• Zoltan Alexander


Shen Wei's first solo exhibition in the UK at Flowers Gallery, London.


"Exhaustively tragic or breathtakingly joyful "

Shen Wei


Interview by Zoltan Alexander with artist Shen Wei

Note: If you are sensitive to nudity, please do not scroll down, there is plenty of it throughout the article.


Shen Wei at Flowers Gallery / © video by Zoltan Alexander ZOLTAN+MEDIA

Sensual bodies, erotic flowers, urban settings. That would give a rather accurate description of New York-based Chinese artist, Shen Wei’s work. His style is elusive, soothing and sensual. Blossoming trees, water, exotic flowers, unmade bed sheets are the perfect frames for Shen Wei's muscled body. He is well-known for his raw, intimate self-portraits in natural settings and portraits of others, as well as his brutally realistic images of contemporary China. In fact, he is one of the most prominent photographers of his generation.

Flowers Gallery in London brought together works from his series between 2009 to the present day, beautifully curated by Hannah Hughes, incorporating photography and moving image.

Flowers Gallery / “Self-portrait (Fountain)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Shen Wei’s work has already been published and exhibited in many international galleries from Shanghai to New York, his photos have been selected for the permanent collection of MoMA, Getty Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. He has also participated in artist-in-residence programmes of the Rockefeller Foundation and Bellagio Center in Italy.

Whether photographing objects, individuals, loving couples or himself, Shen Wei imbues his images with dimmed lights of old Dutch paintings and often combines them with his studies on the human impact of China’s current economic ascendency.

Flowers Gallery / “Self-portrait (Garden)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

On the day of our meeting, just a day before the private view, I met Shen Wei at the gallery. It was a well-coordinated ants' nest, the team was still fixing the last details but everything seemed to be ready for the opening.

Z+ “It was back in 2016 in Paris during ParisPhoto when we last saw each other. After more than a dozen international solo exhibitions and over 50 group shows around the world, you haven’t changed; you are undoubtedly still a very young man. Is it some kind of a Chinese character or are you the incarnation of Dorian Grey?”

Shen Wei smiles and kindly avoids my entire question.

SW "I always count my artist career from the time I graduated. I had to think about working and making a living as an artist. It is quite a complex task with a lot of responsibilities but also with a lot of creative freedom. I suppose I had always been an artist all my life.”

Z+ “You studied design in Shanghai well before you got interested in photography. What was your journey like at the beginning?”

SW “I studied graphic design at Shanghai Light Industry College, worked many years with advertising agencies, then upon arrival in the US in 2000, I continued my studies at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design in Minnesota, but, in fact, I always wanted to be a painter.”

Z+ “A painter?!?”

SW “Well, after Minneapolis I moved to New York for my Masters. I took the Fine Arts Photography, Video & Media class at the School of Visual Arts but it was really in Minneapolis that I was exposed to contemporary art and photography. It was there that I discovered photography and one of my favourite photographers, Diane Arbus. I became inspired to create pictures of nude people resulting in my series "Almost Naked", a series of tender portraits of Americans. I explored myself through other people.

Painting, however, always had a huge impact on my life, in my work … the grand classics, the Renaissance masters. In Shanghai, I only knew some big names, but only in my art school I discovered contemporary artists.”

Flowers Gallery / “Self-portrait (Touch)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Z+ “What was your relationship with contemporary art in Shanghai?”

SW “Surprisingly not much, I was not so exposed to it. In fact, the Chinese Contemporary Art boom started more or less when I left China. It was concentrated primarily in Beijing, which is still the cultural and political centre of China.”

Z+ “Ten years ago, the West seemed to wake up to Chinese contemporary art, and we saw a boom in the Western market. That reminds me of Jérôme Sans, the former founding director of Palais Tokyo in Paris and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

He said about Chinese contemporary artists: “Since the 1980s, the scene has changed a great deal and is now into its third generation. The birth of what we call ‘‘Contemporary Chinese Art’’ emerged from an explosion of creativity in the late 70s and early 80s by a number of successive movements taking a revolutionary stance in opposition to official art with artists such as Chen Zhen, Cai Guo-Qiang, Yan Pei-Ming, Liu Wei, among others.

Unlike the 20th-century avant-garde movements in the West, this generation did not proclaim a break from the previous one. It was from one reality to another almost like the China of isolation to the China of globalization.

This new generation of artists has also benefitted from the massive growth of technology and access to information and to the internet as well as opening up to the global culture and reflecting a greater diversity of artistic approaches and styles that has ever existed in China. We are still at the beginning of this amazing story.”

Z+ “ … not to mention one of my favorite artists, Shanghai-based Zhang Huan."

SW “Zhang Huan? I only discovered his art in the States. He began his career as a painter, then transitioned to performance art. He has been using photography to document his work, but now he is back to paintings again, his ash pieces are absolutely marvellous.”

Flowers Gallery / “Emperor (Mask)” of “Broken Sleeve” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Flowers Gallery / “Window” of “Between Blossoms” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Flowers Gallery / “Self-portrait (Angkor)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Flowers Gallery / “Gangster (Ball)” of “Broken Sleeve” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Z+ “You often describe yourself as a melancholic, dream-like person. So melancholic, erotic or sensual?”

SW “Melancholic can also be very sensual.”

Z+ “You seem to be quite liberated in your life.”

SW “Yes, I feel very relaxed with my work and with myself … it is part of my personality, I guess, however, it wasn’t always like that. Living in the States gave me a lot of freedom and education. Moving to the States was a major step and also a culture clash. I wanted to experience something radically different, that’s why I did not move to another big city like New York; that would have been, apart from the cultural differences, almost like staying in Shanghai.”

Z+ “You had a rather strict and conservative upbringing, although your images are far from being conservative.”

SW “I was in an underground cinema in Shanghai, when I first saw the film “Basic Instinct” as a teenager. I was not shocked by the sex and violent scenes, I was more surprised by the reaction of how other people, including myself, were so numb to the idea of intimacy, sexuality and love.

My family, coming from the 1940s, raised me as they have been raised. We don’t talk much about feelings and certainly not about my work. They know that my work is well-received, recognized all around the world, but in Chines culture, we don’t express emotions easily. It is not that they are not proud of me, it’s just they do not know how to express it. It is also not our culture to show how sensitive a man is, how sensitive I am. It could be visually and intellectually quite provoking.”

Z+ “How do people perceive your photographic work?"

SW “There are all kinds of reactions. People from Asia have a very different understanding of sexuality; it is not very common to see naked bodies or sensitive men. The Western audience is more open to my work. You see a lot of nudity in museums, but not so much in Asia. Westerners seem to be more relaxed with such images.

Because of the full-frontal nudity, my self-portrait series has only been shown twice in China. It was not a traditional show; we did a slideshow instead of hanging the pictures. That defused a bit of the awkwardness as each picture stayed only 10 seconds on the wall. Censorship still remains a problem for Chinese artists.”

Flowers Gallery / “Self-portrait (Burn)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Flowers Gallery / “Self-portrait (Leap)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Z+ “How do you respond to these cultural differences? Somehow, you made a loop, between Chinese culture, the Western world and yourself."

SW “The most important thing is to have complete freedom in my work. It is a statement for me to break through these stereotyped images of Chinese men being not sensitive, not emotional. My self-portraits, nudes and landscapes explore notions of identity, memory and sexuality and draw a connection between the influence of Chinese culture and my own personal process of self-discovery.

Since moving to the States, my need for self-expression has grown, and my curiosity about how others address their identity in what is a fairly open society has increased. As a result, I started to photograph people in America. The goal of my work was to raise questions about human nature, emotions, feelings, desires, instinct and identity - to reveal things that you can feel, which are unexplainable, but yet still solid. I am fascinated with the complexity of emotional nakedness and psychological connection and disconnection, as it is often expressed not specifically but explicitly. Most importantly, I want the viewers to make their own discoveries through my work.”

Flowers Gallery / “Self-portrait (New York)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Z+ “I know you love travelling, went through Asia, America, Europe. That's the best way of seeing and learning, do you agree?"

SW "Yes, I am quite curious and adventurous. I always had that in me and indeed, I love travelling. Seeking and finding that very similar emotive mood in each place, in each image is a very instinctual, complex process, both specific and spontaneous."

Z+ “Random places or following a meticulous plan?”

SW “A little bit of both. Travelling changes the routine. Sometimes I am self-aware where I am going, but on most trips, I just go with the flow, I only decide when I am there, it depends on the mood. I love discovering new places.”

Z+ “Do you pre-mediate or make sketches before you take a picture?"

SW “Never. I just throw myself into a situation, very spontaneously and never restrict myself to anything.”

Z+ “Now, let’s talk about your London show."

At that point, the curator of the exhibition, Hannah Hughes pops in for a word.

HH “Shen Wei’s exhibition does not have a title, and although we already showed his work in our New York gallery, "Between Blossoms” in 2017, and “Invisible Atlas” in 2015, it is Shen Wei's first solo exhibition in the UK. We are proud and very happy to show such strong body of work from various photographic pieces to video installations, covering ten years between 2009 and 2019.”

Z+ “Thank you, Hannah. Personally, I couldn’t tell the difference whether these photographs were taken now or ten years ago: they all beautifully and agelessly melt together."

SW “Yes, that was the point. My series and my exhibitions were very different before. In the beginning, they were project orientated but the most recent ones are now based purely on emotions. Since I have quite a lot of series I started to have solo exhibitions combining different images from different shows, a mix-match, the way I wanted. Videos also became prominent in recent years."

Z+ “You are showing two video installations, right?”

SW “One of the videos is “Like Its Own Tear” (2016) and an earlier one “Bubble” (2013), blowing bubbles from my mouth. Saliva bubbles can be exhaustively tragic or breathtakingly joyful, it depends on how you look at the action. The video starts off quite joyfully and childishly like sometimes I am, then it becomes painful and tiresome for the muscles to keep up with blowing. It could also come off quite provocative.”

Flowers Gallery / “Self-portrait (Syracuse)” of “I Miss You Already” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Flowers Gallery / “Le Marais” of “Between Blossoms” by Shen Wei / Photo © Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Z+ “You said your work is in-between exhaustively tragic or breathtakingly joyful? Is it some kind of reference to life?”

SW “A reference to MY life." He laughs. "At dusk, the flower-studded trees delightfully merged out of the darkness, lushly calm. In Chinese culture, every kind of tree has its symbolic meaning. The peach tree represents seduction and love."

Z+ “Wow, I did not know you were a poet and didn't know that you write and perform music as well.”

SW “For the “Bubble” video I have. It was an experiment, the only thing I have ever composed. I often work on music on my computer, but that particular piece just fitted my video so well."