my need for self-expression has grown, and my curiosity about how others address their identity in what is a fairly open society has increased. As a result, I started to photograph people in America. The goal of my work was to raise questions about human nature, emotions, feelings, desires, instinct and identity – to reveal things that you can feel, which are unexplainable, but yet still solid. I am fascinated with the complexity of emotional nakedness and psychological connection and disconnection, as it is often expressed not specifically but explicitly. Most importantly, I want viewers to make their own discoveries through my work.”
“Self-portrait (New York)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Z+ “I know you love travelling, went through Asia, America, Europe. That’s the best way of seeing and learning, you must agree.”
S.W. “Yes, I am quite curious and adventurous. I always had that in me and indeed, I love travelling. Seeking and finding that very similar emotive mood in each place, in each image is a very instinctual, complex process, both specific and spontaneous.”
Z+ “Random places or following a meticulous plan?”
S.W. “A little bit of both. Travelling changes the routine. Sometimes I am self-aware where I am going, but on most trips, I just go with the flow, I only decide when I am there, it depends on the mood. I love discovering new places.”
Z+ “Do you pre-mediate or make sketches before you take a picture?”
S.W. “Never. I throw myself into a situation, very spontaneously and never restrict myself of anything.”
Z+ “Now, let’s talk about your London show.”
At that point, the curator of the exhibition, Hannah Hughes pops in for a word.
“Window” of “Between Blossoms” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
H.H. “Shen Wei’s exhibition does not have a title, and although we already showed his work in our New York gallery, “Between Blossoms” in 2017, and “Invisible Atlas” in 2015, it is Shen Wei’s first solo exhibition in the U.K. We are proud and delighted to show such strong body of work from various photographic pieces to video installations, covering ten years between 2009 and 2019.”
Z+ “Thank you, Hannah. Personally, I couldn’t tell the difference whether these photographs were taken now or ten years ago: they all beautifully and agelessly melt together.”
S.W. “Yes, that was the point. My series and my exhibitions were very different before. In the beginning, they were project orientated but the most recent ones are now based purely on emotions. Since I have quite a lot of series, I started to have solo exhibitions combining different images from different shows, a mix-match, the way I wanted. Videos also became prominent in recent years.”
Z+ “You are showing two video installations, right?”
S.W. “One of the videos is “Like Its Own Tear” (2016) and an earlier one “Bubble” (2013), blowing bubbles from my mouth. Saliva bubbles can be exhaustively tragic or breathtakingly joyful; it depends on how you look at the action. The video starts off quite joyfully and childishly like sometimes I am, then it becomes painful and tiresome for the muscles to keep up with blowing. It could also come off quite provocative.”
Z+ “You said your work is in-between exhaustively tragic or breathtakingly joyful? Is it some kind of reference to life?”
S.W. “A reference to MY life.” He laughs. “At dusk, the flower-studded trees delightfully merged out of the darkness, lushly calm. In Chinese culture, every kind of tree has its symbolic meaning. The peach tree represents seduction and love.”
Z+ “Wow, I did not know you were a poet and didn’t know that you write and perform music as well.”
S.W. “For the “Bubble” video I have. It was an experiment, the only thing I have ever composed. I often work on music on my computer, but that particular piece just fitted my video so well.”
Z+ “Who made the selection for the exhibition?”
S.W. “It was a fine selection between Lieve Beumer who is the head of photography at the gallery, Hannah Hughes, the curator of the exhibition and myself. I came to London a few times and all three of us discussed the possibilities and selected the images.”
“Plum Tree” of “Between Blossoms” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Z+ “You have images from “Broken Sleeves”, “I Miss You Already” and “Between Blossoms”.
S.W. “Broken Sleeves” is my new series. It is the first time there is no narrative.
The project is purely based on a sense of feelings, role-playing iconic Chinese characters from historical and popular culture, self-portraits dressed up as iconic figures combined with images of traditional doorways and pavilions pointing to the social significance of entranceways as indicators of control in China. The series explores the co-existence of power and submission.
In the series “I Miss You Already” I reveal myself in my most visceral, private moments, it is a self-reflection and discovery … skin against grass, caresses of lovers, the warmth of a fire, between real and imaginary exploring my own body. I started this series during the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center residency in Italy in 2009. It was a provocative way to explore my sense of security, the tension between freedom and boundaries.”
S.W. “Chinese Sentiment” is all about returning to one’s past, to China and attempting to reconnect with the authentic lives of people and places in my country. After having spent years in the States I travelled back home and felt totally disoriented by the changes in myself and in China. I wanted to rediscover emotions in ordinary circumstances. “Chinese Sentiment” possesses a dreamlike, poetic photographic style.”
Z+ “I saw that sometimes you paint on your prints.”
S.W. “It was sometime in 2013, I started drawing on photographs as part of a creative exercise. In the beginning, I was just drawing without any photographic base … then I thought OK, let’s try something else. I did not plan it; it just happened. I combined photographic images with minimalistic drawings. “Invisible Atlas” (2015) is a visual interpretation of how internal and external energy form around.”
S.W. “Finally, the series “Between Blossoms” is an intercontinental travelogue full of sensuality, a trip from the States to Europe and Asia, inspired by the Chinese philosophy of Qi – like most of my work – an unseen life force and a method of healing.
When one day I walked through Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, the garden was quiet, bittersweet, devoid of any harsh lights … flowers and petals were covering the ground and there sprang the idea for a new project to search for a melancholy present in nature itself, probably the most conceptually abstract series I’ve ever done, power between beauty and loneliness.”
“Gallon Water” of “Between Blossoms” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Z+ “Are you more mysterious than that golden box between your bare legs?” *
*reference to one of his photographs, the “Golden Box” from the “Between Blossoms” series.
S.W. “Haha … I don’t even know what that box was, wasn’t even mine. I just took that portrait, naked with a golden box. The self-portrait emphasizes less on the body, focusing more on my state of mind of searching and discovering. Let’s say, and I am more content than mysterious.”
Z+ “Have you ever stepped on forbidden territories?”
S.W. “I do not think I have ever stepped on any forbidden territories. I feel simply good and happy to show whatever I like.”
For Shen Wei, it’s been a long journey of finding himself; and on that note, the message arrives from Venice: “May you live in interesting times.”
• Shen Wei (2019) / Flowers gallery, London, UK
• Blossoms (2018) / Xie Zilong Photography Museum, Changsha, China
• Undefined Time of Intuition (2018) / ON/Gallery, Beijing, China
• Between Blossoms (2017) / Signum Foundation, Lodz, Poland
• Between Blossoms (2017) / Flowers Gallery, New York, USA
• Between Blossoms (2017) / SinArts Gallery, The Hague, Netherlands
• Invisible Atlas (2015) / Flowers Gallery, New York, USA
• I Miss You Already (2014) / H Art Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand
• Chinese Sentiment (2012) / Epson Imaging Gallery, Shanghai, China
• I Miss You Already (2012) / Light Work, Syracuse, USA
• I Miss You Already (2012) / Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York, USA
• Chinese Sentiment (2013) /L.A. Galerie Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany
• Chinese Sentiment (2011) / Lumenvisum Gallery, Hong Kong, China
• Chinese Sentiment (2011) / The Art Institute of Boston, Boston, USA
• Chinese Sentiment (2011) / Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York, USA
• Almost Naked (2009) / Randall Scott Gallery, New York, USA
FLOWERS GALLERY / 82 Kingsland Road, E2 8DP London Shen Wei / 3 May – 22 June 2019 / Ticket free
TOP PHOTO: “Stage” of “Broken Sleeve” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Interview by courtesy of Zoltan Alexander © ZOLTAN+ London © ArtLyst