Shen Wei: Navigating the Multivalent Body

© Shen Wei ‘Stage’ [detail] 2017 from the series ‘Broken Sleeve’

Each of my self-portraits is an open-ended story, but the narrative is secondary to the emotional communication with the viewer.


Bodies – conceptually, emotionally, metaphorically – are complex. Yet, especially when frozen within a photograph, they tend to be classified in a way that denies that complexity. Depending on context as much as form, they may be categorised as aspirational (the athlete), abject (the victim), graceful (the dancer), erotic (the lover), comic (the trouserless unfortunate of farce). In more abstracted contexts the body transcends the individual to become an allegory of the state, an emblem of suffering (the crucifix being perhaps the most ubiquitous), an anatomical archetype or pornographic puppet. Yet, the reality of living bodies is that they are far from simple in themselves, and experienced by their owner in multivalent ways.

It is this multivalence that the artist Shen Wei mines in his delicately ambiguous self-portraits. Lissom of limb and enigmatic of expression, he reveals himself in various specific, narratively suggestive contexts; each scenario presented without further elaboration. It is often said that the viewer completes the picture. We each respond to art through the lens of personal memories and experiences, to arrive at a bespoke rapprochement with the image. Yet, in the photographs of Shen Wei, it is not so easy to reach that sense of conclusion. As the imagination leads the viewer down one narrative avenue, something in the picture nudges the mind to another possibility, only later to beckon down a previously unnoticed path.

This restless purling in the stream of consciousness is matched by a certain reticence in the artist, who avoids over-defining the intention of any given image. This is perhaps less about tantalising the viewer than protecting his own creative process. Overthinking can have a severely inhibiting effect. Overanalysing what one creates can lead to a kind of reductive illustration in which one simply repeats the same tidily conceptualised image over and over in slight variations. In avoiding these pitfalls, Shen Wei uses the medium of photography neither to declaim nor to obfuscate. It is as though, as he navigates each new situation, he places his body at the helm. If, as a viewer, we join him, he will not turn to explain where he is headed, but we are free to stand at his shoulder and scan the imaginative horizon from his perspective.

Alasdair Foster

© Shen Wei ‘Self-portrait (Empire)’ 2011 from the series ‘I Miss You Already’


What drew you to make photographs?

There are many reasons why I love the medium. It is versatile and spontaneous. Its sentiment relates to time and memory. It is real yet full of surreal possibilities.

What took you from China to the USA?

I went there to attend art school. The art education in the States exposed me to a vast amount of art that I had not previously known. It opened my eyes and my creative mind.

[Left] © Shen Wei ‘Yemi’ 2006 from the series ‘Almost Naked’
[Right] © Shen Wei ‘Matt and Emily’ 2003 from the series ‘Almost Naked’

The first series for which you became known was ‘Almost Naked’. How did this begin?

I started this series in 2004 while I was at graduate school. By then, I had lived in the USA for four years, but had only newly moved to New York. I was inquisitive about people in America, their life, their minds. I began to travel around the country and, as I did, I started approaching people to be part of this portrait project.

What themes were you exploring in this series?

Growing up in China in the eighties and nineties, individuality had not been something considered important. American culture initially came as a shock, but it soon grew to become an inspiration for this series. Social relationships between people in the States are much more straightforward than they had been in China. I wanted to explore the ideas of identity and sexuality, and to understand the complexity of emotion, desire, introspection, and instinct.

[Left] © Shen Wei ‘Jake’ 2006 from the series ‘Almost Naked’
[Right] © Shen Wei ‘Jackie’ 2005 from the series ‘Almost Naked’

Who are the people in these images?

The people are from all walks of life, often from random encounters during my travels or through social media websites, on the street, friends of friends… Most of them I did not know before photographing them, which is the way I prefer to start a portrait session.

There is an interesting balance between distance and intimacy in these images – balance rather than tension… This seems to presage the complex interplay of ideas and feelings in much of your later work.

I like to create images that are subtle and realistic, even in the most dramatic situations. When I am making portraits, I want to establish a relaxed, peaceful atmosphere both for the sitter and for myself. That kind of ease can transcend the images and invite the viewer to relate emotionally to what they see.

© Shen Wei from the series ‘Thirteen Days in 2004’
[Above Left] ‘Camera’ 2004; [Above Right] ‘Eggs’ 2004; [Below Left] ‘Closet’ 2004; [Below Right] ‘TV’ 2004

Tell me about ‘Thirteen Days in 2004’. It pre-dates your later self-portraits by several years.

When I first moved to New York City, I started photographing myself. I wanted to document my footsteps along this journey, like a visual diary: to document my first year of life in the city. But I didn’t show these images until 2017. And when I looked back at them, I saw more things about myself than I had been aware of at the time. There is a kind of freshness and fearlessness in these images along with a sense of insecurity and innocence.

[Left] © Shen Wei ‘Self-portrait (Earthly)’ 2012 from the series ‘I Miss You Already’
[Right] © Shen Wei ‘Self-portrait (Mushroom)’ 2012 from the series ‘I Miss You Already’

The work for which you became best known is the long series called ‘I Miss You Already’. How did this begin?

I started this work in 2009 when I was an artist-in-residence in Italy [at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Lombardy]. I was inspired by the landscape, the food, and the scent of the air… I often lay naked in nature and photographed myself. It was a process of self-reflection and self-discovery; a provocative way to explore my sense of security through understanding the tension between freedom and boundaries, pushing myself out of my comfort zone. But while this project reflects my awakening response to liberation and hope, I also want to suggest a more universal search for our place in nature and in society.

Are these portraits that spring from your direct lived experience, or are you a kind of performer portraying more abstracted ideas and feelings?

It is a mixture. These moments arise within an actual situation. Most of these photographs were made while I was on my travels. A self-portrait is undoubtedly a kind of performance, but these images were not staged. It’s the performance of a real-life moment of introspection and rebellion, which flowed from memory, fantasy, anxiety, seduction, emptiness… Making self-portraits is an emotional release, a way to express my desire for openness and possibility, while also taking a further step towards self-acceptance.

[Left] © Shen Wei ‘Self-portrait (Burn)’ 2012 from the series ‘I Miss You Already’
[Right] © Shen Wei ‘Self-portrait (Bushwick)’ 2016 from the series ‘I Miss You Already’

The body without clothes can carry different associations – erotic, vulnerable, socially neutral, liberated, timeless. What was it led you to choose nakedness for these self-portraits?

It is all of the above. It is an instinctual and intuitive decision to make these portraits nude.

In many of your images you have a highly expressive way of using your body. Have you trained in dance or physical theatre?

I was not formally trained as a dancer, but I am very interested in body movement and body language. That said, I don’t pre-choreograph the poses in my self-portraits; they flow pretty naturally.

Why is the series called ‘I Miss You Already’?

The title expresses a generalised, abstract emotion, a feeling we all have as human beings at one time or another. It doesn’t have to be read literally. Like my images, viewers are free to interpret the title in the way they wish.

[Left] © Shen Wei ‘Self-portrait (Como)’ 2009 from the series ‘I Miss You Already’
[Right] © Shen Wei ‘Self-portrait (Syracuse)’ 2010 from the series ‘I Miss You Already’

Each of my self-portraits is an open-ended story, but the narrative is secondary to the emotional communication with the viewer. I want to present a feeling, something that touches people without being overly analysed or didactic. That is why I always try to avoid describing individual images or detailing their context. My hope is that I can show a moment that somehow expresses a universal but complex feeling, to which each viewer can respond in their own way. All of these images were created spontaneously, instinctively, as I reacted to what I saw, where I was, or who I was with.

How did your ideas change over the decade in which you made this series?

These self-portraits are like a diary, recording memorable moments in my life and places I have been. As the series has evolved, it has focused on many different aspects. For example, in one period, I was very interested in exploring making self-portraits with other people, and throughout the years the openness of space between me and camera also changed periodically depending on my mood at that stage in my life. Changes happen throughout the series… very subtly. I understood myself more and more as the series went on. And, in the process, I grew more secure as a person and an artist.

[Left] © Shen Wei ‘Doorway (Cone)’ 2017 from the series ‘Broken Sleeve’
[Right] © Shen Wei ‘Gangster (Standing)’ 2017 from the series ‘Broken Sleeve’

The final series I would like to discuss is ‘Broken Sleeve’. First, to what does this title refer?

‘Broken Sleeve’ is a folktale about an ancient Chinese emperor who awoke to find his lover asleep on the corner of his robe. Rather than wake him, the emperor cuts off the sleeve. I love this romantic and evocative story. This series does not refer directly to that legend, but reflects its essence. It is more than a love story. I am fascinated by the way power and submission, harmony and danger, can co-exist in the same space. But, as well as that, I am interested in how myth, magic, and romance become entangled together in the real world. In the images, I wanted to mix realistic and fantasy elements together. So, I have digitally altered the images to create a futuristic and surrealistic visual effect. It is the only one of my projects in which I have done so.

[Left] © Shen Wei ‘Emperor (Mask)’ 2017 from the series ‘Broken Sleeve’
[Right] © Shen Wei ‘Pavilion’ 2017 from the series ‘Broken Sleeve’

What is the allusive interplay here between the doorways filled with coloured light and the characters you perform?

The series was inspired by traditional Chinese culture – architecture, costumes, interiors. I am fascinated by Feng Shui. The placement of doorways in ancient Chinese gardens is always extremely precise in order that they direct the flow of energy in a way that enhances the harmony of the space. The characters I portray are some of the most iconic historical and pop-culture figures I grew up seeing in films and theatres when I was a child in Shanghai. Here I have recreated these characters and placed them in my own imagined scenarios. It is a kind of enchanted view of traditional Chinese culture, but with a personal twist.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making your work?

I have grown with my art. My life has been influenced by my art, and my art by my life. The crucial thing photography has taught me is to look at life from many perspectives and at different distances.

© Shen Wei ‘Phoenix’ 2017 from the series ‘Broken Sleeve’

Biographical Notes

Shen Wei was born in Shanghai in 1977. He holds a BFA in photography from Minneapolis College of Art and Design (2003), and an MFA in photography, video, and related media from the School of Visual Arts in New York (2006). His photographs have featured in over twenty-five solo exhibitions and one hundred group shows in North and South America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. His work is held in many prestigious public and private collections including The Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum (Beijing), Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), Southeast Museum of Photography (Daytona), the Kinsey Institute (Indianapolis), J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh), He Xiangning Art Museum (Shenzhen), and the Library of Congress (Washington DC).

Shen Wei was a recipient of a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Arts Grant (2008), a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Arts Residency (2009), an Asian Cultural Council Arts and Religion Fellowship (2012), and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship (2016). His work has been published in a number of monographs including ‘Chinese Sentiment’ (Charles Lane Press 2011), ‘I Miss You Already’ (Light Work 2012), ‘Blossom’ (Xie Zilong Photography Museum 2018), and ‘Almost Naked’ (Jiazazhi Press 2018). In 2007, ‘American Photo’ magazine named him among the top fifteen Artists of the Year. Shen Wei currently lives in New York City.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.