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Towards the Infinite Space
- On Li Wei's Performance Photography

By Wang Chunchen

(China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing)

Li Wei is one of the most influential contemporary artists of China and he has focused on his idiosyncratic performance since 1999. He then becomes increasingly noticed by the international community of art. How and why Li Wei has achieved such a reputation and recognition is an interesting topic for discussion.
The past twenty years have seen great changes in China's society and Chinese psychology on their environments. On the one hand, China is never the same country as compared to its history and to its former social structure. Many a buildings and high roads are built across China, the traditional and conventional life and habits are challenged and uprooted, although it becomes more convenient to access to those remote areas, a great number of heritages are destroyed and disappeared forever from the sight. Therefore, on the other hand, the sensitive people feel strongly displaced and discontented; especially the new generation of Chinese conceptual artists find their own ways to reflect such vicissitudes and transformations.
When we look at the art created by Chinese artists today, we need to make discrimination of it. For different artists have different understanding of what contemporary art is or should be, the results of what they make are quite variant and contradictory in methods and conceptions. As for the true contemporary art criticism, only those works made by some who feel irrepressible impulse and reactions to contemporary life and society are of interest to us. Therefore, when Li Wei made his first performance with mirror holding in arms, he created some unique icons of contemporary conceptions. The general audience and art critics are surprised by this double image reflected through the mirror and camera lens. Following this particular representation of reality, Li Wei creates another icons of interpretation of life and desire: he usually uses a thin steel wire to be tied on his ankles to hold himself up or catch himself not falling down from the air.
Because of the absolute challenge of the gravity, Li Wei's suspending performance becomes a symbol of contemporary life, both referring to the physical limits and to the psychological adjustment. The backgrounds he sets himself in are those remains of the past life experienced by Chinese people, such as Forbidden City, building roof, turned-down house relics, some abandoned factory, construction site, rural field, and etc. All such places are closely linked to Chinese life and China's reality, from history to present moment, from social changes to personal aspirations. Li Wei's methods of representative icons are then considered as some contestation of reality and virtuality. What he creates is just the ubiquitous sentimentality of contemporary people showing to their outside world - they are controlled by some power but couldn't escape away. However, they still like to make efforts to break loose, aiming at the pursuit of absolute freedom and re-creating of our senses of the outside world. Li Wei seems look like an actor to test the limits of physical capacity in the real life, to confront the cognitive habits for human actions and their concepts - it is impossible for us to act in such ways.
In fact, such efforts as performance or as the product of conceptual photography are direct embodiment of today's Chinese artists' conception of how to make art. Since 1990s and after the 21th century, avant-garde Chinese artists have tried their best to break through all the restrictions defined upon art, especially in China's situation, making art means potential ideological connotations and subtexts. One of such restrictions is that the individual expressions of artists might be retained under the slogan of the so-called mainstream voices - official advocacy of that art should be used to serve some socialist politics. But more and more avant-garde Chinese choose to do their own experiments on art making and art expression. So Li Wei came to the front with his special methods of breaking through the officially-supported realism, the audience could feel a strong surprise and curiosity that art could be done in such ways that brought marvelous experiences around their living reality and their senses of physical world. Firstly, performance has been a kind of taboo for official explanation of what art is: the later is always apt to consider performances as some gaudy acts or as superficial tactics. But in actuality, performance has intense impact upon people's mind of conceptions, and gives rise to the collapse of stereotypes of art definition. This is why when Li Wei jumps into the sea or flings himself outwards through the windows or on the ceiling, people feel unexpectedly shocked and silenced: they get indistinctive and fresh experience which means more possibilities of reorganizing the world around us. This is done by our body - which as an everlasting field of conceptual embodiment - to act against the normality of our senses but towards the infinite space of multiple representations of the art structure.
September 8, 2008

Copy Right 2008