STROKES OF GENIUS.
New York–based artist and choreographer Shen Wei talks learning English, painting in silence and the power of qi with Christie Lee.
Don’t ever compare Shen Wei’s paintings to those of Jackson Pollock. Well, you could – at the risk of being called ignorant by the artist. “This person must not know my work very well, nor that of Pollock’s,” Shen replies sternly as I tell him how a reviewer had drawn parallels between the two artists. “Of course, everyone is entitled to his opinion.”
We’re at Asia Society Hong Kong, which earlier this year hosted the first major solo presentation, Shen Wei: Dance Strokes, of Shen’s recent large-scale oil paintings. The artist – his lithe frame clothed in black and navy – is serious and subdued, in contrast to his art, which is often dramatic and dripping with emotion.
Born in Hunan province into an artistic family – Shen’s father was a Chinese opera performer and director, his mother a theatre producer – the 48-year-old revealed his creative potential at a young age. “My parents [told me that] whereas other kids were playing with toys, all I knew to do was paint,” he says. “They encouraged me, and always lectured me on the importance of being a learned man.”
Shen – who in addition to being a visual artist is an accomplished choreographer and the creative force behind New York’s Shen Wei Dance Arts – joined the American Dance Festival’s first linkage program at the Guangdong Dance Academy in 1989. Six years later he nabbed a Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab scholarship to further his studies in New York, the city he has called home for the past two decades.
“There weren’t many Asian faces back in those days,” Shen says. “You’d get the occasional Taiwanese, Hongkonger or Japanese, but a mainland Chinese student? People were shocked.”
Speaking hardly a word of English, Shen supplemented his artistic pursuits with four hours of language study every day. “You know what cassette tapes are?” he asks hesitantly. “I had to do it word by word as I didn’t apply to any language schools.”
Short-term offers from performance and art production companies came pouring in after Shen finished school but it wasn’t the glamorous life one might imagine. “You had no idea if you’d be working a month later,” he recalls. “Fortunately, New York was less commercial and expensive in those days.”
“Art should never fall into audience’s expectations, as that is the only way that it can move forward,” says Shen, who founded Shen Wei Dance Arts in 2000. Despite remaining largely under the radar in this part of the world, ‘moving forward’ is precisely what Shen has been doing over the past decade. He has performed at the Lincoln Center Festival, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the American Dance Festival and the Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma. He was also lead choreographer for the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics and GQ China’s Artist of the Year in 2013, among several other international accolades.
Shen is best known for Connect Transfer, which debuted in 2004 and remains one of his most revered pieces to date. The mesmerising performance sees the dancers, with various parts of their bodies coated in black ink, transformed into paintbrushes as they whirl, roll and slither across the ‘canvas’ floor.
“It’s not the dance that makes the painting. It’s the flow, which is making all these gestures, that makes the painting,” Shen explains. It was this same flow, or qi, that the artist called upon for the seven large-scale paintings displayed at Asia Society. Whilst first impressions would suggest they are ink works, their descriptions indicate the medium to be oil and acrylic, imbuing the abstract pieces with a density that is reflected on the exhibition floor. The prevailing mood is that of a lavish forest that is both exquisite and ghoulish. And that is the appeal of Shen’s art. Even if you’re oblivious to the intended meaning, its grace and sensuality are enough to make you stop in your tracks.
While there was a time – from 2002 to 2007, Shen says – when he would listen to everything from Mozart to Chinese opera to 1960s minimalist music, the artist prefers to paint in silence these days. “It’s like learning to ride a bike. Once you’ve learnt it, you don’t need to constantly think about which leg to put forward first. The music is all here now,” he says, tapping the side of his head.