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Julie Segraves
Executive Director
Asian Art Coordinating Council

The focus of cutting edge art in China today has shifted from sculpture and painting to performance, photographic and video art. Many forward-thinking artists now use the human body as their canvas and in the process, are creating conceptual art, which is then captured, and even heightened by photography and video. Some of the first examples of conceptual or idea- based photos, documenting underground performance art, were taken during the mid 1990's at the East Village, an art community located to the northeast of Beijing. At the end of the 1990's some photo artists were also working with digitally enhanced computer images. Subsequently, by the early 2000s conceptual photography had evolved into a well-established art form. Today some of the most distinctive work is the matchless mixture of performance art and photography being created by the artist Li Wei.

This Chinese Evil Knievel uses his own body to produce works that are both unsettling and provocative and, at times, comic in their deadpan delivery. What Li Wei does not present is the traditional imagery of past party leaders and the pageantry of their political programs. Instead, the social context of Li Wei's work reflects his unease with China's globalization and the constantly changing urban environment, coupled with the more personal concerns such as love, family, happiness, and disappointment.

Born in 1970 into a Hubei province farming family, few of his fellow villagers could have imaged that Li Wei would someday become a well-known artist. At age 19, like millions of other young people, Li Wei migrated to Beijing in pursuit of fame and fortune. Lacking the academic qualifications to be admitted into the prestigious government- run Central Academy of Art, in 1993 Li Wei enrolled at the privately- run Oriental Arts College, where he studied painting. But being interested in contemporary painting, Li Wei soon realized that he was learning little from his traditionally- trained art teachers and dropped out after one year. In order to survive Li Wei worked at a variety of low paying jobs, but soon recognized that regardless of much as he worked, there was never the money or time left to pursue his own art. After befriending independent artists living in the East Village, Li Wei quit his dead-end jobs and radically changed his artistic direction. First, he taught himself photography and video, and then in 1997 Li Wei began to pursue performance art as his primary artistic medium. For Li Wei this distinctive and inspiring art form was ideal. It enabled Li Wei to have a dialogue with his audience and to bring them into the artistic process. In addition, performance art also allowed Li Wei to create and manipulate his own fantasy realities.

Li Wei began to use mirrors in a distinctive way to scrutinize and play with reality. Patrons at the Shanghai 2000 Biennale witnessed one of these first public performance art pieces, Mirroring. In this, and the many performances in the series that followed, Li Wei is featured wearing a 3-foot wide mirror with his head emerging from a hole in its center. The Mirroring pieces, documented by photos, reflect Li Wei' s head floating among his viewers in everyday living spaces, in various urban settings, and at well-known historical sites. For Li Wei these disconcerting interactive performance pieces punctuate the tension between the real and the unreal. They cause, as Li Wei says, " To question our everyday habits of perception. We see ourselves and our surroundings from a new point of view."

Combining acrobatics skills with wires and scaffolding, Li Wei began what is probably one of his best-known series to date, Falls, in 2002. These pieces are anything but easy to execute. In Li Wei Falls from the Sky, the artist is shown with his head and chest embedded in the blacktop of a country road. His absolutely rigid legs pointing up to the sky resemble a human rocket that has just crashed into the earth. These art not computer montages images, only the wires and scaffolding that keep Li Wei's body erect have been cropped out of the photos. Commenting on China's fast changing and unfamiliar society today, Li Wei states, "If you picture someone falling to earth from another planet, there would really be no soft landing, whether the landing were in China or in another part of the world. This feeling of having fallen headfirst into the unknown and of having nothing firm under one's feet is familiar to everyone. One doesn't have to actually fall from another planet to feel that way."

Featured in the 2003 Free Degree Over 29th Story performance piece, superman-like Li Wei appears to defy gravity by flying out of a window. Will he eventually miraculously take to the air among the multi- stories structures of Beijing's Central Business District, or quickly crash into the earth? For Li Wei this work represents the feelings of many Beijing office workers, who would like to escape from their dreary jobs, but can't since their work is essential for personal survival as well as for the continued expansion of China's economy.

However, even dare- devil Li Wei had reservations about the execution of Free Degree:" I was in fact dangling from the 29th floor of Beijing office complex and needed really large, muscular people to hold onto my ankles. There are not many large, muscular people in Beijing. But finally I did find several, and fortunately for me, it all worked out and I am still here."

Li Wei's gymnastic ability is put to the test again in Life is High, a three-piece photo series created in 2004. This triptych features a hair-raising performance in which a female companion holds onto one of Li Wei's ankles then throws his body through space like an Olympic shot putter. For the artist this amusing piece explores the universal problem of contemporary male-female relationships. Although every relationship has its tender moments, reflected in the middle photo, much of a couple's time is spent dealing with the actions, reactions, and expectations of their partner. As these photos clearly show, women are not only the stronger sex, but also seem more frustrated than their male companions.

The surreal scene featured in A Pause for Humanity (2005) is Li Wei's artistic statement about preserving the family in the face of a swiftly changing China. The piece presents the artist holding his baby while dangling precariously within a series of steel girders. It appears that father and child will soon plunge to their deaths, and their faces reflect their anxiety. Li Wei believes that within China's quickly shifting society many people feel that are they are losing their grip, and that they cannot afford to take anything for granted: "It's a feeling of hanging in the air. And even if family is our priority, we wonder just how much we are really able to do."

In another triptych, Ahead (2006), a suited Hong Kong businessman stands inside a white BMW convertible which is parked in front of Hong Kong's harborscape, all emblems of financial success. With one hand he tosses the body of an unsuspecting Li Wei forward like football, while his other hand points to an unknown future. Although citizens are urged by government officials to become consumers and to help modernize and globalize China, the at first stunned, then skeptical, and finally sacred looks on Li Wei's face in the three consecutive photos reveal his ambivalence about the social outcome of these future economic possibilities.

In 2007 while walking through Beijing's 798 Art District Li Wei happened to see a large plastic arm emerging from the upper story of a building; the arm was part an art installation. Li Wei then used the same arm in his own creative piece, Illusory Reality. In this work Li Wei demonstrates his insight into the psychological state of the Chinese people during this time of unprecedented social transition. Most Chinese citizens are experiencing individual freedom unheard of since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in1949. But at the back of their minds they also know that the long, and ever- present arm of the Chinese government can sweep in any at any moment, changing their destiny, resulting in a whiplash of anxiety.

In contrast, another 2007 photo, Never Say failure, features a team of Chinese basketball players appearing to resist gravity's reality. With the help of cables photo-shopped out, they fly through the air with the greatest of ease, slam dunking Li Wei's body into a basketball hoop. This photo is Li Wei's artistic assertion that even against impossible odds, where there is a will, there is always a way.

In a recent 2008 photo, Life at the High Place # 5, Li Wei explores the current Chinese preoccupation with the purist of prosperity .The piece presents an apprehensive Li Wei awkwardly holding onto the steering wheel of a white BMW convertible, while piloting the flying car over the rooftops of Beijing. Barely hanging on, but coming along for the ride, are a group of his friends. Each friend precariously holds onto the ankles of the previous person, creating a virtual trail of people in the sky, all dutifully pursuing wealth and luxury.

Li Wei's compelling but provocative performance art pieces continue to ingeniously explore the multiple realities of China's complex contemporary society within the staged fantasies that he creates. Some of his photos are indeed humorous, while others are disconcerting, but all provide fascinating insights into both the artist himself and into China today.


Copy Right 2008