Shen Wei’s aptly-titled fine arts photographic exhibition of 22 evocative and poetically austere, nostalgic images were astutely captured while visiting many Chinese provinces as well as in Shanghai, where he was born 34 years ago.
The images of “Chinese Sentiment” are a provenance of traditional landscapes, juxtaposed with up-close, idiosyncratic flashes of intimate snapshots showing private moments of nude individuals reposing in their room. An unmistakable, stark quietude dominates.
Wei insists his work is a personal examination of private individuals’ emotions and places. A viewer, however, cannot escape the larger cultural context within which his work exists: the artist is born Chinese, raised in Shanghai, delivering images of ordinary Chinese people who live in China. His roots and early memories spring from there.
It is said that we are all gripped by sentimentality because we feel the same emotions and follow the same traditions that were embraced by countless others preceding us; these emotional anchors crescent in childhood, subordinate in adulthood and are often taken for granted in life, like each breath of air we draw.
Wei’s photographic images of landscapes convey a cultural tradition of 5000 years of unbroken Chinese history, of dynastic values and philosophy; albeit today, the rhythm of daily life keens with hardship under communism.
Art Institute of Boston Gallery Director of Exhibitions Andrew Mroczek was emphatic that Wei does not intend his work to be an embedded commentary on totalitarianism. Nonetheless, when a dichotomy exists between an artist’s stated intentions and the viewer’s perception of the work, the viewer will infuse visceral meaning into it, as when exposed to interactive, installation art.
One of Wei’s images, “Maze,” shows a walk-through maze constructed in a park in Fujian Province. Four layers of concentric concrete walls are set higher than an adult’s head, while some paths lead to dead ends. Within the second ring, a solitary figure is barely visible; only her head may be seen from a bird’s eye view. She stands immobilized, trapped. In the foreground is a row of tall, slender bamboo trees, rising eerily like prison bars. Now, is this an image of an individual meandering for fun, or someone seeking desperate deliverance from a symbolic detention of free will? I say the latter; perhaps it is my subjective imagination running amuck.