Dark Beauty and Global Hipsters: The Art of Chen Wei

July 31, 2012
by Nora Boyd

The fact that I sometimes wear black has been interpreted by friends back home in California as evidence that I have become a hipster, but I can’t say that I’ve ever felt like a hip New Yorker. I often envied the visitors to the gallery where I worked in Shanghai: they had the avant-garde fashion, impressive haircuts, and art savvy that a real New Yorker is supposed to possess, while I was left only with the slightly harried expression. Clearly I was nowhere near as cool as the visitors, but I was content to admire them. The opening of the Chen Wei exhibition (on view June 3–August 5, 2012) was another experience altogether. Before the event, the gallerist asked me to run downstairs to check on the caterers—I love food, so I was very willing. When I got downstairs, I was a little disappointed, albeit amused, to find that “the caterers” were from an expensive vodka company, and that the menu consisted of three vodka cocktail options. Confirmation: I was definitely not that cool. As the guests began to arrive, filling the small, white space with all kinds of riotous outfits and three kinds of vodka cocktails, I felt like I had been caught wearing overalls and chewing a piece of hay.

The hip crowd seen from the gallery’s upstairs balcony. Photo: Nora Boyd

It wasn’t that I was uncomfortable in China. I did stick out—I would never say that I “fit right in”—but I never experienced culture shock, though walking down the street in Shanghai was an entirely different experience from doing the same in New York. I felt very comfortable in China, strangely enough; it was the concrete information I absorbed that was shocking.

In the United States, I had been told that most technology production happened in Shenzhen, a city near Hong Kong. In China, I learned that this was because the factories there share production lines, have much lower taxes, and can draw on a huge pool of migrant laborers. Interestingly, it turns out that an iPhone could never be manufactured in the US, but not only because Chinese workers will work for a lower wage. These laborers have the manual skill to put them together, one by one, perfectly. Similarly, I had known that a huge recycling industry was at work in China: hundreds of thousands of tons of discarded materials are shipped every year to facilities in China to be dismantled, sorted, and then sold for reuse. This is not, however, because no one in the US wants to do this menial labor, but because the materials that are being recycled are actually used in China, and therefore in high demand, whereas we don’t have the demand for them here. Even coming from California, where cultures have notoriously clashed for generations, this was news to me. That we weren’t dumping garbage on them, or that it was skill, not low wages, that kept technology production in China, was a revelation to me.

Similarly, I arrived in China knowing very little about Chinese contemporary art. What I had heard or read about was the boom in demand for Chinese art at auction, the buzz about young Chinese artists, the “untapped market,” so to speak. The intense interest in Chinese art is fueled by the West’s general interest in China today, an interest that always sounds a bit hysterical, a bit scared, a watchful and paranoid thing. When I realized I had been aware of and subconsciously familiar with this mindset, I was embarrassed. I wasn’t afraid of China, so I had no reason to think of “Chinese Artists” as some breed inherently different from its Western counterpart. Before going to China, I had heard of Chinese artists, but all I had really heard about them was that they were Chinese, and therefore made art that was somehow indicative of the state of China itself. I don’t think of Damien Hirst as primarily a “British Artist,” and I certainly don’t think of him as representative of contemporary British culture or politics. In my own experiences in the Shanghai art scene I saw art that ran the gamut from overtly political to purely aesthetic.

In fact, one of my favorite young artists today is the abovementioned photographer Chen Wei, whose work is theatrical, dark, bizarre, and apolitical. Using several photographs and photoshop, Chen creates elaborate staged scenes that look like stills from a David Lynch movie. The lushly disturbing photographs are testaments to diligent work and a fantastic sense of color and shade. Leo Xu, the gallerist who produced the show, is admiring of Chen in that he truly creates his visions using photography. Xu is particularly interested in the difference between photography as a documentation of other media and photography as its own medium. This is the difference between, say, a photo of Marina Abramovic’s performers and a portrait taken by Richard Avedon: one is meant to give an idea of an event or capture a moment in time; the other is a stand-alone piece created with reference to the materials and methods of photography. In a way, this distinction is related to the question that was first put forth by the Impressionists—that of the canvas having limitations but also certain inherent qualities by virtue of its being flat. Xu believes this is a distinction that is not made often enough today, when there is a wealth of interesting developments in the photographic and video arts.

Installation view of Chen Wei: More at Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai. Photo: Nora Boyd

I went to China with the common, though often tacit, view that Chinese artists have more to say about social and political issues than Western artists because many of them grew up during the Maoist era and because they have a different understanding of individualism. While this may be true to some extent, Chinese artists are not necessarily active at a higher or more meaningful level than other artists, nor are they less creative or bound to really “say” something. Labeling them as fundamentally “Chinese” is as careless as labeling me a “female” student.

So there I was, ogling the crowd at the Chen Wei opening, who could easily have been the coolest crowd I’d ever seen, and besides the fact that they were by and large Chinese and speaking Mandarin, they could have been any cool crowd anywhere in the world. They were all there to enjoy an intense visual spectacle, have some flavored cocktails, and mingle with their cool friends, just as the guests at a gallery opening in New York or Paris would do. The difference was in their mannerisms and in the way they moved around each other and through the space, not in the conversation about the works of art. As I moved through the crowds, I heard one woman complaining to her friend about the high price of imported fruits, and an older man commenting on the framing of one of the images; no one was proclaiming the portents of the pieces for the Chinese people. They didn’t strike me as a “Chinese” crowd, any more than Chen Wei struck me as a “Chinese” artist. Then again, I don’t strike myself as a “frumpy American,” so I guess there are different ways to interpret everything.

–Written by Nora Boyd, NYU CAS ’13 and Undergraduate Intern, Grey Art Gallery

To read more about the exhibition or the gallery, check out the Leo Xu Projects website.



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