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Transcendental Experience
by Zhang Zhaohui

A man falls to the ground from the air, his head cuts into the earth like an unexploded bomb. This astonishing image made by young Chinese artist Li Wei, entitled Li Wei Falls To Earth (2002), featured on a cover of an issue Flash Art in 2003.Over the past four years, works_ by the Beijing-based artist have been featured on the covers of a number of prestigious journals. Why has Li ¡¯s art drawn such interest and attentions?

His first significant public exposure was at the Tbird Shanghai Biennale in 2000.During the opening ceremony, without any official invitation, he entered the gallery lobby to execute a performance piece. He showed up with a three -foot -square mirror with a hole, large enough to accommodate his head and neck. He places his head through the hole, his face reflected in the mirror. Looking at the mirror, his face seemed to be floating with the audience opposite, also reflected in the mirror. Viewers were surprised to find their images overlapping with the artist¡¯s face. This highly interactive and sensational work attracted a lot of photographers immediately, creating some in disorder among the viewers. Security staffs soon detained him and the police questioned him for half-an-hour. He told the police that he was merely doing his performance work, which was also accessible on the Internet. The police warned him not to do this in the gallery for security reasons. The performance, somewhat akin to a 1960s happening, was widely distributed through the Internet and other media. even though many photographers and editors were unaware of the artist¡¯s name. Simultaneously, a provocative group show entitled Fuck Off, featuring the work of 30 artists, was opened, This show includes such shocking work as Eating A Baby, which predicted the nation-wide 2001 debate on performance art.

Li Wei, born in 1973 into a farmer¡¯s family in Hubei province, moved to Beijing in 1993. he enrolled in a private art school to study oil painting but left the school after a year due to his disappointment with its dogmatic teaching methods. With the dream of being an artist firmly fixed in his mind Li made a great effort to survive in expensive Beijing. He worked at various jobs, including painter, designer, delivering good and food, and as a housekeeper. In his spare time, he made abstract style paintings. During this time he was the same as any of the millions of migrant workers, swarming into Beijing from the countryside to seek a better life. He once told me that his early experiences as a jobless person were crucial to his later artistic vision, since he had shares the hardships, anxiety, and depression of millions of ordinary Chinese.

Through his association with performance artist Zhu Ming, who were then a close friend to the East Village artists group, led by Zhang Huan, Li Wei was introduced to performance art, which, for him, at first sight, appeared both novel and inspiring. Li came to realize that performance art was a more effective way through which to execute his artistic concept, and that the human body was a more effective medium through which to carry out his artistic ideas. In the East Village art community, the shocking performance works_ by Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming opened his eye. Li came to understand the repetitive rhetoric of painting and decided to give up painting to engage with performance art.

As a young man moving to Beijing, Li Wei shared the experience of the remarkable social changes of the day with his contemporary. His work¡¯s social context showed a concern with the urban environment, a word in which happiness, work, love affairs, hope, adventure, and disappointment occurred for him and his contemporaries.

At the end of 2000, Li wei showed me his works_, I was impressed by his unique creativity and immediately realized his potential as an artist. Over the past few years, we have worked together on many exhibition projects, including 0¡ãC Project, Mask vs. Face, New Urbanism, and what a Wonderful Life. His works_ is always the most eye-catching. But three early works_ are particularly notable: It Would Not Die Away As Such(1999), Green Guy¡¤Flag(1999) , and Transparent Ecology (2001) which predicts his later work.

It Would Not Die Away Such was a performance about an unrealized desire and the spirit of continuing life. Li lies on a bed in a dark farmhouse. His body and head covered by a pile of dirt, turning the bed into a tomb. But his penis remains erect for some 20 minutes¡¯ until its strength fades. This piece lasted for about 30 minutes and was executed in an unremarkable farmhouse on the outskirt of Beijing, It was open only to a small group of artists and journalists who were worried about police intervene. Through humor and his weird performance Li wanted to express a lofty idea, a kind of unrealized life of equality, freedom, and democracy, something numerous educated Chinese people have dreamt of for a more than a century. In this piece Li looked at a future life through a dead man¡¯s reality. The embarrassing image of a cadaver with an erect penis becomes an ironic symbol of a sublime thought and profound religious concepts¡£

The subsequent piece, Green Gay¡¤Flag, took place in a farmer¡¯s courtyard outside Beijing. A seven-meter pole, with a red flag on the top, was installed in the yard. With his body Painted completely with green pigment, Li climbed to the top section of the pole while making several sentimental postures with the red flag. His agile and masculine green body becomes more eye-catching within the setting off of the chilly winter weather. His body resisted both the coldness and gravity. No doubt the red flag reminds viewers of the Chinese communist revolutionary history 30 years ago, sharp contrary to the otherworldly, naked, green man. Growing up underneath the red flag was a popular saying during the 1950s and 1960s. With the collapse of communist ideology caused by the market reform and the opening up to the West, many Chinese lost their directions, experiencing difficult times as they struggled to get used to the new urban reality. Li Wei¡¯s work comments on people¡¯s response to the drastic ideological changes in China over the past two decades.

Transparent Ecology was presented on October 27, 2001, at Bridge Art Center, on the occasion of the opening of 0¡ãC Degree Project. Li dug a pit in the ground, big enough to contain his body. He remains in the pit, with a huge mirror covering his body and showing only his head through a hole in it. His head through the mirror was inside a glass ball, along with a red rose and a bird on his bare head .Li moved the rose from time to time with his mouth to clear the steamed-up surface of the glass so that the bird and Li could see out. The performance, which also had the audience blow cigarette smoke into the ball through a transparent tube, lasted about three and a half hours, even heavy rain did not prevent Li from finishing the performance.

Mirror and glass gradually became the key media of Li¡¯s performance art, his initial use of glass at the on-site performance, entitled Human Beings - Floating Substance, took place, at Happy Garden Club in 2001. Fragmented glass paved the stage. Li Wei slowly made his way onto the stage barefoot, his body covered with slivers of mirror, like an alien coming down the earth from the heavens. He moved slowly along a fluorescent rope, making it appear to pass through his chest, seemingly charging and sustains his body and movement. It took about ten minutes for him to finish the short walk. His debris-covered body sparkled with light from time to time, aided by the revolving light in the disco bar. The enthusiastic respond from the viewer encouraged him to performance more.

Over five years, the Mirror series performance has been performance at numerous historical and ordinary venues and in many contexts, Li usually performance his piece within such urban surroundings as Beijing¡¯s newly built skyscrapers, highways, supermarket, highways, and supermarket, parks, and square. One significant performance of his piece took place in the late Autumn of 2003 Jianwai soho, a grand real estate project designed by Japanese architect Riken Yamamoto, in the Central Business District (CBD) of Beijing. The opening gala in this surreal-looking minimalist, white compound presented performance art as part of the programs, When his mirror-with-head was exposed to the crowd, Li Wei suddenly became the focus of the whole event, Inspired by the public exposure gained from this, Li quickly completed two news series-Free Degree over 29th Floor (2003) and Dream-Likes Love(2003)-¡ªfor the CBD¡¯s brand new office building environment.

In his new work staged in the CBD, entitled Flying out of Window, Li exits from window of a glass-covered skyscraper like a flying bird, He is suspended over the void and ready to travel over our heads like Superman or our modern-day Icarus, and others are about to follow him out. This work expresses a desire of get rid of the tedious of daily office work that has been at the heart of the expansion of China¡¯s economy and foreign investment in China.

Li Wei¡¯s Dream-LikeLove series is a comment on the love game among China¡¯s urban youth who have come of age in the new millennium. He utilizes illusion and reflection made through a mirror. Here, his head seems to have been cut off, to float in the air like a ball. A young girl has fun playing with it, holding his face into a sofa. The face functions as a lovely pet. This is like a double vision, a reflection of the current social surrounding for young people¡¯s love life, The statement is that love is a wholly mental sentiment and that while a girl may love a man¡¯s heart and soul (head), pure love is utopia since Chinese girls tends to marry rich men (body) who can maintain their high-level of material life, thus the artist¡¯s head is only her soul-mate. This reflects the dilemma for young people when they are considering love and marriage. The candidate is either a poor man but spiritually desired, or a rich man but an upstart.

It is hardly to find another artist in China, or in the world perhaps, who uses the mirror better as an implement in his art than Li Wei. The most important contribution of the mirror to Li Wei¡¯s work is that it provides an intersection between reality and its concealment, which is perceptively integrated. The in combination of the two not only presents us with an eerie pictorial world but also suggests metaphorically a feeling of alienation in uncertain world.

Another clear characteristic in Li¡¯s work is the separation of the head from the body as emphasized byhis use of mirrors, sometimes what is visible is his head, as in Mirror Series, Translucent Ecosystem, and Simulation of Love, sometimes his body without its head is visible, as in Li Wei Falls Down series, To Save the Baby, and Walk Space (2000). ¡°I feel that the head (brain) controls everything, the rest of the body only completes the idea of the head ¡±. Says Li Wei. ¡° When I do the Mirror series, viewers have the sense of the floating head in the air, without roots ¡±. The relationship between the head and body in Li¡¯s works_ dramatize the complex tensions between reality and illusion in China¡¯s today.

Li Wei began his career as a performance artist. Mostly his work his taken place in open public space-streets, markets, highway, square, for example. But sometimes his work has been presented on-site at exhibition venues, and occasionally in private space-houses, apartments, and courtyards. Most of his performances have been documented in photographs or video. For him the photograph is only the byproduct of the execution of his work. He pays more attention to the conception, the preparation, and realization of his works_.

At the outset of his career. Zhang Huan¡¯s work inspired him a lot in helping to determine his own art. ¡°I like the tension between human body and reality presented in Zhang Huan¡¯s work. He is a brave man and strong-mind man, He has a strong sense of the Chinese people¡¯s condition.¡± Says Li Wei. In the five years since he moved to Binghe residential compound where many artists have settled, he has learned how to realized his work accurately through working and talking with the artist Wang Qingsong. ¡°My frequent and sincere communication with artists here, like Wang Qingsong and Zhu Ming, makes me understand more about contemporary art, and how to express perfectly my idea through performing and photographing.¡±

More important, Li¡¯s oeuvre shows his insights into the psychological state of the Chinese people in this time of unprecedented social transition. His art is not stereotyped Chinese art, which has been highly appreciated by Western viewers, Li¡¯s art is based on his own visceral experience of China, and it is articulated in the strong voice of his generation.

Although Li Wei feels that he owes a lot to many friends, including artists, photographer, curator, and partners, Li has indeed completed a large body of unique, creative work, which indicates his response to the changes in society. His art also shows an adventurous spirit in his efforts to interact actively within the new social context, and it is usually amusing, exciting, obsessive, ecstatic, and transcendental, suggesting a critical moment of an individual destiny. There is a theatricality throughout his entire repertoire. By viewing his works_, people can learn what is happening in China now, what young people are thinking about the world and themselves, and what the near future might be.

Copy Right 2008