There was a time, many years ago – in fact, decades ago – if I wanted to have a conversation with Guan Wei I just needed to step out of my bedroom and he would be there, writing long lists of Chinese words and English words, in his notebook, on the kitchen table.
We were sharing an apartment in the Centre for the Arts in Hobart, and the year was 1990. Wei had just arrived from Beijing, on his second visit to Tasmania, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacres. I had just come from Scotland to teach painting in the art school. At night, he would disappear to his studio and paint through the wee small hours. Then he would be back at the table at breakfast, drinking tea and compiling his endless lists of nouns, verbs and adjectives.
26 years later, the journey to see him is a little more complicated, but the conversation is even richer. My route involves a flight from Geelong, and a long train journey to Glenfield, ten stops west of the airport, to outer Sydney. But it is so good to see him again, and his wife Liu Pin, who I’d never properly met before. There is a lot of catching up to do. A meal of dumplings, pancakes and a bottle of wine appear with amazing speed, while we talk the talk.
“I now spend about four months of the year in Sydney, and eight months in Beijing,” he tells me, dishing out the rice. “I probably have about three solo exhibitions every year, in China, Australia, and elsewhere. And many group exhibitions.”
Wei is a large man with a large laugh that punctuates our whole conversation as the morning turns to afternoon. When I arrived in suburban Glenfield, he showed me his big, double garage converted into a studio. It was full of works in progress for his upcoming exhibition at ARC ONE Gallery in Melbourne. Most are a mix of Western subject matter with his distinct Chinese style of willow pattern decoration and personal calligraphy. In a work in progress Captain Cook and Admiral Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales, float like video game characters alongside the first Aboriginal peoples of the land, and the native flora and fauna. “My studio in Beijing is much bigger – 400 square metres – and it allows me to work on big installation pieces and sometimes these days I use video. But mostly I paint.”
Art critic Sebastian Smee wrote well about Wei’s early life in Pol Oxygen magazine, more than decade ago, “Wei’s own schooling was itinerant. It took place at the height of the Cultural Revolution, so it was stamped by propaganda, pervaded by militarism and by a suspicion of all kinds of learning and curiosity. Mao’s philosophy of open classrooms meant that much of Wei’s educa-tion took place in the countryside, in factories and at military bases.” Across the overflowing table, Wei tells me about the reading groups he belonged to, in his student years, and his own particular fascination with Nietzsche and Freud. “I don’t know why,” he starts speaking reflectively, “but the Communist Party did not allow you to talk about sexy things. We’re going back to the time when I was at middle school. And even in the movies the heroes were always single. But of course you find out about sexy things – girls do as well as boys. But 30 years ago, parents didn’t talk to their children about these things. It was forbidden. But today it is better, and it is better for gay people too. Reading Freud back then really opened my eyes and emotions to a whole new world.”
Last year, Wei was awarded the Australia Council studio in London, and he fell in love with the city. “It was wonderful being surrounded by such old buildings in different types of stone.” And then he puts my head into a complete cross-cultural spin when he tells me that they drove to Scotland and went up to Loch Ness looking for the famous monster. I can immediately imagine the serpentine creature depicted, on a future canvas, in his signature style.
I thought I knew Wei’s work, and thought I was up to speed with its development over a quarter of a century. But researching this assignment, I am aston-ished at how it has grown in scale and ambition, and also how its subject matter has become nuanced and varied – from the tragedy of boat people drowning off the shores of Australia, to the paradise islands of his own imagination. These works, often created as vast murals, and more recently as three dimensional dioramas, have been seen in venues as varied as the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, the Museum of Con-temporary Art in Sydney, the Havana Biennale, The Asia Pacific Triennial, and the Shenzhen Triennial in China.
And then there is the humour that balances the trauma of Wei’s imagery. For one exhibition, Ways of Being, the artist offered three principles that emphasise three elements often found in his work: wisdom, knowledge and humour. “I believe people need wisdom to choose from many different cultural conditions that confront us everyday; knowledge is the key to open our minds to the diversity of the world; and humour is necessary to comfort our hearts.”
Wei’s work can be found in museums and private collections all over the world, from most of Australia’s state galleries to the Tokyo Gallery in Japan, Deutsche Bank, Hanart Gallery in Hong Kong, and the Australian Embassy in Beijing. And he doesn’t forget those who have helped him along the way. “I will always be grateful,” he tells me “to Professor Geoff Parr from Hobart, Professor David Williams of ANU, author Nicholas Jose, and co-founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney Bernice Murphy who helped to arrange my visa and managed to bring me to Australia after 4 June1989.”
Like China itself, Wei and his family have a long and noble history. As Smee noted in his essay, “Wei’s ancestors were part of the Manchu nobility in China in the mid-17th century. His great-grandfather was the Controller of the Yihe Yuan, the luxurious Summer Palace constructed at the end of the 19th century. His great-great-aunt was taken into the imperial family and gave birth to Henry Pu Yi, also known as the Xuantong Emperor [featured in Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie The Last Emperor], the last imperial ruler of China.” As Guan Wei and Liu Pin waved me goodbye, in an informal rather than a regal fashion, from their Glenfield home, I reflected on the beautiful strangeness of the world and was grateful I’d been part of it for a very short time.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 78, OCT-DEC 2016.