Wei Chen Way

Edward Hopper, Johnny To, Artificial Rave, Dogville, 20 July 1969 Author: Francesco Bonami 2019

I was 13 years old in an old beach house on Elba island in front of Tuscany’s coast in Italy. In the middle of the night, my family and I were all looking at the first man setting foot on the moon, the same moon which was glowing in the sky on top of our heads. But the moon we were watching on the black-and-white television screen was for us a different moon. It was a fiction.

In 1969, China was also another planet for us and a fictional place; a model for many and a villain for many more. China was a political moon. Nobody we knew had ever visited, even as Chairman Mao Zedong became the hero of European student movements that were challenging the establishments of power and the decaying political and cultural systems of the Western world.

All this was eleven years before Wei Chen was born and yet his works feel like they are bringing back the subliminal memory of a time when reality and fiction were exchanging roles frequently while still maintaining each other’s distinct identities. Today, reality is more and more artificial rather than fictional. We can construct our own fantasies in a way that they look hyper-realistic. If my generation was second-guessing what we were seeing, today younger people are not concerned about the idea of a true ‘real’ but more whether the ‘real’ allows them to build their own truth. Wei Chen’s works move into this new dimension, creating worlds and atmospheres that weave together China’s society and its fluid transformation with Western iconography. In Wei Chen’s art the social is psychological - a state of mind where images form themselves like in a woman’s womb.

The constructed reality of Wei Chen’s clubs very much matches a destroyed reality and brings to my own mind another memory. In the middle of the night, I drove with some friends from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to arrive at dawn at a famous disco club that was open only from 4am on Sundays. The surroundings of the club were surreal. The city was deserted except for road blocks, tanks and soldiers holding machine guns. But once we crossed the door of the club, the world transformed itself into a sensual and very real ‘Dante’s Inferno’ circle. It was hard to understand if the inside of the club was the fiction or the street of Jerusalem outside. Entering Wei Chen’s works produces a similar effect - the viewer is displaced and unbalanced on the edge of what could be or could not be. Displacement and imbalance are a state of mind that belong to Chinese contemporary society; two conditions which are for the Western world negative, whereas for China are loaded with endless possibilities. This is maybe what Wei Chen’s work is about. The possibility of total collapse or the opportunity of an enticing new understanding and fruition of the world, a new understanding of human relationships within a fragmented humankind.

The works open up for unlikely comparisons. First, the atmospheres of American painter Edward Hopper’s paintings that contain like in Wei Chen’s images a state of suspension and a light that shares its space at the same time with an utter calm and a looming anguish. The characters are frozen inside their own thoughts and movements from which it is unclear if they want to be freed or not. In the state Wei Chen’s characters are in, there exists a kind of diabolical comfort from which we are not sure if we want to be released. The anguish then is produced by the conflict between an ideal but undefined freedom, and the addiction to being in a certain measured, controlled or more mildly guided state. The art of Wei Chen is not a statement and is like any of the best art an open question which the viewer can respond to independently of the true or false meaning and content of the work itself.

The second comparison is with the movies of Hong Kong (China)-based director Johnnie To. In the midst of To’s movies’ escalating violence, we always find places and sites very much like Wei Chen’s spaces and sites. Smoky, half empty, half decaying zones of suspended awareness where people are either in a kind of trance, or totally stoned or hallucinating. This is a symbolic condition that mirrors both the contemporary world in general and contemporary China, a country projected into the present like in a time capsule where delays of centuries have been compressed into a few decades, creating a sort of collective hallucination for a whole society that is dazed, confused and at the same time mesmerized by an unthinkable form of progress.

The third comparison is with the phenomenon of rave parties - mass events organized in clandestine conditions where the chosen site is revealed only a few hours before the beginning of the party. Again, a similar tension is created by Wei Chen in all his iconography. Something will happen, something has happened, something is happening. Future, past and present like in present-day Chinese history are compressed and molded into an undefined new time dimension made of all these three other conventional time dimensions.

Finally the fourth and last comparison is with Danish director Lars von Trier’s movie “Dogville”. In the movie, the story is developed in an imaginary town drawn on the floor. The actors enter and exit invisible buildings and stand in the middle of invisible squares and streets. In a way Wei Chen creates invisible barriers, doorways and exits in his works, pushing the viewer to accept his conventions, to believe his story and its directions. Art is a matter of belief created by the artist. It is neither a lie nor a fiction but just essential belief in what the artist is telling us, his capacity to make us enter his story and keep us inside it until the whole narrative is completed. Through its climax and through its end, either happy, sad or tragic. The goal of the artist is to make us believe in his story for as long as possible, or at least for as long as we remain far enough and not able to question his story. Not able to tell the difference between the fake and the true. Not able because maybe in the end there is no difference at all.

About the author:

Francesco Bonami is a writer and a curator. In 2000 he was the curator for the 3rd Manifesta; in 2003, the Director of the 50th Venice Biennale and in 2010, the curator of the 75th Whitney Biennial of American Art. Also in 2003, he curated the painting show “From Rauschenberg to Murakami: 1963/2003″, held at Venice’s Museo Correr. He has curated Yan Pei Ming and Damien Hirst exhibitions in Qatar for the QMA. At the MCA in Chicago he was the curator of Jeff Koons’ and Rudolf Stingel’s surveys. In 2013 at Palazzo Reale in Milan he has curated an exhibition of Bob Dylan’s paintings.

In 2016, Francesco curated Chen Wei's solo exhibition - "The Club of the Midday" in JNBY Art Space.

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