In a London gallery, Chen Wei prepared for his first British show: we see a chair pelted with tomatoes, a flaking fountain of a stooped child covered in coins, a smashed fish tank with a dead goldfish, ravens pick through detritus in an enclosed space with a low ceiling. A tablecloth – once white, now stained – is spread over a long empty table. Televisions stand side by side in tiny private cubicles, a curtain partially covering them. The dialling wheel of a retrograde telephone is padlocked from use.
It’s the day before the opening of the Chinese photographer’s Slumber Song at the Ben Brown Fine Arts in Mayfair. We’re minutes away from Oxford Street, and Chen could easily be mistaken for just another student or tourist. But the slight 34-year-old in trainers and a denim jacket is fast-becoming one of China’s most reputable modern artists, with solo exhibitions in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Munich, Turin, Seville, Basel and now London. “Do you feel nervous?” I asked him. “No,” he said immediately. “Not nervous at all.“
Highly conceptual in his approach, Chen is creating images different from anything his mother country, and indeed the world at large, has seen before. His work relates to something real – a place from his childhood, a memory from youth, or an observation of his life in Beijing. But, in a photographic culture that prizes spontaneity, Chen’s work is about slow and self-conscious assemblage and detail; he sketches the images first before building them, physically, in his Beijing studio.
Chen takes found objects – taxidermy animals, broken mirrors, melted wax, barbed wire, mouldy food, big bunches of keys, overflowing ashtrays – and stages them in artificial settings. The results are highly aestheticised and intensely lit, elevating the real to the bounds of metaphor. “They’re all connected, from the earliest to the latest,” Chen said of his photographs.
According to the exhibition’s introductory notes, Chen “focuses on the individual’s place in modern China”, but the artist doesn’t interpret his own work this way. During an almost hour-long interview in a local café, Chen and his interpreter respond to my questions by talking between themselves at length. Asked about the gallery’s description, they speak in Chinese for minutes on end before answering: “I respond to what I see in China around me on a daily basis, both the good and the bad.”
Chen is the only artist in his family. His father is a businessman, and Chen moved around China as a child following his dad’s career. “They don’t really understand what art is, or what I do as a photographer,” he said of his family. “The most important thing to them is whether I get money from my photographs. A lot of people in China ask me about money; they think art is useless.”
He didn’t study art or photography, starting out as a musician before pursuing image-making as a career. “I wanted more of a challenge.” He is now married himself, with a newborn child at home, and says his family has given him focus. He cites Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall as influences, but stresses his work is mostly “a reaction to Chinese life”.
Slumber Song is his most recent collection; a series of more than 20 images taken from a six-year period. The project started in 2008 with the recreation of a “Communist” bus stop from his childhood in Zhejiang province, recreated in his Beijing studio.
“It took me three days to build it, and three months to prepare,” he said. “I saw this bus stop every day before I moved to Beijing. But there are no buses stopping there, so people use it as a sort of park. In the evening they would meet there and use it like a stage, as if waiting for something, without knowing what they are waiting for. It’s supposed to be very functional, but it has become something different. Throughout my life, China has changed like this bus stop. Everyone is waiting for something, but they don’t know what.”
His original plan was to take pictures of the actual bus stop, but the government forbade him from doing so. Asked what the consequence of taking pictures would be, Chen said: “The government wouldn’t do anything but tell you to go away. But my father would be told, and he would tell me to take pictures of other things, new things. Otherwise, people would think bad things of the family.”
Chen describes himself as part of China’s ‘other wave’ – a group of millennial artists responding to those most influenced by the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. He was born in 1980, to a China still responding to the arrest of the notorious Gang of Four in 1976, and adapting to the beginnings of Deng Xiaoping’s free market reforms. These reforms have helped create the China we know today: the world’s new superpower based on untold resources and relentless commerce, but which have come with ongoing uncertainty about how ungoverned art can work in the national interest.
“Chen is part of an emerging post-cultural revolution,” writes James Donald in Framing Impossible Futures: Chen Wei’s Surreal Documentation and The Demise of Hyperbole. “A revolutionary, wholly unlike those of generations past, Chen’s age has begun to concern itself with themes transcending the disarray spawned in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s disastrous nationwide social experiment. He is part of a generation less focused on political history or obvious social criticisms than personal and intellectual freedoms and the individual’s place in a now modern and developed China. History for them has been obscured by economic and social reforms, and the speed and scale of development is the contemporary China they have witnessed.”
Chen’s images depict the infiltration, and then abandonment, of once private spaces; each are evidential of humanity eating, resting, socialising. Some reveal even the most intimate personal moments, but no one is present – only their detritus. The spaces he depicts are often claustrophobic, as if an outside authority has exerted itself.
In one, three televisions in separate partitions stand side by side. Curtains allow for a sense of privacy, but the booths are oppressively adjacent and framed by free, open space. We see an open book, a discarded coffee mug, a roll of toilet paper and scrunched up tissues, but also – on the only television visible – a blank screen of white light. In another, a bunch of keys, an umbrella and worn shoes are encased behind glass: the kind of objects that suggest the boundary between a private and public space are kept from use. Then, with a bright white background, the padlocked telephone – the possibility of communication stopped by something unseen.
The most important picture of the exhibition, Chen Wei said, is the coin-covered boy in the fountain. These fountains were everywhere in China during the 1980s and ’90s, he said. Commonplace signifiers of the Cultural Revolution, the boy’s posture was indicative of the Communist ethos. “Nowadays, all these fountains are demolished. You can barely find one anywhere. Now all the fountains are abstract. This is the government’s decision. The Chinese government is now interested in abstraction. They don’t know what’s going to happen next, so abstraction is the answer.”
One suspects Chen took a risk by creating such a relic of China’s past, but his insinuation is clear – in modern China, the new and the transient is prized, the actual past is obscured. The coins in Chen’s picture glitter in the water, overflowing from the arms of the stooped boy. They are shining and bright, in stark contrast to the flaking, crumbling fountain. At first glance, Chen’s art seems abstracted. In fact, it is crystal clear.
Chen Wei: Slumber Song exhibited at the Ben Brown Fine Arts gallery in London.