Shen Wei, Glory Box, 2014
Pia Johnson: Whether it’s landscapes, portraits, objects or self-portraits all of your photographs reveal an intimacy and sense of loneliness about them. For me, they speak about notions of identity and place, and a shifting sense of belonging/not belonging. Why do you think this is the case, and I wonder if it stems from living in a country that you didn’t grow up in?
Shen Wei: The intimate and isolated sense of my work is probably more directly related to my personality than any external reason. I have always been an inward, quiet, and introspective person, even as a child I was very silent and observational. I like to be alone, but at the same time, I feel liberated to experience what I want. Identity is certainly an important element of my work but I hope my work can express more universal emotions and perspectives of human nature and human bonding.
Shen Wei, Plum Tree, 2015
PJ: Travel is a wonderful thing to do alone. There is a sense of being keenly aware of your existence within a place, and yet being in your own intimate space as well. My experience in rural Japan on an artist residency was an incredible influence on my work, as I had the time and space to perceive what was around me in a way that I wouldn’t naturally do so in my own environment at home. I’ve read that some of your works have started during a residency, or when you travel. Is travelling alone and your feeling of being liberated to experience your desire – where your work is inspired from?
SW: My biggest inspiration is the everyday life experience. I think inspiration should come instinctually and spontaneously. It can happen when I am alone in the wild or on a crowded city street. For me, life is endlessly interesting and inspiring. I am interested in how you draw inspiration from your diverse body of work?
Pia Johnson, Kitchen Rag, 2013
PJ: I love that your inspiration is so instinctual. I take inspiration from what I’m reading, or looking and seeing, or listening to, as well as concerns or issues that I think I want to explore in my work. I’ve always felt that my work is a way of me expressing (visually) what I am searching, struggling, thinking, feeling about, and how it is connected to who I am in the world. At any given moment I am usually working on a couple of ideas or series at the same time. I think giving time to concentrating on work, as well as being able to put it away and look at it again with fresh eyes is really important. It means that I can find new inspiration and relate it back to my image making.
SW: Most of my long-term projects took about 3 to 5 years to complete and I have never stopped refining them. It is important for me to look back to see what I have worked on in the past, not only to discover “new” images with a fresher eye, but also to see how I have grown and what direction I am going to be heading towards in the future.
Pia Johnson, The Widening Gyre #1, 2015
PJ: Yes I think that is so true. I find it interesting that you have featured yourself throughout your work too. For me, so much of my work is a portrait of myself, even if the project does or doesn’t include self-portraits. What is the role of self-portraiture within your work, and how does this change for long-term projects?
Shen Wei, Searching, 2014
SW: I have been making self-portraits since my early teenage years with disposable cameras. It becomes a way of documenting my life story, like writing a diary. Each of my long-term projects has different kinds of self-portrait. In my latest project Between Blossoms, the self-portraits are much moodier and darker, almost ghost-like, with less emphasis on the physical body compares to I Miss You Already series, which the nude body is a crucial visual element. I think self-portraiture can be complex and multi-dimensional. It can also be something beyond the physical portrait of the artist itself.
Pia Johnson, Still Life with Granddaughter Portrait, from Por Por’s House, 2014
Pia Johnson and Shen Wei feature in ‘Closing the Distance’ a large survey exhibition of contemporary Chinese diaspora artists, curated by Sophia Cai at Bundoora Homestead from 11 February to 30 April 2017.
Closing the Distance brings together contemporary Chinese and Australian-Chinese artists to explore issues of migration, place and the contemporary diaspora experience. The exhibition will focus on artists whose works make connections to shared Chinese cultural heritage, lineage, and lived experience. Central to this exhibition is the exploration of contemporary migration and the movement of people, culture and history across local and global boundaries. Closing the Distance highlights how cultural differences are valuable in providing diverse viewpoints, but also how shared personal experiences and narratives can provide a means to bridge these differences. The artists featured are from across the world and include Kevin Chin, Pei Pei He, Pia Johnson, Lindy Lee, Owen Leong, Eugenia Lim, Chun-yu Liu, Jason Phu, Cyrus Tang, Guan Wei, Shen Wei and Louise Zhang. Curated by Sophia Cai.