LI WEI'S BODY OF ART
Asian Art Coordinating Council
The focus of cutting edge art in
China today has shifted from sculpture and painting
to performance, photographic and video art. Many forward-thinking
artists now use the human body as their canvas and in
the process, are creating conceptual art, which is then
captured, and even heightened by photography and video.
Some of the first examples of conceptual or idea- based
photos, documenting underground performance art, were
taken during the mid 1990's at the East Village, an
art community located to the northeast of Beijing. At
the end of the 1990's some photo artists were also working
with digitally enhanced computer images. Subsequently,
by the early 2000s conceptual photography had evolved
into a well-established art form. Today some of the
most distinctive work is the matchless mixture of performance
art and photography being created by the artist Li Wei.
This Chinese Evil Knievel uses his
own body to produce works that are both unsettling and
provocative and, at times, comic in their deadpan delivery.
What Li Wei does not present is the traditional imagery
of past party leaders and the pageantry of their political
programs. Instead, the social context of Li Wei's work
reflects his unease with China's globalization and the
constantly changing urban environment, coupled with
the more personal concerns such as love, family, happiness,
Born in 1970 into a Hubei province
farming family, few of his fellow villagers could have
imaged that Li Wei would someday become a well-known
artist. At age 19, like millions of other young people,
Li Wei migrated to Beijing in pursuit of fame and fortune.
Lacking the academic qualifications to be admitted into
the prestigious government- run Central Academy of Art,
in 1993 Li Wei enrolled at the privately- run Oriental
Arts College, where he studied painting. But being interested
in contemporary painting, Li Wei soon realized that
he was learning little from his traditionally- trained
art teachers and dropped out after one year. In order
to survive Li Wei worked at a variety of low paying
jobs, but soon recognized that regardless of much as
he worked, there was never the money or time left to
pursue his own art. After befriending independent artists
living in the East Village, Li Wei quit his dead-end
jobs and radically changed his artistic direction. First,
he taught himself photography and video, and then in
1997 Li Wei began to pursue performance art as his primary
artistic medium. For Li Wei this distinctive and inspiring
art form was ideal. It enabled Li Wei to have a dialogue
with his audience and to bring them into the artistic
process. In addition, performance art also allowed Li
Wei to create and manipulate his own fantasy realities.
Li Wei began to use mirrors in a
distinctive way to scrutinize and play with reality.
Patrons at the Shanghai 2000 Biennale witnessed one
of these first public performance art pieces, Mirroring.
In this, and the many performances in the series that
followed, Li Wei is featured wearing a 3-foot wide mirror
with his head emerging from a hole in its center. The
Mirroring pieces, documented by photos, reflect Li Wei'
s head floating among his viewers in everyday living
spaces, in various urban settings, and at well-known
historical sites. For Li Wei these disconcerting interactive
performance pieces punctuate the tension between the
real and the unreal. They cause, as Li Wei says, "
To question our everyday habits of perception. We see
ourselves and our surroundings from a new point of view."
Combining acrobatics skills with
wires and scaffolding, Li Wei began what is probably
one of his best-known series to date, Falls, in 2002.
These pieces are anything but easy to execute. In Li
Wei Falls from the Sky, the artist is shown with his
head and chest embedded in the blacktop of a country
road. His absolutely rigid legs pointing up to the sky
resemble a human rocket that has just crashed into the
earth. These art not computer montages images, only
the wires and scaffolding that keep Li Wei's body erect
have been cropped out of the photos. Commenting on China's
fast changing and unfamiliar society today, Li Wei states,
"If you picture someone falling to earth from another
planet, there would really be no soft landing, whether
the landing were in China or in another part of the
world. This feeling of having fallen headfirst into
the unknown and of having nothing firm under one's feet
is familiar to everyone. One doesn't have to actually
fall from another planet to feel that way."
Featured in the 2003 Free Degree
Over 29th Story performance piece, superman-like Li
Wei appears to defy gravity by flying out of a window.
Will he eventually miraculously take to the air among
the multi- stories structures of Beijing's Central Business
District, or quickly crash into the earth? For Li Wei
this work represents the feelings of many Beijing office
workers, who would like to escape from their dreary
jobs, but can't since their work is essential for personal
survival as well as for the continued expansion of China's
However, even dare- devil Li Wei
had reservations about the execution of Free Degree:"
I was in fact dangling from the 29th floor of Beijing
office complex and needed really large, muscular people
to hold onto my ankles. There are not many large, muscular
people in Beijing. But finally I did find several, and
fortunately for me, it all worked out and I am still
Li Wei's gymnastic ability is put
to the test again in Life is High, a three-piece photo
series created in 2004. This triptych features a hair-raising
performance in which a female companion holds onto one
of Li Wei's ankles then throws his body through space
like an Olympic shot putter. For the artist this amusing
piece explores the universal problem of contemporary
male-female relationships. Although every relationship
has its tender moments, reflected in the middle photo,
much of a couple's time is spent dealing with the actions,
reactions, and expectations of their partner. As these
photos clearly show, women are not only the stronger
sex, but also seem more frustrated than their male companions.
The surreal scene featured in A
Pause for Humanity (2005) is Li Wei's artistic statement
about preserving the family in the face of a swiftly
changing China. The piece presents the artist holding
his baby while dangling precariously within a series
of steel girders. It appears that father and child will
soon plunge to their deaths, and their faces reflect
their anxiety. Li Wei believes that within China's quickly
shifting society many people feel that are they are
losing their grip, and that they cannot afford to take
anything for granted: "It's a feeling of hanging
in the air. And even if family is our priority, we wonder
just how much we are really able to do."
In another triptych, Ahead (2006),
a suited Hong Kong businessman stands inside a white
BMW convertible which is parked in front of Hong Kong's
harborscape, all emblems of financial success. With
one hand he tosses the body of an unsuspecting Li Wei
forward like football, while his other hand points to
an unknown future. Although citizens are urged by government
officials to become consumers and to help modernize
and globalize China, the at first stunned, then skeptical,
and finally sacred looks on Li Wei's face in the three
consecutive photos reveal his ambivalence about the
social outcome of these future economic possibilities.
In 2007 while walking through Beijing's
798 Art District Li Wei happened to see a large plastic
arm emerging from the upper story of a building; the
arm was part an art installation. Li Wei then used the
same arm in his own creative piece, Illusory Reality.
In this work Li Wei demonstrates his insight into the
psychological state of the Chinese people during this
time of unprecedented social transition. Most Chinese
citizens are experiencing individual freedom unheard
of since the establishment of the People's Republic
of China in1949. But at the back of their minds they
also know that the long, and ever- present arm of the
Chinese government can sweep in any at any moment, changing
their destiny, resulting in a whiplash of anxiety.
In contrast, another 2007 photo,
Never Say failure, features a team of Chinese basketball
players appearing to resist gravity's reality. With
the help of cables photo-shopped out, they fly through
the air with the greatest of ease, slam dunking Li Wei's
body into a basketball hoop. This photo is Li Wei's
artistic assertion that even against impossible odds,
where there is a will, there is always a way.
In a recent 2008 photo, Life at
the High Place # 5, Li Wei explores the current Chinese
preoccupation with the purist of prosperity .The piece
presents an apprehensive Li Wei awkwardly holding onto
the steering wheel of a white BMW convertible, while
piloting the flying car over the rooftops of Beijing.
Barely hanging on, but coming along for the ride, are
a group of his friends. Each friend precariously holds
onto the ankles of the previous person, creating a virtual
trail of people in the sky, all dutifully pursuing wealth
Li Wei's compelling but provocative
performance art pieces continue to ingeniously explore
the multiple realities of China's complex contemporary
society within the staged fantasies that he creates.
Some of his photos are indeed humorous, while others
are disconcerting, but all provide fascinating insights
into both the artist himself and into China today.