In her work, Li Wei is not shy. She has created life-sized vegetative figures in hospital beds, dogs in cages as if impounded, busts of young women staring ahead, showers with underwear hung casually on them and the standing bodies of child performers in their costumes. All are painstakingly made – painted with striking naturalism by the young artist, who herself prefers to be referred to as a he, and recognises not gender as such, but a general human condition. The common expression on these sculptures’ faces is a blank stare, and the implication is to look into and then through it, finding more than might have met the eye.
Li’s overall project seems to be concerned with recreating the appearances of life in order to get beyond those appearances – seeing the differences in faces which appear conditioned and suppressed, for example, by their inhabitants. He thinks about heroism, belief and truth and the ways in which these are veiled.
“Thank God” – the latest in but a handful of solo exhibitions by the artist, who is proving popular – is a (literally) overarching installation in Gallery Yang in Beijing. Li Wei has used the entire main space to construct a mock-up of a church interior. Gothic-looking plaster mouldings affixed to the walls and two specially-made pillars encircled with sculpted cherubic faces make a vaulted pattern overhead, looming over the visitor; holders on the pillars support electric candle-lamps – their bulbs dulled with licks of dark paint. In the far corner, an altar with five real candles and a legion of flickering electric night-lights illuminate a crucifix, and on the floor to the right, covered by a glass cake, is a dead rat and its droppings, hand-made by the artist and positioned as if it had remained where it keeled over in death. The only light comes from the lamps and candles and a single shaft let in from the gallery offices upstairs, so that the mood remains sombre, mock-spiritual. One is given a lighted candle to take into the exhibition.
Why? What is Li Wei imagining with this installation? The artist’s preference is for people to stand quietly with her art works and not try too much to articulate them. Hers is a detailed and comprehensive approach. Accompanying this show is a catalogue a little like a prayer book cover, containing a statement by Li about belief, questioning it. Part of it reads: ‘…Human beings have increasingly considered themselves the noblest of all creatures in the world…we have produced various beliefs…the only thing we do not believe in is life itself. So absurd a joke it is.’ The statement concludes, on the subject of humanity always counting on something seemingly more solid than its members: ‘For it seems safer to thank god than to thank ourselves.’
Necessarily, perhaps, this installation provokes more questions than answers – belief is by its very nature an unanswerable question, requiring faith. Li Wei has created a bold piece of work, and no doubt some will find it immersive, where others will feel outside it. One might therefore judge it, in form, to be effective, but perhaps not affective. At least for this visitor to the exhibition, the tenor of the artist’s remarks seems to rest at just that: the aim of creating a space in which to consider Human Belief and the belief in a god (here presented as Christian), being a colossal topic. The question arises – arguably as a very productive aspect of this show – of what the limits are for an artist, where the boundaries are between boldness, spectacle, fullness and emptiness of form, and what sort of territory both artist and viewer are willing and/or able to navigate. Faith, indeed, is a pertinent theme.
(All Images: Li Wei 黎薇, THANK GOD, 2013, Silica Gel, Oil painting,man-made animal fur, Glue board,some plaster moldings, Variable size; Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Yang.)