The plan was to talk to Li Wei about logistics. How he manages to plunge headfirst into the windshield of a Jeep or soar Superman-style out of the 29th floor window of a Beijing city skyscraper. How he hoisted himself against a towering red flag completely naked, a perfect spread eagle form, and for some reason, painted completely green.
But, aside from a few succinct statements crediting a mix of minimal props and help from his crew, Wei is quick to move to the deeper meaning behind each image and his economic, political view of the shifting, shifty landscape of China.
It takes Li Wei up to six months to create a photo, a relatively lengthy time during which he draws out a few sketches, assembles any scaffolding or other necessary props, and undergoes a bit of physical training. Then, on the actual day of the shoot, which lasts at most two hours, Wei hands his camera—either a Canon 5D Mark II or a Hasselblad—to Jiang Hailong, his preferred photographer for over 10 years, and coolly assumes his place in the front of the lens.
“I have always made a photograph and video documenting my performances,” shares Wei. “I can’t say which was the first photo, though, because photography is only a way of recording my performance. I’m not a typical photographer. I make art in a very different way.”
Not surprising, considering Wei’s first encounter with art came at the ripe age of 19, which even then, he recalls, happened purely by chance. In Wei’s rural hometown of Hu Bei, where he was born to a farmer and village secretary in 1970, the only option for schools were the ones focused on science. “I didn’t even know you could study other subjects,” he reveals. Only when Wei, like many hopeful youths, made his way to the country’s capital of Beijing did he discover that art even existed.
Of course, without the proper qualifications, Wei was unable to attend the city’s most prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts; and instead enrolled himself into the painting program of a privately run college, only to drop out a year later.
“The school at that time had no leaning towards contemporary art,” he says bluntly. “They only taught traditional art, and I wanted to study more modern and current artists. I stayed just enough to learn what I wanted and to open my mind to the art world. I wasn’t interested in the rest.”
Wei continued to dabble in painting—as well as a number of other odd jobs, including selling books, painting billboards, and working in a film factory—to make ends meet. Times were tough and earnings were low, admits Wei, who frequently found himself without even enough money for food. But hunger pangs aside; what bothered him most was not having the time for his art.
Faced with the unrelenting tug-of-war between passion and a paycheck, Wei finally decided to focus on art full-time. His move to performance art came in 1999, heavily influenced by Zhang Huan and Rong Rong, “two of the greatest performance artists in China, whom I met in the East Village artist community during my study period,” he acknowledges. “Until now, you can still see their influence in my work.”
This work, Wei admits, can involve him getting battered around a bit. “I usually have a wire attached to my body and a crane that lifts me up. Most times, I will pick up an injury from the stunt wires, but one time I got my head stuck in a pane of smashed glass,” he shares.
It can be dangerous, but I like to ride that line. To me, it’s worth it to defy gravity or fly through the air—the physical exertion of keeping a certain posture and feeling the absurdity of a situation. It’s a chance to experience an action’s message through one’s own body.
This devil-may-care attitude has become somewhat of Wei’s trademark: the artist literally throws himself—and oftentimes even his family—into his work. Not afraid to be a standout figure in all his shots, it was during the 2000 Shanghai Biennale when Wei caught the most number of eyes, including those of the local authorities and press. The artist had staged an unauthorized performance on the event’s opening night—in an unabashed manner he’s refreshingly retained all these years—planting himself squarely on the grounds with his head poked through a three-square foot mirror.
“I have never thought that my performances should be allowed,” he muses. “But the situation I faced in Shanghai is not strange—I have done my mirror performances in many parts of the world, and they have been interrupted many times. But I get a good reaction because people can see my works and a dialogue comes about.”
One of his longest and most striking series, Falls, which began in 2002, shows Wei buried neck-deep in various locations around the world—a cobblestone path in Li Wei falls to Italy (2004), a building wall in Li Wei falls to New York (2006), and even a lake in Li Wei falls to Hong Kong (2006).
“In my pictures, I break through gravity—hurtling to the earth like a meteorite, flying through the air, showing the unstable,” Wei says emphatically. “If you picture someone falling to earth from another planet, it would really be no soft landing in the sense of a happy moment, whether the landing were in China or in another part of the world.
“And this feeling of having fallen headfirst into something and of having nothing firm under the feet is familiar to everyone. One doesn’t have to fall from another planet to feel it.”
I love having my wife and daughter in my work. It’s the most precious thing and the greatest experience, especially with my daughter, who is five years old now. I want to record her growing up in my work.
This sentiment can be chalked up to the artist’s admitted sense of loss and uncertainty in the ever-changing China landscape. But unlike his other rising contemporaries, Wei “doesn’t rely on propaganda or typical political symbols in his work”.
Instead, each of his images offers a certain omnipresent point of view, a macro message that anyone the world over can relate to. “The content, of course, is essentially what the picture talks about and what I think makes a perfect picture. Techniques and compositions are both important, too.”
As for the art scene in China, Wei’s reveals that “the government’s attitude towards performance art has relaxed since 2003, especially as officials seek more international cachet and recognition.
“The country is blooming in all aspects, not only in terms of the economy, and plays an important role in the world. In terms of contemporary art, China is growing up and there are more and more good local artists.”
WORDS BY KATRINA TAN.