Broken Sleeve 缎绣, the title of Shen Wei’s latest body of work, is borrowed from a Chinese story about Emperor Ai and his lover in the Han Dynasty. After waking from a nap, rather than disturb his lover, who was still asleep, the Emperor cuts the sleeves off his precious garments to get out of bed, leaving his lover to rest peacefully.
Wei was struck by the simple romantic gesture of the story, but its narrative has nothing to do with the work the photographer created. In fact, when read aloud, the Chinese version of the project’s title – Duàn xiù – sounds like “broken sleeve”, but the symbols themselves translate to “silk fabric”. “The story is like a metaphor,” says Wei. “It injects feeling into the work, like when you touch a piece of smooth silk – it’s a feeling that is hard to describe.”
Broken Sleeve 缎绣 is Wei’s latest, ongoing series. Five of the images are on show, alongside work from previous series, in Wei’s first solo exhibition in the UK, opening at Flowers Gallery in London on 03 May.
The project combines self-portraits of Wei, dressed up as iconic figures from Chinese history and pop culture, with images of traditional doorways and landscapes. The series intends to explore the co-existence of harmony and danger, and power and submission.
In one photograph, Wei poses as an emperor from the Ming dynasty, with a red gag in his mouth – “It is playing with the idea that someone so powerful can have a submissive side to them,” he explains. In another, an opera singer performs naked, subverting the typical depictions of a usually ornately dressed character in Chinese culture.
The images of doorways and pavillions point to the social significance of entranceways as indicators of status and control in China. These photographs are edited with glows of red graphics to signify “Chi”, the term for universal energy in Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese set of laws that is thought to govern spatial arrangement in relation to the flow of energy.
Originally from Shanghai, where he was trained as a graphic designer and painter, Wei discovered photography when he moved to Minnesota for his undergraduate studies. “It was love at first sight,” he says. He then studied photography and film in New York, where he has lived for 15 years.
Transitioning to photography was instinctive for Wei, but painting still remains a significant influence in his work. From renaissance to minimalist, the feelings evoked by paintings is something he hopes to translate photographically.
“I like simple, minimal things,” Wei reflects, gesturing to his series of landscape photographs, Between Blossoms, shot across continents to capture a unifying sense of other-worldliness, “deeply connected to my inner melancholy, a dreamlike state of mind,” says Wei. “I’ve found that the older I get the more minimal I get, but the more minimal I get aesthetically, the more complex I get emotionally. The banal evokes more feeling – simplicity allows you to imagine”.
Wei is also showing images from I Miss You Already, an introspective series of nude self-portraits – his “life-long work”. The lighting in the gallery is dim, with ambient sounds from his video pieces echoing through the space. His photographs are lit individually, as though they are single works of art, but when put together they connect, “visually and emotionally”.
“None of my work feels as if they are fighting one another. I never consciously think about the connections between my work, it’s just my vision and my aesthetic,” says Wei. “I call my work ‘feeling projects’. I never have a clear narrative, what I’m interested in is injecting emotion into my art.”
Shen Wei is exhibiting at Flowers Gallery in East London between 03 May – 22 June 2019