|Press >> Text
| Lost Gravity - the Photographs
and Performances of Li Wei
|by Ellen Pearlman
|transcendence: a mirror of china
October 20-November 12, 2006
|Li Wei, a short and stocky
man, clambered up a metal ladder ten feet, sticking his
head deep into a hole in the wall. Two somber assistants
using wire pulleys clipped mountaineering carabiners to
his waist and feet, causing him to dangle horizontally,
his hovering body a metaphor for pre-Olympic China-headless,
suspended, and hurtling towards an unknown future.
A few days later I sat down to talk to Wei. He had just
completed one of his signature jettisoning his body through
space performances atop the roof of a building on Canal
Street, appearing to dangle weightless across the downtown
skyline. Our conversation was translated by Zhang Zhaohui,
a curator and critic who is working on opening the first
museum of contemporary art (MOCA) in Beijing. Wei, nursing
a bleeding gash on his forearm, turned down medical treatment
to answer my questions.
Why, I asked, had he been hanging horizontally from the
ceiling the previous evening? What did it have to do with
contemporary China, or for that matter, with New York?
Filling me in on some historical detail, he explained
that since 2003 the official Chinese government attitude
towards performance art has relaxed, especially as officials
seek more international cachet and recognition. Originally
trained as a painter, Wei has produced an unsettling series
of self-portraits involving his face reflected in mirrors
in public places, and photographs of himself crashing
into walls and sidewalks, many of which are included in
the exhibition. He also has a number of photos where he
seems to free fall from tall buildings-pictures that resemble
the famous photograph of the French artist Yves Kline
hurtling out a window. He creates these hair-raising performances
to convey his continual sense of lost gravity, resulting
from China's hypersteroid pace of opening to the outside
world. The new China is coming face to face with globalization,
differing economic systems and shifting political landscapes.
The identity of the good Communist comrade of the past
has evaporated, producing a whiplash of anxiety. A new
class struggle is re-emerging between the rural poor and
the big city nouveau riche. Ethnic minorities like the
Uyghur Muslims are reasserting their cultural identities
while North Korea is detonating nuclear weapons on China's
doorstep. The environment is continually being degraded.
The most immediate, visceral response to all of this for
young artists is live action and performance art coupled
with images from technology and 3-D gaming. Performance
directly bypasses centuries of traditional painting and
sculpture to deliver extremely modern imagery (though
Wei felt that in the 1960s and 1970s contemporary art
was linked more closely to text).
In the 1980s the first performance art trickled into China.
works_ by Christo inspired a frenzy of ersatz Great Wall
of China wrappings. But artists have moved beyond these
first clumsy attempts and are now grappling with their
responsibility to provide a new type of art. However,
having jumped over the chasm of propagandistic Social
Realism, landing directly into the jaws of postmodernism,
many artists are debating whether this breakneck pace
is too fast. They wonder if they are producing pieces
that are just a mimicry of the west.
So, in a roundabout way, this is the reason why Li Wei
stuck his head into the wall in a gallery on Canal Street.
It is also the reason he continues to stick his head into
obstructing surfaces or fragmented mirrors, and appears
to fly/fall/float out from buildings and rooftops. He
is the new China lost, a China without gravity.