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"There's a big difference between the current generation of artists and the older generation," says Li Wei, a 36-year-old representative of China's new guard. "The current generation is more concerned with current social conditions. The older generation is more concerned with the history and symbols of China."

You won't find any portraits of Mao or visual derivations of the Communist propaganda aesthetic in Li's work; Chinese artists of the 21st century have outgrown such navel-gazing. Li's interests lie in developing a more layered portrait of contemporary human psychology, and he's thinking globally:" Nowadays in China, artists don't have many hesitations. The question lies in what kind of work you want to do. I'm more interested in world politics."

While his optimism may be somewhat premature-more than 20works_ wereconfiscated by state censors this spring's DashanziInternational Art Fair, for example-the sense of expansion of artistic and personal freedom has certainly helped produce gains in the variety and quality of art coming out of Beijing. Li has fostered this trend by producing performance-based works_ that are photographed and digitally retouched to create images that are both unsettling and, at times, comic in their deadpan delivery. The Li Wei Falls ¡­series, in which his body is shown in various locations with his head thrust into a building or lade or car windshield while his body rises, perfectly erect, like a missile dropped from the sky, is one example of his impishly fantastic compositions. The works_ themselves resist easy categorization in that both the event and the photographic image of the event are constitutive, but not commensurate with the artwork, In each of his pieces, an event has taken place, but this event is not necessarily the same as the event depicted in the finished photograph.

Take, for example, the performance/photograph titled Free Degree Over 29th Storey (2003), in which Li Wei's body appears to float from a window on the 29th floor of Beijing's Jianwai SOHO office complex. In the image, his body is held in gravity-defying suspension. Arms outstretched, body rigidly horizontal, Li appears in the threshold of either soaring miraculously among the skyscrapers of Beijing's Central Business District, or plummeting gloriously like a modern day Bellerophon to a horrifying denouement. The work, like many of Li's performances, was achieved with the aid of invisible wires, mirrors, and scaffolding. The resulting photograph of the event has been retouched to efface any traces of the architecture in this staging. This effort has been made to demonstrate, as Li puts it, "the reality in the unreal or fantastic." These photographs do not capture reality but, rather, suggest to us the constructed nature of what we assume to be real.

This may not be G8 bashing, but there is certainly a socio-political message to be culled from Li's theatrics. "The piece expresses a yearning for a happier and freer space of existence," Li offers, but he's dispensing with the backstory. His choice of location for the piece is significant. In 2003, the Jianwai SOHO tower from which he dangles was the latest in a series of real estate projects bankrolled by Pan Shiyi, the Donald of Beijing(almost literally-he was recently invited by Trump to takeover the boardroom chair in a proposed Asian edition of The Apprentice, but after negotiations, declined). Pan, who is generally credited with igniting the real estate frenzy that has resulted in today's Central Business District, is to many a visionary. His vertically-oriented, mixed-use micro-cities have become de rigueur for Beijing's property developers, ushering in a new era for Beijing's urban landscape and identity. In much the same way that Li seeks to alert us to the construction of reality by toying with the fantastic, Pan's efforts show us how not just dreams, but the basic structures of daily life-how we circulate and interact within social space-can be re-imagined and made real, The "freer space of existence" that Li speaks of can be viewed as an awareness of these social constructions and of their mutability.

Another characteristic that both Pan and Li share is their upbringing in rural Chinese villages. Li is the son of a farmer and a village secretary from rural Hubei province. His high school classes were taught by civil engineers at a military weapons facility, which prevented him from formally encountering art until he moved to Beijing at the age of 19 and enrolled in a fine arts institute. After a year of study, he dropped out, but did not abandon his dream of pursuing art. Like the millions of migrant workers who make their way to the capital each year, lured by the promise of opportunity and economic prosperity, Li was convinced that Beijing was the place to realize his nascent artistic ambitions.

He was also aware that it would not be easy. To get by, he roamed from job to job-from selling books, to painting billboard advertisements and murals, to working on the sets of movies and TV stations. Because earnings were low, by the time he paid the rent and bought some art supplies, Li often found himself without even the money for food. But what distressed him more was finding time for his art. "I faced difficulties juggling between life and art," confessed Li. "I needed money for living and money for art. If I worked a lot then I wouldn't have enough time for art." In the end, Li chose to abandon higher-paying, time-consuming jobs in order to focus on his art. He met and befriended members of Beijing's East Villlage artist community-such as Zhu Ming, a well-known performance artist-who influenced him to put down his paintbrush and start working with his body. Li found that the act of making his body his medium allowed him to get closer to his goal of "understanding society through feeling." Part of that understanding involves experiencing what others also experience. "Life in Beijing was hard, but I consider this type of hardship fundamental to mental and emotional growth. My experience of hardship is the fountainhead of my creations."

After years of this hardship and longing, Li's golden bridle moment may have come at the Shanhai Biennale in 2000 when he arrived on opening night with a 3-square-foot sheet of mirrored glass placed over his head. A hole was cut through the middle of the mirror, just large enough for Li's head to slip through and appear to hover about the room. In addition to an evening with local police, the unsanctioned performance earned Li the attention of the Chinese art community and press.

Since then, Li has gone on to exhibit his work internationally, including recent solo exhibitions in Hong Kong, Madrid, Beijing, and Milan. He was also recently recognized as one of the Getty Foundation's New photographers of 2006. But Li is not about to let his success go to his head. Judging by his work, he has a piercing awareness of the danger of flying too high.

Copy Right 2008