Rebelliousness is perhaps not a term that comes to mind when you think of Beijing’s 798 Art District and for that matter, the city’s wider art scene; Beijing’s numerous graffiti groups could be noted as one exception.
The 798 Art District itself probably conjures up images of neat galleries, fancy coffee shops, influencers snapping photos and everything else in between.
However, one particular Beijing-born artist appears to be breaking that mold.
Wilson Wei, also known by his artist name The Weiy, has made the notion of rebelling an intrinsic part of his work in his The Subverter art project.
His artwork spans across impressionism, photography, installation art, performance art, poetry and more. His pieces are complimented by a 9-track music album also by the name of The Subverter.
According to Wei, the theme of rebelliousness is rooted in his childhood from when he was a rebellious school student. He also draws inspiration from having lived with local artists in different places around the world.
The art piece 'Bikini' matches a song of the same name and deals with the somewhat ugly origins of the women's clothing item
His art doesn’t necessarily fit into the 798 mainstream, but that didn’t stop him from exhibiting at the district’s ENJOY-ART MUSEUM (悦－美术馆). The exhibition ended on November 16; Wei says he plans to exhibit more in future.
That’s sat down with Wei to discuss his background, his time spent with artists abroad and the difficulties of doing non-mainstream art.
Let’s talk first of all about why you started making this kind of artwork and this kind of music. You mentioned you were somewhat rebellious at school. Can you elaborate on that?
It started when I was around 13 or 14 years old. I was never afraid to speak out and stand up for myself in defiance of school rules. The teacher definitely hated that.
I was not a normal kid in their eyes. I knew at the time that I was gay and different to the other boys. I wasn’t particularly masculine or macho; even the teacher would make fun of me in front of the whole class.
The teacher would tell the other students not to be friends with me. That made things really hard.
I felt really depressed because I was still young at that time. However, that also made me realize that I don’t need other people to like me. I don’t need to change who I am based on other people’s judgement. That molded my personality from a young age.
That was junior high. After that school, I went to a senior high school. I remember during the first week, the teacher asked all the boys to shave their heads. I told them I would not do that. For me, going to school is to explore and to gain knowledge, not to be molded. I told the teacher I would not cut my hair. The teacher said they would expel me.
I went to Tsinghua Affiliated-School in Beijing. My family and friends said I must be crazy to quit from such a good school. Many Chinese students would kill to go to that school.
I was only 16 years old at that time. I felt like nobody really understood me.
You’ve traveled abroad and lived with artists in different places. How did those experiences inspire your artwork?
I traveled so much because after I quit my school, I joined a lot of exchange student-projects. Those projects normally last up to one semester. I went to UK, US and other places.
Through that process, I began to find myself more and more. I feel like I always want to explore, meet new people and experience new culture. I would just pack one bag and, like you said, live with a local artist.
Culture is different everywhere. I went to some villages in Laos where they didn’t even have electricity a lot of the time. I also stayed in some mountain villages in Turkey and some towns in Nepal.
Many of the people in those places have a completely different life. But behind all of those different people, I found that there are common factors which bind humanity together, something which is a common theme in my artwork. That was really touching for me.
Let’s talk a little about your performance art. In one of the performances during the exhibition at the ENJOY-ART MUSEUM, people would go to you and spread pink paint across your body. What’s the significance of that?
That represents the primacy and roots of early art. Art has existed in some form since the stone age. Art has come so far. The same is true for human civilization; we’re so advanced. And yet, we’re still killing each other in wars. That’s why the name of that particular performance is Same Blood, Same Tears.
'Same Blood, Same Tears' exhibited at ENJOY-ART MUSEUM
Art from the stone age made me realize that human beings have always done art in some form. They just dipped their hands and fingers in color and painted on the stone walls. For me, that symbolizes a kind of unity of humankind in pursuing art and pursuing beauty. That’s why I wanted to re-create that.
It goes back to the basics of what art is. You don’t necessarily need so many tools to create a beautiful piece of art.
Are you ever surprised by the kind of people who make up your audience?
The majority are definitely younger, more open-minded and more internationally-focused people. There were also some other people who came to the exhibition who didn’t fit into this category.
To be honest, I don’t really focus too much on the age, nationality or other aspects of my audience.
Sometimes my parents show my work to their friends. A lot of them are aged 50 to 60 years old. Some of them really like my work. That’s not what I expected because most of them are relatively traditional and conservative. You could say they’re perhaps open to new kinds of art which are more popular among young people.
They didn’t go to art school. They’ve possibly never even been to an art gallery. But when they see certain art, they can relate to it. Art isn’t just for people who regularly visit art galleries or who have an educational background in art. Art is for everyone. That’s what this project is all about.
Your exhibition took place in the 798 Art District. On the one hand, artists are able to exhibit their creativity within various art galleries in 798. But on the other hand, art exhibits considered too “rebellious” may get rejected by galleries. For an artist who is “rebellious” in the way that you are, is it too easy to sell out and go too far towards the mainstream for the sake of becoming popular or even making a profit?
The balance between keeping your identity as an artist and being mainstream enough to get exhibitions at major art galleries is difficult.
As an artist, it is important to keep your identity and be true to who you are.
Sometimes you have to think about how you approach the audience. If you’re art doesn’t speak to your audience, that can be very sad. That can make you feel very lost.
But it’s also important that you don’t just follow everyday trends. In that sense, you’re not producing anything new.
It’s a similar situation with my music. My music very much reflects my identity and that only gets me performances in very small and underground clubs. If I were to perform in big live houses, I would probably need to adjust my content based on the needs of the audience and also based on the need to censor certain content.
It’s difficult for me. But I expected this from the beginning of the project. My main hope is to inspire more people to do something similar.
Ultimately, I’m still new to this industry. I’m still learning. My outfit (for the music performances and the artwork) is made out of materials I just bought from Taobao and put together. You can still make great art.
I wrote music and lyrics without any professional music background. It’s never too late to express yourself.
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[All images via The Weiy]