A woman dressed in white kneels on a sofa. She tilts her head slightly to the side with an alert expression on her face. Next to her, a half-dressed man sits on a table, staring directly at the viewer. This is a photograph from Almost Naked, a series of works photographer Shen Wei created upon arriving in Minnesota.
“I had just arrived in the States, I had culture shock,” he recalls. “I was not brave enough to explore myself, so I looked inwards through other people.” These intimate portraits are of everyday Americans in their homes and neighborhoods, in repose or suspended in a moment of daily routines. Some of the photographed subjects are fully dressed, some are fully exposed. Their gaze into the camera is firm and unambiguous. We are looking at them as they are looking at us. There is simultaneously a sense of candidness and vulnerability.
Bodies are sites of power and introspection in Shen’s work. As one of the primary mediums through which he explores human sentiments, representations of the body are a dominant theme in his oeuvre. After acclimating to life in the States, Shen gradually turned his lens on himself both as the perceived other and as the agent of his identity. He placed himself in caves, the Ganges, homes, untamed nature, and manicured gardens. Attempting to dive into who he is across locales of spirituality, domesticity, the urban and the rural, he treats his own body as the vessel of expressions of the most fundamental human emotions: fear, nostalgia, disorientation, uncertainty, and so on. Over a span of a decade, Shen gathered this collection of self-portraits, forming the series I Miss You Already.
沈玮让身体置身于洞穴、恒河、房屋、大自然和修剪整齐的花园等种种场景中。试图在精神层面、家庭生活、城市和农村等不同语境和环境下的自己。他将自己的身体当作表达人类基本情感的工具：恐惧、怀旧、迷失、未知等等。十年间，沈玮将这些“自拍”作品整理为《Miss You Already（已经想念你）》系列。
In one photograph, he can be seen lying on a bed covered by fuchsia-colored floral sheets in an old Shanghainese apartment. Shen grew up in one of the numerous old lilong neighborhoods in downtown Shanghai, where space was so scarce that the families of each building shared a communal kitchen and bathroom. The artist mentioned that the heat and staleness of the room he posed in reminded him of his childhood home.
Also related to his childhood in Shanghai is the self-portrait titled Earthly, in which he revisits his longing for nature. Growing up in the narrow lanes of Shanghai, nature seemed far out of reach. Taking inspiration from Henri Rousseau’s The Dream (1910), Shen found a pond surrounded by blossoms and lush green to bathe himself in. “I stayed in the water for a good while,” he says. “There were lots of insects around and the temperature was a bit low. I didn’t start shooting until I felt I was one with nature.”
另一幅与他在上海童年息息相关的作品是自拍肖像《Earthly》，该作品诠释了他一直以来对大自然的向往。对于上海狭窄的同堂而言，大自然总是遥不可及。他以亨利·卢梭（Henri Rousseau）的《梦境》（The Dream）（1910）为灵感，找到一块池塘，这里四周环绕花朵和植被。“那次我在水中呆了很久。周围虫子很多，也蛮冷的。直到我觉得自己与大自然融为一体，才肯开始拍摄。” 他说道。
Using himself as the subject of his works, Shen Wei gestures towards introspection and self-discovery. As the artist puts it, “making these self-portraits is an experience of emotional release, a way to express my desire for openness and possibility, as well as a step towards learning acceptance”. These images are his instrument for self-reflection. By shedding away all the protective layers, Shen’s naked body is that of a newborn, an act of vulnerability and rebellion.
Gradually, his exploration of the self went beyond the physical world of palpable reality into his subconsciousness. Intrigued by the mysterious and the inexplicable in his dreams, Shen started to search for the mythical from scenarios of the quotidian. The resulting photographs are what make up the series Between Blossoms, a documentation of the fantastical inscrutability in his voyage across diverse geographies and imaginary landscapes.
Caught between reality and reverie, the images in Between Blossoms often resemble a fictional backdrop against which a story is set to unfold. A Glass of Water is one such example. Surrounded by neatly organized books, the reflection of a red plastic cup takes center stage. The filled cup and its reflection in the mirror suggest a human presence preceding this moment. Light shot through the carmine plastic, its translucence, intensified by the smoothness of the mirror, lends the scene a certain surreal-ness. In Table for Two, a glance from a window unexpectedly turned voyeuristic as the camera focuses on a table set for two. In the foreground, green window frames are juxtaposed with the pink table napkins shaped into an origami of cauldrons. Behind the table, the background is an expanse of impenetrable darkness. It’s simultaneously an image of suspense and that of atmospheric forlornness.
《盛开之间》系列作品便是介于现实与幻想之间，当现实的事物被梦幻着色，为观众缓缓引述故事的开端。在其中一幅名为《A Glass of Water（杯中水）》的作品中，规整的老式书架旁边，梳妆镜中的深红色塑料杯子成为焦点。装满水的杯子和镜中的映像暗示着此处之前曾有人来过。穿透胭脂红塑料的光线，在平滑的镜子映衬下，显得更晶莹剔透，令整个场景多了一层超现实感。在另一幅作品《Table for Two（双人桌）》中，昏暗的灯光下窗内淡蓝色的双人桌格外引人注目；虽看似随意地一瞥，却意外地让人有种偷窥的错觉。前景的绿色窗框与考究的粉红色餐巾相互映衬，桌子后面的背景则是无尽的黑暗。整张照片令人浮想连连，同时一股愁绪孕育而生。
The artist’s search for the mythical evolved over time into a more metaphysical dimension. Inspired by classical Chinese paintings where large swathes of emptiness are treated as solid space, Shen Wei started transforming the empty space in his photographs into containers of qi. Qi is considered a vital force that flows throughout any living entity. It is a form of energy that underpins the philosophy of Chinese medicine but also regarded as an essential element that can create certain ambiance in the living environment. For Shen, qi freely circulates in his images, functioning as intermissions in between vignettes of a narrative in his latest body of work, Broken Sleeves.
慢慢地，沈玮对神秘感的探索逐渐演变为形而上学的维度。受到中国古典绘画的影响，大量幻想的元素围绕在现实空间里。画面中，那些不可名状的光晕、或是叙事手段被他称之为 “气”。作为中国古代中医哲学的基础，“气” 被视为是在流动在生命体间的某种力量，也是在生命在空间内创造氛围的基本元素。沈玮让 “气” 在其照片中自由流动，在他的最新作品系列《Broken Sleeve（断袖）》中，不同叙事的片段被这股“气”串连起来。
Broken Sleeves borrows from the story of an ancient Chinese emperor whose lover fell asleep on his sleeve. To not wake the lover from his dreams, the emperor cut off his sleeves. Shen dressed himself in a manner of historical characters in costume dramas. Wearing an imperial dragon robe, he plays the role of the emperor, but a ball gag in his mouth rendering the character out of place. In another image, he becomes the lover, reclining on a bed with elaborate wood carvings and embroidered blush curtains. In yet another, he time travels to assume the personality of a triad boss from China’s Republican era, dressed in a long mandarin robe and a scholar fan, also with the same gag as that of the emperor. Threading these personas together is the trajectory of qi as if pinpointing the landmarks of the protagonist’s journey across time and space. It assumes the form of a glowing red cube of light that impregnated the pavilion—its throbbing heart in the midst of flourishing vegetation whose verdancy is reduced to monochrome (Pavilion). It goes on to be the ruby-colored light traveling behind an arched door on an old street with chipped teal paint (Doorway (Glow)).
There is a distinct classicism in Shen Wei’s oeuvre. The compositions of his photographs call to mind those of Flemish still lifes, his preference for natural light instead of studio lighting results in a palette close to Old Master paintings. When an image’s center of attention rests on a human form, the contours of the body with all its built-up tensions reflect an influence from Hellenistic sculptures. It is intriguing to see how the artist gleans both from classical Chinese paintings and Greco-Roman traditions of forms in his image making. Shen Wei is unique in combining the two and imbues it with a diaristic style of storytelling. Going through his works is like reading a poem or flipping through someone’s old journal, a montage of his reconnaissance of the self situated in the imagined and the familiar.
Contributor: Ashley Shen
Chinese Translation: Olivia Li
Images Courtesy of Shen Wei & Flowers Gallery