In his new portraits, titled I Miss You Already, contemporary photographer Shen Wei, known for his series Almost Naked that features strangers in various states of dishabille, here turns the camera on himself, revealing his own flesh for the viewer’s gaze. Shot in his native China, the United States, and Europe, these striking works not only analyze Wei’s relationship with his body, but perhaps more importantly also become testaments to a conflicted relationship with his homeland.
Through the insertion of a naked Asian male body into public areas of both his own nation, where the expression of sexuality is still viewed with a certain distaste, and within various landscapes and interiors of lands far and wide, Wei’s bare skin takes on agency, in essence becoming an agent of chaos, social critique, and protest in equal measure. He compels the viewer to consume his nakedness, just as he forces her to question the transgressions and seductions of his raw presence.
Whether alone in a bed, staring out at the urban landscape from an apartment block balcony, or surrounded by nature in a park setting, Wei puts himself on display, revealing his flesh and yet somehow keeping his interior emotions hidden underneath a void facial veneer. Unlike the Almost Naked series, in which Wei’s subjects expose both skin and sentiment, here Wei becomes a stoic and muscled statue of sorts, albeit one that breathes and moves beyond the static frame before the viewer. And it is here that Wei’s naked body begins to take on meaning, power, and potential, in that it serves as the vehicle for his own motivations well outside the confines of a given location or shoot. As Wei moves from the role of subject in the photograph to that of artist outside of it, he immediately assumes an identity that is otherwise invisible upon his exterior surface, that of an expatriate artist who addresses his nationality, his sex, and its position within society head on.
Having lived in New York City for many years, Wei returns to China periodically for both work and pleasure, and over the course of his years away and his visits home, Chinese urban society has changed radically to say the least. Whereas Beijing, Shanghai, and other large cities have become meccas of new gleaming buildings and capitalist consumerism writ large, the China within which Wei was raised was an altogether different world, one steeped in the concepts of Communism and represented by social realist imagery. The visual culture of 1970s China was one filled with comrades in arms and the occasional bare-chested male worker whose rippling muscles meant to indicate the health of a nation singing the praises of Socialism and Mao. These early visual experiences might easily linger in Wei’s psyche, compelling him to strike a “manly” pose, revealing his own muscles, simply to say perhaps that he, too, is healthy, that he also represents contemporary China.
Yet, that social landscape has changed radically since Wei’s childhood across all of China. One wonders how long Communism can continue as a realistic ideal, especially in the face of a consumer society and its seemingly endless supply of wealth and its desire for luxury items from around the world. Wei seems to inhabit a place that is both inside and outside of contemporary China, and it is from that very place that work like his will affect actual change not only within China, but even more so outside that nation. Chinese living with their own identity conundrums can admire and look to Wei’s images for inspiration, in that they might soon be able to reveal themselves as well. These photographs also show the world beyond that China is a contemporary country that is grappling with myriad social issues as it grows into one of the most powerful nations in the world. The reception of this work in China remains to be seen, but without a doubt, Wei’s strong naked body becomes a representative symbol of a future in which one may be at last be free.
And thus, standing proud in his natural glory, Wei strips down to a basic essence, yet with myriad potential outcomes. Equal parts rebel, model citizen, aesthete, object of desire, subject of ridicule, and countless other identities, Wei uses his body as a tool to move Chinese contemporary art into new and ever-expanding territory. For him and many other artists, the politics of the body becomes the main critical vehicle of the politics of a nation.
Eric C. Shiner
Shen Wei was a Light Work Artist-in-Residence in September 2010. For more information about Wei and his work, please visit www.shenphoto.com.
Eric C. Shiner is the director of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. His scholarly focus is on the concept of bodily transformation in postwar Japanese photography, painting, and performance art. He is an active writerand translator, a contributing editor for Art AsiaPacific magazine, and an adjunct professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh.