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Transformer: A Rebirth Of Wonder: Chen Wei
Chen Wei

Chen Wei’s photographs of raves in China are not what they seem

The photographer meticulously stages nightclub scenes in an exploration of freedom and fear

There is a haze of fog. Blue and yellow beams wash over a group of young people dancing. But are they enjoying themselves? Photographer Chen Wei’s clubbing scenes are not what they seem. The decor is there but the youth he photographs is so obviously bored. Lacking any physical, or even eye, contact, the characters are deliberately divided and isolated, each of them appearing lost in their thoughts. 

Wei’s staged dances don’t radiate the vitality, exuberance, and warmth that images of club culture normally conjure up. And it’s precisely that air of faux ecstasy that sparks the viewer’s imagination: are we living in a simulation? Is clubbing but another performance on the social stage? How can clubs and other spaces of pleasure and “enchantment” be laboratories for subversion?

Writing about his staged clubs in 2014, Chen said: “I asked them to exaggerate their poses, to draw attention to the fact that clubbers are just getting a temporary fix. They use drink and drugs to trick themselves into feeling free, but the next morning they still have to go out to work.”

Chen Wei’s photographs are currently on show at 180 Strand as part of Transformer: A Rebirth of Wonder, a group exhibition including work by Sophia Al-Maria & Victoria Sin, Juliana Huxtable, Harley Weir & George Rouy, and others. Jefferson Hack, who curated it, said the selected artists were “world-makers, inviting us to access altered states of consciousness as we step beyond reality into a series of highly authored, staged environments”.

We spoke with Chen Wei about the making of his clubbing series, Chinese youth culture, and the power of togetherness in the face of new challenges.

“Clubs can be seen as a place for rebels and revolutions” – Chen Wei

I read that you first started making sound art pieces. What brought you to photography? What do you like about it?

Chen Wei: I studied fashion photography and videography at my university. Videography has always been a part of my life, however, my professional art creation starts with sounds. John Cage’s “4’33”” is a huge inspiration for me, it makes me not only focus on pure sound, but to expand the visuals to a greater area, so I started to use videography, and started to use spaces and settings. Photography to me is perspective and drama. It’s an illusion, but it tells the truth too. 

Could you walk me through how you construct your photographs? Especially the ones with people in them, like the series “Disco” and “In the Waves”?

Chen Wei: Normally I will start with planning. This will need some time and effort. Initially, they will only be drafts, or fragmentations of words. Then I will do research, to make myself study and to rethink the so-called ‘inspiration’, and then the real work begins. I need to do detailed plans and draws. I need to meet up with my team very often, so that we can execute things properly. And then we will start doing things, build those stages or do the settings in a space, design the lighting, or rehearsals for characters, and materials. Again and again. At last, I will press the shutter. Of course, this isn’t the end yet. I will need to print out the negatives, scan them, and do the post-production. That’s roughly it. 

What inspired you to start making photographs about Chinese clubbing?

Chen Wei: In 2012, I started to plan for portraits (for both individuals and groups) about ‘enchanted experiences’ and the longing for group gatherings. But after I began the series, I started to become interested in midnight culture. Club culture is a relatively ‘invisible’ cultural line, and has its own history. But after all, I don’t study history, so I just gather my own materials and from that, I will do re-edit and creation. 

You’ve talked about how clubs in China went from being places of gathering for young artists and intellectuals to places for businessmen to party. Does that sadden you? Can clubs be spaces of resistance or subversion?

Chen Wei: It’s not always like that, but it seems that the economy is everything at the moment. The whole world is like that – as if we are all sick, the same kind of illness. Will we be sad? Will you be sad? I don’t think I will, because this era is like this. Regardless of good or bad, we need to face it, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Clubs can be seen as a place for rebels and revolutions. 

Could you walk me through the title, “In the waves”?

Chen Wei: I grew up by the sea, so I like facing the seas. People who swim in the sea would know – freedom and fear always go together.

How has your art changed since 2006 and how do you see it evolving?

Chen Wei: We need to face different problems at different stages. But if we can go back and look at ourselves from a further distance, when we see our work and life, they will become very small. All the changes are needless to mention. The most important thing is to carry on living.

Chen Wei’s work is currently showing at Transformer: A Rebirth Of Wonder at London’s 180 Strand until 8 December 2019