America primarily knows China as a far-away giant, a country of industrialism and megalopolises somewhere over there. Shen Wei’s monograph and series Chinese Sentiment gives us new views and brings the country closer, with more mystery and less smog. The following conversation was conducted over email while the artist was traveling through southern China last week. Shen Wei’s solo show, “Chinese Sentiment,” was recently on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York.
Shen Wei was born in Shanghai and currently lives in New York City. His photographs have been widely exhibited and are held in many collections, including the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, and the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. All images copyright © Shen Wei, courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York.
Most images we see of contemporary China are of huge crowds, enormous cities. Your pictures are on a different scale. How did this series begin?
The scale of the ultra-modern China is obviously quite pictorial and stunning. But China is much more than just skyscrapers and the Yangtze River. I am interested in seeking a poetic, intimate, and romantic China. Since 2008, I’ve traveled to numerous cities and villages all over China, with a goal of finding my authentic China.
There’s a very enjoyable bareness to both the landscapes and the portraits, of things removed between the viewer and the subject. What was your aim for these pictures?
I like to tell stories without giving too much narrative. The bareness is left for viewers to fill with their imagination. I think these photographs become more fulfilled when viewers infuse their own emotions.
Do you find yourself connecting with your subjects? Are there personal references when you shoot portraits?
I like to work on long-term projects and I think it is crucial to work on subjects that I find strongly connected to and inspirational. I don’t have much specific personal reference when shooting portraits. Usually I photograph anyone who is willing to sit in front of my camera. I really enjoy the process of communicating with people, earning trust from them, especially a stranger. I find it absolutely thrilling to get to know someone when in a personal setting.
What are you working on now?
Currently I am working on a self-portrait project entitled “I Miss You Already.” It is a project that reveals the process of my self-observation and self-discovery, as well as a provocative way to explore my sense of security through understanding the tension between freedom and boundaries. I started this project during my Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency in Italy in 2009, since then I have been working on this project consistently in China and the U.S. Right now, in fact, I am working on this project in some of the most amazing landscapes in southern China.