Shen Wei is a New York-based Chinese artist with a solid reputation. His images can be seen in the permanent collections of prestigious institutions including The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the John Paul Getty Museum to name but a few. Now he has his first major solo exhibition in the UK.
It draws together, like a sampler, elements of three of his previous series including his latest, Broken Sleeve. The title is named after a story every person in China knows, about an Emperor who cuts off his sleeve rather than wake his lover.
While that story isn’t specifically represented, what Shen Wei does is to take iconic figures from different eras – an Emperor, a Chinese opera singer, a Shanghai 1930s gangster for example, and give them what he calls “a twist”.
So, the self-portrait as the Emperor has him decked out in his lavish silk outfit and sitting on his throne against a courtly traditional background. Yet, he has a ball placed in his mouth held by a kind of chain. There’s a glaring contrast between the power invested in his Imperial status and the submission to the gag he’s wearing. Another shows Shen as an opera singer holding aloft a chair as if in full musical flight. Yet, he is stark naked, something Chinese opera singers are not inclined to be while performing. More of the nudity later.
Doorways feature in this series, another icon of Chinese culture. They indicate status, control and identity. Architects take very seriously the positioning of doorways when planning a building. It’s all to do with the ancient philosophy of Qi, a powerful unseen life force within natural phenomena and a vital part of Feng Shui.
Shen Wei has photographed doorways but the twist here is that he has replaced what was behind them with new post-produced images. The one above features blue, another a red cone. The same can be said of Pavilion, this article’s top shot where the superimposed red mist in the building is a beacon against the rest of the monochrome. “This whole series is taking something very classic and putting them out of context”, he explains. “This is the whole concept of the series.”
Self-portraits have become Shen Wei’s signature since he first began studying photography after moving from China to America some 15 years ago. Many of them feature him naked. He says he finds it both liberating while also emphasising vulnerability. This was particularly so in the early days. “I’d moved to New York, it was all very new to me, it was a bit intimidating. I was at my most vulnerable.”
Nude self-portraits, he says, give him “a sense of power” and are likely to be a lifelong way of capturing his changing self-perspective. Reacting to a conservative upbringing in Shanghai, his self-portraits explore notions of power, submission and sexuality. You can see this in Syracuse above, from a series called Missing You Already from 2010, with its potent interaction between the two figures. Make of it what you will. “I love this picture because it’s one of those moments you can interpret in many different ways,” he says.
The exhibition also includes five works from Shen Wei’s 2016 series Between Blossoms. The series began with a walk in a Chinese garden. Trees have a certain symbolic resonance in Chinese culture. Cherry blossom means purity, plum means strength, for example. Rather than concentrate on the clichéd blossoms, Shen has looked for something different. “The series is the beginning of my not trying to have a focus on narrative. I call it a feeling project.”
This hawthorn tree was taken in New York’s Central Park. The predominant red is set against the dark background, shot at dusk. Another in the series shows a feather nestling in bushes in London’s Kew Gardens and there’s a landscape of a house being constructed on a hillside in south-west China.
The show also includes two performance videos, one of which has him blowing saliva bubbles that starts off as a kind of childish game but then develops into something of an ordeal. Not a nice watch. “It’s provocative but within a comfort zone, not pushing people away”, says Shen Wei, a comment that could apply to much of this exhibition.
It’s showing at Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP until 22 June.
All images are © Shen Wei and are courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.