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Li Wei and the Lightness of Being

Showcasing 11 years worth of work at this years Lucca Photo Fest, the photographer speaks to us about how he creates his gravity-defying images

The former Dazed cover artist and master performer Li Wei talks to Dazed Digital ahead of his participation in this year’s Lucca Photo Fest. Beijing-based artist Li Wei’s photography is a hopeful imagining of weightless possibilities. Soaring above rooftops, catapulting to and from earth, pinned in the most impossible of stances, Li Wei’s method goes far beyond the mere click of a camera. As Li Wei describes it himself, "this is performance, rather than photography". It is the absence of gravity that makes Li Wei’s images so special.

But as powerful as Li Wei’s impossible weightlessness is his determination in order to coordinate it: the only thing photoshoped in Li Wei’s work is a thin wire or rope, holding the artist above towering buildings and amidst the Beijing skyline. This November, 11 years of the artist’s work will be showcased at the Lucca Photo Fest in Italy. The festival, edited by Li Wei himself, will feature photography from across the world, including names such as Kenro Izu, Francesco Jodice, Nobuyoshi Araki, Wang Qing-Song, Lin Tianmiao, Amit Madheshiya, Felice Beato, Jing Quek, Samuel Bourne & Francis Firth, Oh Soon-Hwa, Jiang Zhi, Hsin Chien Huang, Guia Besana and Enrico Genovesi. We talk to Li Wei in the run up to the event...

Dazed Digital: How did you come to make art in this way?
Li Wei: I studied oil painting when I was in school. Then in 1993 I went to Beijing, met with artists like Zhang Huan in East Village. And I was influenced by performance art. Before turning into photography, I did performance art. Now I only use photography as a media. You can also see performance art elements in my works.

DD: Are you influenced by a lightness of being or is this a completely organic form of self expression?
Li Wei: It's only a way, a signal of expressing myself. I use performance art to do art; photography was a way of recording in the early years. Now I'm a photographer.

DD: The sense of lightness you capture is also present in Chinese filmmaking. What cultural commentary does the theme of gravity and performance play? What do these themes mean to you?
Li Wei:
In Ang Lee's film, lightness is related to Kung Fu. What I express is not a kind of Kung Fu - it's a way of performance art, a personal experience, that's important to me. I want to break through gravity, break through the impossibility.

DD: Can you talk me through the prep involved for some of the shoots?
Li Wei:
In general, I came up with an idea first. Then I draw sketches, then realise. It takes several months. I use a crane to shoot. And I have my own photographer whom we’ve collaborated with for 10 years. I use a wire at my back then I will use Photoshop to remove the wire. Shooting time lasts for 2-3 hours. I also have a technical team for preparation when shooting.

DD: What has been the most controversial, problematic or dangerous shoot so far?
Li Wei:
When I shot "Li Wei falls into..." series. It's dangerous. Sometimes I need to fall into glass. That time I almost cut my neck. Each time will hurt but not serious.

DD: What has been the most important image you’ve produced?
Li Wei:
In my personal view it’s "Li Wei falls to Hong Kong". Different images in different periods. They all mean so much to me. Also the ones I shot for wallpaper magazine and the ones shot with my daughter.

DD: Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on?
Li Wei:
I'll participate in Lucca Photo Fest in Nov. And my works will be shown in Parc de la Villette in Paris in March 2012.