The Artist Snapping China’s Alienated Young Clubbers
Bathed in red light, a group of young Beijingers sway to the beat of an unheard track on a half-filled dance floor. Some dance enthusiastically, arms above their heads, while others stand rooted, gazing into the distance. Yet all the figures project a deep sense of isolation and self-estrangement.
The haunting scene is part of photography series “Noon Club” by Chen Wei, a Chinese artist who has spent much of his career trying to capture the restlessness of life in modern Beijing. For Chen, China’s contradictory capital — oppressive and alienating, yet a magnet for young creatives — creates a subconscious tension in the minds of those who flock there, which comes to light after dark.
Chen first moved to Beijing with a group of friends from his hometown, the eastern city of Hangzhou, in late 2008. The then-28-year-old saw the move as his chance to finally make it as an artist and also to escape from the comfort of life in Hangzhou, which he felt had stifled his creativity.
“A friend proposed moving to Shanghai or Beijing,” says Chen. “I suggested that if we decided to move, it had to be the farther option.”
But the Beijing he encountered — the landscape scarred by breakneck development in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the economy reeling from the ongoing financial crisis — was not the vibrant city he had dreamed of.
“The moment we arrived, I found the winter in Beijing extremely cold and windy,” says Chen. “Meanwhile, a lot of artists were moving out of the city.”
According to Chen, this first impression shaped his view of young people’s relationship with the city for years to come, and it soon began to influence his art. In “New City,” an ongoing project that he began in 2013, Chen recreates unfinished buildings and abandoned construction sites in his studio. The staged scenes capture the feeling of loneliness that suffuses many modern Chinese metropolises, where urban landscapes transform at a dizzying rate.
“After being exposed to such rampant modernization for the past few decades, we are all numb to the endless change,” says Chen. “If a building suddenly disappears, no one is surprised.”
The “Noon Club” series, which Chen started working on soon afterward, plays on a similar theme. For this project, Chen constructed a dance floor in his studio and filled it with local clubbers. The staged images highlight how young Beijingers could never escape from the pressures of life in the capital, even while out partying.
“I created the dance floor according to my friends’ memories of nightclubs from the old days,” says Chen. “To my surprise, their descriptions all followed a similar pattern, which also coincided with my own memories.”
Chen’s generation treated nightclubs like a sanctuary where they could escape from the complex reality of daily life. For Chen, the dance floor is a “fictional space” in which time is experienced differently.
“The time you spend in a nightclub adds to your life experience in a fictive way,” says Chen. “In other words, it is disconnected from your daily routine.”
The dance floor in Chen’s studio is from another age, but the millennials filling it in his photographs are, of course, very much contemporary. Chen, born and raised during the turbulent 1980s, notices enormous differences between his generation and today’s 20-somethings.
“We weren’t that desperate when we were in our 20s, because we wanted to rebel against everything,” says Chen. “When I talk to today’s 20-somethings, however, I find that instead of striving to find an alternative way of being, they’re satisfied with what is available to them.”
Chen’s latest solo exhibition, titled “Goodbye,” reflects his sense that times are changing. It opened at the ShanghART Gallery in September, and its inspiration was Chen’s realization that his circle of friends in Beijing were increasingly moving away from the city.
“This trend reminded me of when we all moved to Beijing together years ago,” says Chen. “Although people are leaving for different reasons, they all share a feeling of insecurity. It seems that their decisions were made out of frustration.”
In many ways, “Goodbye” feels like a coda to “Noon Club.” The staged scenes also play out after dark, but this time the party is over: A spilled glass of red wine oozes across an empty tiled floor; scattered stones lay on an abandoned basketball court. The rosy light tinging each image calls to mind the dreamy mood of a person walking home alone after an evening spent in good company.
The work is intensely personal, yet Chen says the exhibition also reflects a wider truth about life in the Chinese capital. As the gentrification of the city enters a new phase, Beijing — in which Chen has now lived for more than a decade — is becoming unfamiliar once more. “In China, no one can escape from the destiny of being a stranger in the city,” says Chen.
The artist is able to sublimate the pain of being continuously uprooted through his work. Chen worries, however, about the anxiety many young Chinese experience.
“I was lucky enough to find art as a way out,” he says. “I always think about the same thing: What if I hadn’t become an artist? What would my life be like?”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: “In the Waves #3,” from the “Noon Club” series. Courtesy of Chen Wei)