We proudly present first solo exhibition of Chen Wei First Solo in Sydney at ACAF Art Terminal. Curated by ACAF guest curator John McDonald this exhibition will also be part of Head On Festival opening 12 May till 12 June. (www.headon.com.au)
Chinese art from the days of socialist propaganda painting to the age of Political Pop was distinguished by its obviousness. No one could be in any doubt about the heroic virtues of those workers, soldiers and peasants who stared resolutely from the posters of the 1970s. Neither was there anything equivocal about the social critiques of the reform era, which denounced greed and opportunism on all sides.
With a new generation artist such as Chen Wei (b.1980), we enter a world in which nothing is certain. Although his preferred medium is photography, Chen Wei’s scenarios are constructed like sculptures or theatre sets. These images may be disarmingly low-key but as we keep looking they reveal a broad range of possible meanings.
A typical piece will take us from the most ordinary scene to a vision of the cosmos. A leaning pile of books and papers threatening to crash onto a table top reproduces the shape of Hokusai’s great wave. The glint of coins thrown into a pond becomes a starry night. A doorway filled with red and blue light might be the entrance to a nightclub or to the Inferno.
Chen Wei’s images are open to multiple interpretations. In Palm, a glove spills gold coins onto a table. It might be a symbol of largesse, or a suggestion that the hand of generosity has been rudely severed – through anger or avarice? It could be seen as a rejection of the idea that an artist works only for money. It may be a hand offered in friendship but motivated only by profit. It is these ambiguities that give the piece its special emblematic power.
The uncertainties are just as prominent in a work such as Tower that shows basketballs piled high in a makeshift stand with three levels of hoops. One ball sits perched proudly on top, but the bottom levels are packed with balls. Others roll around on the floor. There seems to be a metaphor here, but what is it? Perhaps a reflection on human strivings and ambitions, which sees one person reach the top and many stall at a lower stage. Perhaps we are looking at a model of the state, controlled by the all-powerful party at the top. The balls suggest a game, but games can be a matter of life and death.
There is a surreal aspect to much of Chen Wei’s work, as in a picture of a pair of feet joined by tied shoe laces, or a plaster statue that has crumbled into powder. These scenarios are plausible but unlikely, filled with pathos and dark humour. They make us think that something strange has happened, or is about to happen. This sense of expectancy may be the most constant factor in a body of work that constantly plays on the viewer’s imagination, making each image seem like a still from a lost movie.
Chen Wei doesn’t like to reveal too much about his photographs, partly because he is always finding some new association. There are no fixed, precise meanings, no underlying stories. An image might come from a dream, from a scene in a film or a novel. Many of the references are autobiographical and not readily accessible to anyone but the artist. Yet knowing the origins of an image doesn’t mean that Chen Wei can be absolutely sure about everything that finds its way into the finished work.
Chen Wei believes that “memory is knowledge”. He even likes to use the word “gnosis” - which suggests a form of spiritual, esoteric knowledge. If we divorce the term from its mystical overtones it provides a useful way of thinking about these strange, unsettling pictures. For we feel instinctively that each of Chen Wei’s works is concealing a secret. The problem is that even if we could crack the code and access the hidden cache of the artist’s memories, it may not have the same meaning.
The most disarming aspect of Chen Wei’s work is that his images are so deceptively ordinary. He shows us a closed door, coins in a fountain, a ping pong table, a dingy bedroom with a leaky ceiling. We stop and stare at these pictures because they so purposefully thwart our need to find signs of life.
We can detect the human touch in Wave (2010), in which a pile of books and papers threatens to collapse on a tabletop. Gravity is mocking this tower of learning, creating a facsimile of Hokusai’s famous print. That Door is Often Keeping Closed (2009), presents a more oblique image in which the smears on an ochre-coloured wall resemble clouds painted in a vigorous, gestural manner. On the ground in front of the door there are various articles: a blue plastic bag, a shoe, a crushed soft-drink can. And what of the band of light showing above the door? There’s an entire novel here waiting to be written.
Another category of images act like emblems, but always with a twist. Takes a Powder Every Morning (2010) shows a plaster sculpture that has been reduced to a pile of dust, leaving only the base intact. It sits on a round table draped in a heavy, dark fabric, suggesting a formal, ceremonial presentation. The destruction, however, has been so complete that we can’t begin to guess what the sculpture represented. Compared to this atomised mess those fragments in archaeological museums that show just a foot or a hand are miracles of lucidity.
There is a sense of bathos in this image – a descent into the ridiculous - that recurs with great insistence in Chen Wei’s work. For although his pictures contain plenty of visual puns and private jokes, they project a fatalistic view of life. Most photos show the aftermath of human actions in the form of garbage, chaos and clutter. The images of coins thrown into a fountain may glitter like stars, but they also mock the earthbound nature of our wishes. The busy life of a pond has been traversed by a pair of massive rubber boots.
Chen Wei suggests that entropy is our destiny, with all our strivings doomed to end in a shambles. But if this is the human condition, there is no point in despairing. We can still watch fate unfold not with gloom but with humour.
Chen Wei was born in Hangzhou in 1980 and was graduated from the Zhejiang Media Institute in 2002. He has participated in many important group exhibitions including Degeneration, a group exhibition of China’s emerging multi-media artists organized by OCAT Shanghai and ACAF, 2014; ON/OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice, at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing, 2013. His latest solo exhibition CHEN WEI: Slumber Song was opened at Ben Brown Fine Arts, London in April 2014.
- John McDonald
John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, a post he has held – on and off – for almost thirty years. He has written for many Australian and international publications, worked as an editor and publisher; and lectured at colleges and galleries around the country. He was Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia from 1999-2000, acting as curator for the exhibition, Federation: Australian Art & Society 1901-2000. From 2002-04 he was director of Newcontemporaries, a non-commercial gallery in Sydney. John has written numerous monographs on and has been curator for a wide range of exhibitions.
In 2007 he collaborated with photographer, Ian Lloyd, on the book: Studio, Australian Painters on the Nature of Creativity, which also became a DVD and a touring exhibition. In 2009 he published The Art of Australia Vol. 1: Exploration to Federation (Pan Macmillan) – the first part of a new, comprehensive history of Australian art. He is currently at work on volume 2, which covers the period from 1901-1961.
Increasingly, John is turning his attention to Chinese art. He was a major contributor to The Big Bang, the catalogue for the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney, and will be leading a tour to Beijing and Shanghai this year, through the Art Gallery Society of NSW and Renaissance Tours.
John is a highly popular speaker on art topics and is available for talks, lectures and corporate events.
Head On Photo Festival, Australia's largest photo festival and the world's second largest festival. Heading into its fifth year, Head On celebrated a wide range of photography across all genres from photojournalism and reportage through commercial to fine-art. With over 200 events at 100 venues, the 2013 festival was a resounding success for everyone who participated: galleries and other venues, photographers, Head On partners and the viewing public.
Events in 2013 were spread across Sydney from the CBD extending, north, south, east and west. Aside from traditional venues such as art galleries and museums, exhibitions and events were set in less formal venues such as cafes, pubs and Centennial Park. Most events are free of charge and include indoors and outdoors exhibitions, workshops, artists’ talks and open studios. With the diverse range of venues, events and photography, Head On Photo Festival offered something for everyone.
At the heart of the festival is Head On Portrait Prize which is the nation’s major innovative showcase for Australian portrait photography, reflecting a diverse cross-section of new and traditional photographic practices. It is the most critically acclaimed photographic portrait competition in Australia.
With the launch of the inaugural Head On Photo Festival in May 2010, the vibrant and cosmopolitan global city of Sydney finally gained a photography festival. Sydney is now firmly placed on the global photography scene alongside Perth, Brisbane and Ballarat who all have established festivals.
Both the Head On Photo Festival and Head On Portrait Prize are innovations of the non-profit organisation Head On Foundation. The foundation aims to promote photography, to encourage excellence and innovation and to raise awareness of important issues through photography.
All projects are operated with the basic philosophy of 'inclusivity'; work is selected based on merit rather than the celebrity of the subject or photographer. At Head On, we endeavour to provide all photo artists with an equal opportunity to be seen.