Chen Wei

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Reminiscent of the liberating revolution of early club culture in China, a series of carefully orchestrated photographs reproduces the dream-like atmosphere of midnight, when dance halls are a form of society and togetherness is love.


MM: One of your recent projects suggests that Paul Oakenfold, Guinness record holder for “most successful DJ in the world,” says he would like to use your artwork as the cover art for his new album. Confronted with this invented scenario, I feel the project is about the mutual impact the fictional and real have upon each other.

CW: My series “In the Waves” is in fact purely fictional. Everything, including the documents I produced after the exhibition about clubs, entertainment and disco, was fabricated. So perhaps if something like this actually happened, where the fictional and real were forced into relation…

MM: For example, we could get one of the “actors” from your piece into Paul Oakenfold’s real party!

CW: Fictional and reality are both structures—that is to say, two systems with a countless variety of connections. If we toss a so-called fictional thing into a real setting, forcing them into relation—like putting those zombie-like figures from one of my pieces into an actual club—what would be the chemical reaction? What changes might we observe? It’s a very interesting question.


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MM: There was time when I was continuously being called into negotiations regarding how to steal back “music playing rights” from bosses of clubs that don’t care about music. You’d hear stories about a prominent DJ who’d been forced to work as a guard at a parking garage. In a word, everything had changed. But there were still bright spots. For instance, India has this place known as Goa. Everyone carries sound equipment and water up to the top of a mountain and then has a party. This is where Goa trance music originated. That spirit of peace and love can still be found in legendary DJs like Oakenfold. We also had this quality when we first started making dance parties in China. I’ve seen that feeling in your works, too—that brilliance, that expression of figures in some kind of dream. But your works also seem to carry a sense of sorrow and longing, a kind of nostalgia.

CW: I feel like this is a very interesting proposition—within greater societal evolutions, what place does this specific cultural movement occupy? This is where I take a lot of interest. As I’m in the act of creation, even to this day, this culture oftentimes leaves me with a sense of loss. Club culture at the time (in China) was very elitist. It was about revolution. It was about liberation. Now, there’s more people involved, and all those aspects are changing, just like that former DJ you mentioned earlier. Sometimes, when I’m alone in my studio and my mind begins to wander, I try to see this situation in its entirety—as if I could see the trajectory and speed of more than twenty years of societal changes. You can, indeed, feel this. I have a terrible sense of loss regarding that time. So why did I pursue this “late night dance” theme? Really, I believe dance halls are the best spaces because they’re like microcosms. We leave our daily lives behind for this self-contained underground environment. Dance halls have a very complete structure, like a society. Anything can happen there, which lends itself to many routes of discussion.

MM: Chinese education lacks love, communication and dance, so club culture in China during its earliest formation really was a revolution. Of course, that all changed. After I decided to stop producing dance parties, I said something like, “We invented a new illness, and years later, other people will call it culture.” Regarding your works, what I’m interested in is the kind of deliberation you went through in creating the emotions for the “figures” dancing in the club. Take Paul Oakenfold, for example—he’s very amicable and doesn’t necessarily care about our discussions of “fiction.” He has an ability to make thousands of people begin dancing immediately. I think that comes from love. It is founded in a celebration of life. Your works, on the other hand, seem to come from a perspective where the light is fading. If we can say club culture in those years was just dawning, what I gather from “In the Waves” is that it’s waning.

CW: One at sunrise, one at sunset. I think this metaphor is quite accurate. Going back to our “fiction” topic, I was recently organizing some materials and acquired some new insight into this matter. For me, only “fiction” counts as midnight culture, the core of club culture.


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MM: Do you think the characters in your pieces are happy? When you’re picking the final photographs, you’re still really expressing your own inner world. Club culture is simply your material. Just like my teacher said, the fictional world in your heart exists inasmuch as it emerges. You’ve spent so much energy making everyone wear the clothes you picked and adjusting the lighting, but what’s expressed is your inner world. That’s why, when I first saw your works, I was immediately drawn in. At the time, I was with the former director of Art Basel, Samuel Keller, seeing your solo exhibition at Chi K11 Art Museum. We both loved your spatial installations—the cloakroom and dancefloor. He said you give the viewer a sense of nostalgia. I think this word is quite beautiful, at least in its English context. In researching this project, did you feel you loved what you saw in club culture?

CW: You mentioned nostalgia before, this beautiful English word, but in its Chinese context, “nostalgia” seems more like indulging in some bygone era or obsessing over something. I don’t think nostalgia is just these things, though. It can be translated in many different ways and can touch on many different things. Returning to the “fiction” aspect of club culture, midnight itself is a fiction. All dance halls tend to disappear, which is why I use midnight, and why I use the club as the basic framework to produce this exhibition. Of course, what I’m talking about isn’t simply limited to these things, but the reason I use it is that in my view, it’s just like you said: fiction has power! We use all of these visual methods to fictionalize it. This is an extremely powerful thing.


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MM: For me, I really don’t analyze it; I am entirely brought into the fiction. But the feeling I love is that intensity! Art and writing have never given me that feeling of love and freedom I experience when I’m dancing to one of my favorite DJ’s. So recently I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’ve even been thinking I should start making parties again, because everyone has forgotten joy and pleasure, and the dancefloor is the most powerful material I have to work with.

CW: Just like what you said, all of this work is not solely about club culture. Maybe it’s more about my situation. So let’s avoid meaningless postulations and talk about our personal existences instead, our personal feelings about life. Why use “In the Waves”? It’s too indefinite, too unsafe. It has too many things to think and speculate on. You don’t know where to begin.

MM: Very youthful and very nostalgic.

CW: I feel love is, of course, very, very important. So many people, in the dark of night, go to a place to do this thing together, to share in this moment. If we look at it from an ideological, political perspective, though, we could say that’s very complicated. Dance is a great way to bring everyone together, and in other cases, when so many people come together, there can be problems. So I believe this “togetherness” is itself love. I think you were right about that. It makes me think about the time that you, Paul and I were talking. You asked me what impetus drove me to make this project. At the time, I said it was “tragic”—it captivated me, sucked me in, made me want to see the culture clearly. It’s really about this tragic quality, and youth sometimes carries tragedy within.

Chen Wei (Chinese, b. 1980) is an artist who lives and works in Beijing. He is represented by Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai; 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong; Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong/London; Galerie Ruediger Schoettle, München; and White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.

His solo show “Noon Club” will be presented at JNBY Foundation, Hangzhou, from 27 March–14 May.

Mian Mian is a writer, actress and nightlife promoter who lives and works in Shanghai. She is primarily known for her first novel, Candy, and the movie Shanghai Panic, based on her novel We Are Panic.

Translated from Chinese by Greg Young

All images: Chen Wei, “The Last Man,” 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai.