|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
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
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
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
What made you want to create
performance art? Why use this form as a means to express
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"