Chen Wei: Inebriated Night Sail

Author: Venus Lau 2019

Chen Wei says he doesn’t really dance, but that didn’t stop him from diving into this series on nightlife spaces in 2013. The staged photographs bear some of the hallmarks of Chen’s ongoing practice, which is always an extended process, from conception and character development to set construction; it often involves collecting a vast pool of narratives, such as—in the case of this project—attending various nightclubs for “field research” (though it may look more like tracing the history of artificial lighting and its relation to modern nightlife), where he collects “testimonies” from club kids and ravers. As a former band member, Chen Wei is certainly a seasoned veteran of the livehouse and club scene; however, he finds it impossible to understand the state of “oblivion” that keeps nightclub aficionados hooked. Arthur Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of poetry, famously compared his vocation to the work of a clairvoyant who builds a bridge between the present and “elsewhere.” It is perhaps unsurprising that Rimbaud’s poetry has appeared in Chen Wei’s work, expressed in morse code; perhaps the artist sees nightclubs as his “exit,” or “elsewhere,” outside the humdrum passage of day and night. In Chen’s nightclub-themed work, we often encounter “zombified figures” (the artist’s phrasing), played by actors; their expressions and movements seem stiff and contrived, their feet twitch in a forced manner, lost in a crimson red haze. They embody the anxiety of urban dwellers, especially the denizens of Beijing, where Chen lives and works. The Chinese capital is notorious for its grey smog, which bears a striking resemblance to the intoxicating haze of a nightclub.  

In shooting this nightclub series, Chen Wei has abided by the “law of disappearance.” Nightclubs are usually equipped with only the most basic illumination; edges are blurred as physical space dissolves amid alcohol, mist, bedazzling light shows and mirror reflections, a whirlpool of intoxicating sensuality that activate a liminal space of drunkenness where human spatial awareness is lost to a state of oblivion. In conversation with the clubbers, Chen notices that their memories of these spaces are always fragmented, and often at odds with each other even when talking about the same venue—some might recall vivid images of a long and narrow tunnel leading to the club, but without any detail, which makes it impossible to piece together a coherent space through these “testimonies” alone. This inspired Chen to take “fragmentation” and “disappearance” as points of departure and deliberately separate human figures and places, resulting in a series of photos that are either portraits or depopulated landscapes. A recurring scene is the end of the night, when the music has stopped playing and people have left: the cement dance floor is soaked in various fluids, the walls bathed in cold violet or blue light, while props and sculptural objects, such as broken bottles, gold, disembodied staircases, disco balls rolling on the floor and derelict pillars with mirror surfaces, further imbue his mise-en-scene with a sense of rupture.
The evolution of nightlife spaces in China deserves an entire volume of sociological studies of its own. Chen Wei’s nocturnal photography conveys a strong sense of the past, a deliberate rupture from the aesthetics of contemporary nightlife. Whereas the large field of tessera (a matte, hexagonal tile) in Fresh Paint (2017) is reminiscent of old buildings in the south, the arched signboard and dazzling neon lights of Night Paris (2015) bring to mind the Rock n Roll Disco Club in Beijing in its 1990s heyday. However, it is not the artist’s intention to construct a genealogy of Chinese nightlife through his photographic endeavors. Chen’s work, which often involves photographing elaborate stage sets he builds in his studio, can be compared to the work of an editor, in that they are both bringing materials from out in the world, instead of from a specific location or venue frequented by a particular community, into their work environment. This vast existential input may be attributable to the fact that every bustling metropolis is simultaneously a vast nightclub; this is particularly evident in some of his LED light box works that resemble the makeshift billboards we often find on the streets in China. In this process, he deliberately avoids the tropes of social “documentary” (although total fictionalization might well clash with “reality”) by mis-matching the design, objects and textures of different eras at will, articulating contemporary materials into seemingly nostalgic structures, or replacing the most delicate reflecting surfaces with coarse metal slabs, covering pillars with dark lacquer, or illuminating the dance floor with yellowed light boxes…

Compared to the perpetual incandescence of the museum, venues like discotheques and karaoke bars thrive on an interior nightfall; they keep the windows and gates shut even during daytime, keeping the light outside their door. Their nightfall is not a field of darkness, but a capitalist negative space in the crevices of everyday labor production. If the white cube of contemporary art is aptly denounced by critics as an atemporal graveyard, the eternal nightfall of clubs is more like an abyss, remaining forever unintelligible, even in a state of dazed semi-consciousness. In his discussion of the myriad literary metaphors involving the nocturnal, Maurice Blanchot distinguished the “first night” from the “other night.” The “first night” is when, “everything has disappeared…[and] absence approaches.”  It is the night to which Novalis addresses his hymns, the time when all beings go to rest. The “other night” is the apparition that comes into presence as everything has disappeared; it does not welcome, and shuts all beings outside. If Blanchot sees the night as absence, the nighttimes of clubs are oblivious and restless, and reject sleep’s duty in favor of nocturnal affirmation. The enunciation of “sleep” is always accompanied by a subject (“I sleep”), where the agency and power of the latter (“I”) fulfills the absence of the night. This kind of “oblivion” is the human rationality that gradually blurs in the intoxicated gaze. If humans are “earthly” animals that must stay grounded in a particular place to recognize our existence, the state of “oblivion” in a club—or, as Chen puts it, being “in the waves”—is like floating through dark seas in a boat, in just the same way that we face the magical realism of contemporary cities.

1. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, translated by Ann Smock, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, P121.

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