chen-wei-the-stars-in-the-night-sky-are-innumerable-2010

Curated by Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald CHEN WEI: THE STARS IN THE NIGHT SKY ARE INNUMERABLE was a solo exhibition of the work of young Chinese photo media artist Chen Wei. It was the acclaimed artists first solo show in Australia.

CHEN WEI: THE STARS IN THE NIGHT SKY ARE INNUMERABLE was open from 12 May 2014 until 8 June 2014 at 62 Atchison St, St Leonard’s, Sydney.

Chen Wei doesn’t like to reveal too much about his photographs, partly because he is always finding some new association. There are no fixed, precise meanings, no underlying stories. An image might come from a dream, from a scene in a film or a novel. Many of the references are autobiographical and not readily accessible to anyone but the artist. Yet knowing the origins of an image doesn’t mean that Chen Wei can be absolutely sure about everything that finds its way into the finished work.

Chen Wei believes that “memory is knowledge”. He even likes to use the word “gnosis” – which suggests a form of spiritual, esoteric knowledge. If we divorce the term from its mystical overtones it provides a useful way of thinking about these strange, unsettling pictures. For we feel instinctively that each of Chen Wei’s works is concealing a secret. The problem is that even if we could crack the code and access the hidden cache of the artist’s memories, it may not have the same meaning.

The most disarming aspect of Chen Wei’s work is that his images are so deceptively ordinary. He shows us a closed door, coins in a fountain, a ping pong table, a dingy bedroom with a leaky ceiling. We stop and stare at these pictures because they so purposefully thwart our need to find signs of life.

We can detect the human touch in Wave (2010), in which a pile of books and papers threatens to collapse on a tabletop. Gravity is mocking this tower of learning, creating a facsimile of Hokusai’s famous print. That Door is Often Keeping Closed (2009), presents a more oblique image in which the smears on an ochre-coloured wall resemble clouds painted in a vigorous, gestural manner. On the ground in front of the door there are various articles: a blue plastic bag, a shoe, a crushed soft-drink can. And what of the band of light showing above the door? There’s an entire novel here waiting to be written.

Another category of images act like emblems, but always with a twist. Takes a Powder Every Morning (2010) shows a plaster sculpture that has been reduced to a pile of dust, leaving only the base intact. It sits on a round table draped in a heavy, dark fabric, suggesting a formal, ceremonial presentation. The destruction, however, has been so complete that we can’t begin to guess what the sculpture represented. Compared to this atomised mess those fragments in archaeological museums that show just a foot or a hand are miracles of lucidity.

There is a sense of bathos in this image – a descent into the ridiculous – that recurs with great insistence in Chen Wei’s work. For although his pictures contain plenty of visual puns and private jokes, they project a fatalistic view of life. Most photos show the aftermath of human actions in the form of garbage, chaos and clutter. The images of coins thrown into a fountain may glitter like stars, but they also mock the earthbound nature of our wishes. The busy life of a pond has been traversed by a pair of massive rubber boots.

Chen Wei suggests that entropy is our destiny, with all our strivings doomed to end in a shambles. But if this is the human condition, there is no point in despairing. We can still watch fate unfold not with gloom but with humour.

Chen Wei was born in Hangzhou in 1980 and was graduated from the Zhejiang Media Institute in 2002. He has participated in many important group exhibitions including Degeneration, a group exhibition of China’s emerging multi-media artists organized by OCAT Shanghai and ACAF, 2014; ON/OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and  Practice, at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing, 2013. His latest solo exhibition CHEN WEI: Slumber Song was opened at Ben Brown Fine Arts, London in April 2014.

– John McDonald