“Thank God”: Li Wei Solo Exhibition
Gallery Yang (798 Originality Square, B District in 798 Art Zone, No.2 Jiu Xianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China) December 21, 2013–February 16, 2014
Stepping into the pitch-black gallery, the darkness wraps up one’s fingers and sends a shiver down the spine. After adjusting to the depth of darkness, the scene laid out gives yet another jolt: flickering candlelight, a cross on an altar, relief carvings on columns and criss-crossing vaulting arches—the exhibit even comes equipped with its own priest and nun. A beam of light shining at an angle through a small window puts the finishing touch on Li Wei’s transformation of Gallery Yang into a “church”. Yet the artist confides in me that all of the materials used in this solemn-looking “place of worship” were very cheap. The visually convincing architectural elements are all disposable and temporary; the candle holders placed upon the altar were bought on the cheap from Taobao (an online marketplace in China); the nuns and priests are borrowed gallery employees in disguise and the “divine” ray originates from a lamp installed in an upstairs office. Most readers will surely be amused by the fluorescent reality behind this aura of mystique. Here, one’s initial impression of the exhibit as a holy and vaunted space contrasts starkly with the materials, revealed to be cheap and ordinary—which is precisely what prompts reflection on the distance between figures of the sacred and the illusory.
Satire of the saintly and the pious has already become an artistic approach. The most compelling and controversial example of this lasting recent few decades can be no other than the American artist Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (1987)—a photograph of a miniature Christ on the cross, submerged in urine. Serrano generated a series of works in a similar vein, and entitled the series “Immersions”, which created an uproar. Serrano has said that, for him, he did not destroy or profane the image of Christ because idols were only an illusion; he only created a new image of Christ. Li Wei is attempting to express something similar in her current exhibition, “Thank God.” As Feuerbach said,
…certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence…illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness. (The Essence of Christianity, 2nd ed.)
In comparison with Serrano’s two-dimensional works, Li Wei’s knock-off church is more “realistic” and ironic. The false wears the mantle of the sacred and befuddles the masses. These sacrosanct garments obscure a reality either utterly hollow or in direct counterpoint to its exterior, just as the dead rat beside the altar is fabricated, with the ultimate irony in its feline fur. Therefore, what is on show at Li Wei’s exhibition is not the sacred awe of religion but the falsification of reality—whether it is the worship of brands stoked by advertisements or the mirage of happiness as constructed by the news, or else the illusions delivered by mass media or a utopia spun out of ideology. Indeed, founding a belief is an art of its own, and yet how easy it oftentimes seems. In this day and age of interconnected information networks, where images harbor unlimited potential for mimetic realism, the expenditure needed in exploring and observing is falling constantly, and along with it, the human capacity for reflection.
Perhaps a parallel can be drawn with the way some consumers willingly depend on high-end skin-care products touted as miracle “facial essences” in their worship of the self. Brilliant packaging, buzzwords, a dazzling array of functions, and a divine visage—these are all tools to fool others along with ourselves. Feuerbach said that the city of man reflects the city of God—yet to what degree this earthly realm reflects the city of God is an easily overlooked but essential question. By fooling viewers with humorous tricks, the artist also reminds them of the essence of faith, the sublime and the sense of the sacred.