A giant of sorts in contemporary art, the painter and sculptor Guan Wei lives and works between Beijing and Sydney. His paintings and murals— inhabited by fleshy, faceless humans and whirling clouds—are layered with cross-cultural myths and acute social commentary. In their unhurried manner, they offer more questions than answers, usually around issues of migration, identity politics, cultural assimilation and intellectual freedom.
Guan Wei is represented in Sydney by Martin Browne Contemporary, where these portraits were taken.
In Issue 4, we asked him if art could be an effective antidote to fear:
“When I was a young boy, I lived in Beijing. That was in the 1960s and 70s, the time of China’s Cultural Revolution. During this period, the Chinese people believed in the proletarian revolution. They believed in the symbolic red colour. The whole country was red. Every form of art expressed love for Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. Mass media across the country referred to China as the world leader in the proletarian revolution, the center of the world. We were told the Chinese people were very lucky and that we’d lived a happy life—powerful propaganda in schools, media and every art form. All fear and anxiety was gone. It was similar to the North Korea of today.
After Mao Zedong died, the Cultural Revolution ended. Once people awoke to the realities of the outside world, it was not so easy to deceive them. The fear and anxiety about their own lives returned … Without the propaganda fairytale I feel I understand my own fears and anxieties more objectively. After I lived in Australia for a few years, I found these feelings were no longer only personal, but extended to the environment. So in 1996 I created a work called Mapocalypse. It’s all about natural and man-made disasters: the greenhouse effect, atmospheric pollution, gene mutation, acid rain and so on. In my work, I use fear to make people think about how humans create disasters. I believe that explaining the origins and mechanisms that drive fear can help us alleviate it.
In 2013 I was commissioned to do a large mural, The Journey to Australia, at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It was about the struggle of refugees in the vast sea, looking for a new home— both physical and spiritual … The purpose of my artwork is to show people what refugees have experienced and express my sympathy. It reflects three ideas around fear: the making of it (as in Mapocolypse), the escape from it, and the moral panics that result from our imagined fears.”
Guan Wei shares a secret with Museum:
“The first secret I remember relates to abstaining from sex. As a young boy, all we learned from school and in books was about China’s Cultural Revolution. The role models were all single male and female heroes. They were handsome and strong, but there were no love stories. All they did was revolt and engage in battle to defeat the enemy. It was like the Dark Ages.
One day when I was in high school, I accidentally found Freud’s book The Psychology of Love. It was banned at that time in China. After I read it, I was shocked! It was very different with what had been taught at school. Also, it was so different from Marxist-Leninist theories and Mao Zedong Thought, the only philosophies we could learn in China at that time. I was so excited about Freud’s ideas. Because it was a banned book and the ideas were forbidden, it made me nervous to keep the book—but I did. Later on I secretly took the little book to show my best friend. Then my friends passed it around. Finally the book was lost. I was very afraid! In the end, luckily, nothing happened. But this fear impacted me deeply throughout my life. I think it is shows in my work.”