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Chinese Performance artist's-Li Wei
by Carla Kirkwood

Li Wei lives in Beijing and represents the second generation, of performance artists working in China. He began his career in the late 1990s, and is most well known for his Mir-ror 2000 series, which includes over 40 site-specific performance pieces. Using a large mirror, three feet square, with a hole in the center large enough to accommodate his head and neck, Li places his head through the hole and "projects" his image onto various historical and urban environments.

In your work your head is either the focal point or is completely buried. Why do you give such significance to this part of the body?
I feel that the brain controls everything. The rest of the body only executes the thoughts of the brain. It determines the psychological state of a person and controls their concept of reality. It constructs and creates reality. When I do the "mirror series" you have the sense that the head, the brain, is floating in the air. It exists without a root; it does not depend on anything in order to exist. The brain is the geography of the person. It is the home. It can alter reality. The last couple of years I have been feeling very strongly about the sense of speed in the modern world. A lot of things are so momentary, they all happen so fast, before you can formulate in your mind what action to take. There is no time to process it all. Terrorism strikes us this way; we are shocked by it. We assume the world is one way, but it moves quickly to destroy our illusions. Spontaneity tricks the rational mind. When I bury my head in the earth or dive into plates of glass, my mind, my rational self, is unable to respond quickly to this sort of action. The performance piece where I am flying out of the building is very spontaneous. You fly out of the building to grab something outside; this is an impulse, but it is not rational, not a "constructed" impulse. It is spontaneous reality.
I did a project once where I weighed people's heads to see which was the heaviest. I used a scale that is used in the market to weigh fruit. The heads of people from different professions were weighed. I weighed garbage collectors, salespeople, hairdressers, toilet cleaners, and businessmen.

Which profession had the heaviest head?

Some of your work looks extremely dangerous-diving out of windows, into glass plates, hanging from TV antennas in the dead of winter. Aren't you ever afraid that you might do serious injury to yourself?
No, not really. I do try to control the work so that I am not harmed. I occasionally get cut or bruised up, but I am careful. I believe in challenging myself physically; it is part of the principle of doing performance. When I performed Diving into the Red Square, a rope held my legs up. I had to balance very carefully or the weight of my body could have broken my leg. During the performance, the rope snapped, and it took them over five minutes to free me. I was cut around the neck, but not seriously. Flying Out of the Window was a difficult project because I needed really heavy people to hold onto my ankles. I don't know a lot of big, heavy people, but I eventually found some. I was always concerned, though, that their weight would not be enough to support me. But fortunately for me it all worked out.

When did you begin doing performance?
I was a painter until 1997, then I began to do performance work. For several years, my performance concepts weren't very clear. I worked strictly on impulse. Now I work from a framework, a clear idea. I keep a journal and constantly record ideas for work.

Tell me about your background--your family and education.
I was born in 1970, in a small village near the Yangze River, in Hubei Province. I went to primary school there. My father was the head of the Communist Party in our village. We moved to a larger city when my parents went to work at a power plant. The plant also made military weapons, and was considered a high security unit. The high school, I attended was taught by the civil engineers that worked in the plant. In 1993, I moved to Beijing. I dreamed of going to the Central Academy of Fine Art, but I couldn't pass the general education exam. I was accepted at a private art college, the Oriental Arts College in Beijing. I studied there for one year and then I quit. The education was very traditional, and I was not learning what I wanted to learn. I taught myself video and photography. I was very interested in how an artist can manipulate "reality."

How do you support yourself?
When I first moved to Beijing my family helped me out, and I would paint advertising signs for friends. Since 2002, I have been able to sell photos of my work in order to survive. I have an Italian art agent who sells my photography in Italy. I have no such agent in China. The galleries in China are very "unofficial" in their methods and messy financially.

Do your parents know what you do?
Well, they know that I am an artist, but not the content of my work. I don't think they would be very pleased with the kind of art I create.

How does the "geography," the physical, spiritual, and political reality of China, provide a backdrop for the work you create?
People outside of China unfortunately identify Chinese performance art as derivative. They often think that we take Western models and simply apply them to our work. They don't understand the "Chineseness" of our art practice. They are locked into the image of "traditional" Chinese culture and see any deviation from this "tradition" as a sign that we are no longer "indigenously creative." They think that somehow our culture has lost its strength. This is simply not true. My performance work is based on the conditions, the events, news, and activity of my daily existence. China is no longer isolated, but connected to the rest of the world. This interconnectedness finds its way into my work, my aesthetics. So the "geography" of my work is both national and international in its perspective. My work mirrors the conflict and conditions of modern China, internally and externally. This "negotiation" between external and internal influences has a long history in China.

What do you see as the primary difference between Western and Chinese performance art?
Chinese performance art lacks a theatrical context. We douse narrative occasionally, but it is rarely the dominant element. We are also not venue bound, but almost always site specific. The theatrical "effect" is missing in our performance art movement. For example, Zhang Huan's piece, Twelve Square Metres, expressed the Chinese will to endure against all odds and adverse conditions. But it was performed in a non-theatrical environment. We often look to the existing "constructed reality" of everyday life as a means to express ourselves.

What made you want to create performance art? Why use this form as a means to express yourself?
It is easier to express my impulses, my thinking, through performance, through my body.
I was interested in how an artist can manipulate what appears to be "real." I believe in a created reality. This is more real to me than the "reality" we are forced to accept here in China. Performance is a direct means of expression, and during a performance I am able to have a conversation with the audience. I always attempt to engage the audience when I perform; I try to bring them into the process. I tell the audience what part they need to play in order to participate; this provides guidance to them, a clue as to their role. When they see me perform they help construct the "reality." To me a painting is incomplete because it lacks this type of engagement.

Is the performance art movement very strong in China? And does it have much of a future?
There are many artists who work in this field. But there are obstacles to creating this work that make it difficult to execute. When the authorities placed a ban on performance art in April 2001, audiences became afraid to attend performances. This had a profound effect on the entire performance art movement. Many young artists who do performance have a difficult time finding an audience. There is no conversation between the authorities and the artistic community. We exist very separately from one another, and there is very little understanding of each other's perspective.

"Does performance art have a future in China?" Definitely. In spite of all the obstacles, new artists are emerging, and the older ones, like myself, continue to' develop performance work that generates new "realities" and possibilities.

Copy Right 2008