Interview with CHEN Wei
ShanghART(S): Could you please give an outline of this exhibition?
CHEN Wei (C): The imagination of our urban life is still the focus. It continues my “New City” project. This exhibition covers part of my works in recent years.
S: What is “New City” about?
C: We can find lots of imagination about cities when looking around. “Manhattan Business Hotel”, for example, leads to imagine living in another place, so are various kinds of ads and slogans. There is actually never a lack of such cases in our lives, but what the reality brings us never fits into our imagination, like a well-planned building in construction we often meet in the city--they either disappear just before completion or are in ongoing construction.
S: Did you shoot these photos of these buildings outdoors or just use set construction?
C: Well, I have been editing the photos in my studio, and of course, set construction in the studio is part of the job, too. But it does not mean that the photos cannot be taken outside or the same effect is hard to achieve outdoors--in postproduction there are lots of effective ways. Nevertheless, I always prefer a set stage since it is a base for creation. Of course, I was used to faithful presentation of the objects and scenes, but as my ideas and techniques changed, I wished to find less intense ways.
S: So there are screens or curtains in these combined works to blur the real and the virtual by reminding us of its role as a stage.
C: My task is to tackle “reality” and “fiction”, along with their relation. I always have the belief that we are living in fiction, so I did the DISCO series. A sense of tragedy rises when one, getting out of the dance hall at first light, suddenly comes to the realization that this place, full of smoke, with blurred lighting and seemingly boundless, he used to believe to be able to liberate him from the rules of life, is only a basement.
In this sense, be it an art work or an invented episode in life, they will eventually point to our reality. I seldom use the word imagination now, a word with a lot of bearing on fiction, because I tend to question them in different ways. If I want to discuss a problem, I will begin with in-depth research and analysis, in other words, to get as detailed information as possible before settling down to discuss. If I shoot an overpass, I will first think about what kind of overpass it can be, a new one or a consume one. Then I will collect as much information as possible, digest and edit it. The parks, renovated or not, all speak for different periods in history, but the changes are very concrete and tangible, so the selection of useful information becomes a vital part of my job.
S: In your works we can identify a sense of the past. Do you keep this sense on purpose?
C: Lots of people say my works are of the vintage style, but I believe it is more about homesickness than sentimental recollection about the past, so “nostalgia” is a better word in this case. I thus return to my understanding of the changes in urban life, or understanding of altered space. Lots of things got lost, abandoned or ignored along with these changes. They keep recurring in my photography.
S: Let’s come back to this exhibition. Why a wishing well?
C: Wish-making is a kind of imagination, hope and longing. Coins are something in circulation, but when making a wish, people can exchange for a fond wish at a very low price. Well aware that the wish is hard to fulfill, they still throw into the well some coins, a medium for exchange in real life. So there is a sense of tragedy here.
S: Among your photographs, I noticed one with coins stuck on a rockery. Is it a Chinese rockery?
C: Oh, this one is a bit special. Unlike the lake stone or others of its kind, this is artificial, a contemporary one. The rockeries in our days are quite different from traditional ones. We can see lots of similarly botchy rockeries in hotels covered with coins. It has actually become part of the urban landscape.
S: Let’s come to the light in your work--a key element both in photography and installation.
C: Surely. Light is the most fundamental in photography, also my vehicle of expression. Not something inborn, it is closely related to my personal experience, only that the light in my work implies another possibility. At first sight, “New Buildings” presents a really pleasant-looking image with light reflecting fog, but for one who have lived in Beijing for quite some time, it will take a second to find that it is not mist or fog but smog. Also there are some tinted rails or buildings that appear gorgeous because of nothing but the night club on the opposite side. It is the projected reality.
S: So you involve light in both the photography and the installation? Are they someway related to each other?
C: Photography is my principal medium that leads to my expansion in other fields. I’m very sensitive to light. Light, when captured by a camera, differs from the moment it does appear in front of you, so I did this installment like an ad lamp case. Installation works better when it come to the senses, only that the visual image is invariably its starting point.
I did quite a lot of research and analysis about ad lamp cases and ad boards. They are everywhere in our life, mostly broken or in poor conditions, but not everyone cares or fixes them. It may have something to do with our understanding of life or the life tempo, so these flaws or imperfections are trivial and neglectable, but to me, they are a very good source of beauty: just like an abstract painting, points, lines and planes flashes in our city randomly.
The wishing well series is a precursory work. It was started in 2012 but was latter suspended. As I began to work with the “New City”, I happened to find the connection between them. Both “Building your Future” on the ad boards and “Wonderful” in the photo show a strong longing for a better life.
S: Including the slogan “One World, One Dream” in the photo called “One Dream”.
C: Yes. The slogan takes us back to more than a decade ago, but there are still sings of it in our city. Personally I have little use for this word, as I consider it something assertive and uniform. How can one have one dream only? Nevertheless, it is a compulsory social wish particular to that period. Of course I don’t believe it will come true.
S: These linguistic or textual elements are like puncta in your works, highly metaphoric.
C: Honestly, I don’t like using metaphors, but maybe sometimes I just fail to notice them in my works. To some extent, I work with an invisible literary text. Everything is there in a real life context, and what I do is only to reconstruct them on a stage like my studio, keep rehearsing, and give them expression through photography as a medium.