b. 1957, China
Lives and works in Sydney, Australia
Guan Wei graduated from the Department of Fine Arts at Beijing Capital University in 1986. From 1989 to1992, he completed art residencies at the University of Tasmania, Australian National University and Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. In1993, he immigrated to Australia. In 2008, Guan Wei set up a studio in Beijing. He now lives and works in Beijing and Sydney.
Guan Wei has held more then 70 solo exhibitions in Australia and internationally, and has been included in many important internationalcontemporary exhibitions, such as the Shanghai Biennial, China; the 10th Havana Biennial, Cuba; the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Australia; the 3rd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Australia; the Osaka Triennial, Japan; and the Gwangju Biennial, South Korea. He has been awarded in many art competitions, including: 2002 Sulman Prize at Art Gallery of NSW; 2015 Arthur Guy Memorial Prize, and Bendigo Art Gallery in Victoria. In 2021, Guan We was awarded an Honorary Doctor in Creative Art by the Western Sydney University.
Guan Wei’s work has a profoundly felt, if implicitly ironic, moral dimension. In their complex symbolic form, his subjects potently embody current social and environmental dilemmas. They are equally the product of his rich cultural repertory of symbols and his informed socio-political awareness and art-historical knowledge.
Guan Wei: Assumed Reality
Opening Speech 2 May 2023
Kaurna yartangka yuwanthi. we stand on Kaurna land and I honour the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and pay my respects to Kaurna Elders past, present and emerging.
‘Together with astronauts, spaceships, and constellations of various magical creatures, it is like one grand symphony that illustrates the Divine Comedy of humanity stepping out into the Universe and exploring outer space…’ 1.
… so says artist Guan Wei – these words accompany his painting ‘Star Map No. 1’ 2020 – they could equally be describing this ambitious and wholly satisfying exhibition – an exhibition that offers meditations on existence and identity, transformations and metamorphosis, alongside an exploration of stellar formations, topologies, ecologies, and the magical and prophetic power of numerology. These three spheres of investigation remain fully active – identity, natural forces and codified systems of knowledge – and like an acrobat who might appear within one of his celestial skies – Guan Wei sets these spheres in motion, returning to them and with a finger’s delicate touch, keeps them all in motion.
And so we begin – lets start with crossing the Great Ocean and conclude with the Stars. The earliest works here in this exhibition are from 2015, a wry suite of fourpaintings entitled ‘Plastic Surgery’, a morphing from Guan Wei’s Chinese universe to his Australian one. Like many Chinese born artists, poets and thinkers, Guan Wei moved to Australia in 1989 – supported by Nicholas Jose, who is here tonight, and Claire Roberts and the Australian Embassy. His formidable talents saw him embark upon residencies at the University of Tasmania, the Australian National University, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. In 1993 he immigrated to Australiaand then in 2008 established a studio in Beijing (where I visited some years ago).Guan Wei now moves and works with alacrity between Sydney and Beijing. 2.
So ‘Plastic Surgery’ and the associated video, ‘The Metamorphosis’ 2020, are animaginative and observant examination of what I call ‘The Transit of Guan Wei’ – across the Pacific, crossing nationhood and cultural assimilation – as he says, ‘fusing reality, experience and memory’, to explore ‘self-existence, surroundings and time’. This triad of imagination, experience and memory are ever-present in his work, yet always with the recurring question of self-discovery. Guan Wei is always on a journey. Art is a way of navigating the world in the face of the relentless tsunami of new ideas, technologies, phenomena and information. Always curious, Guan Wei takes the unknown seriously as he investigates certain bodies of knowledge, through each body of work. Answers remain elusive as he always edges towards the metaphysical and the mysterious.
Amidst this dream ocean of ideas, Guan Wei’s visual language is crystal clear and frieze-like; a tableau of symbols and cyphers. Clouds are ever-present and humour a hair’s breadth away. His compositions often appear as one part of a whole, a mere glimpse of something larger that is beyond him, beyond us, that extends seamlessly beyond the picture frame. The picture-plane eschews Renaissance perspective as he draws on language and forms from two countries and multiple histories. Yet his clouds and angels and cupids could almost have flown from a chalky fourteenth century Giotto sky. Cartography and philosophy, topology and mythology – this push / pull between rational thought and magic, between empirical evidence and intuition – exist as playful bedfellows in his art.
And then there are his two mighty tableaux – ‘The Era of Data’ 2020 and ‘Coded Destiny’ 2020 – where the science of mathematics and the prophecy of numbers entwine. My first visual thought was of Aotearoa artist Colin McCahon’s vast, insistent monochrome paintings drawing on the symbolic potency of numbers drawn from Christian and Maori spirituality. And yes, McCahon was an influence for Guan Wei. Yet in immediate and general terms, we can all relate to numbers – we have a birth date – the accidental fate and the fateful accident of that day / month / year and the number derived from it. Guan Wei writes:
‘Arabic numerals with a set of ten symbols are used around the globe and are universally recognized. Numbers which represent highly abstract symbols are present in philosophies, religions, sciences, arts, and cultures throughout human history. … dualism, the Trinity, four elements of nature, and the Chinese wisdom of the sixth day of the sixth month, the list goes on … Mathematical science believes that numbers have a mystical power that can affect our lives and our personalities…’:
"0" is related to Buddhism, emptiness, the phantom, new life from nothing
"1" is natural and geographical, and "one" represents self, independence and honour
"2" is a symbol of harmony, unity, and cooperation, the power of the maternal earth
"3" is a positive and optimistic number, yet also a symbol of mystery
"4" represents the four sides of a square, the four seasons, solid and brave
"5" stands for freedom, change and adventure
"6" is the number of the celestial phenomena of auspicious people
“7” is the seven stars in the sky, seven has the characteristics of analysis, exploration and mystery
"8" gives people a sense of satisfaction, a symbol of harmony and unity of the universe
"9" is selfless, of great love and humanitarianism.
Just as Guan Wei references divine histories, philosophies, and ancient belief systems, he is equally interested in the future of humankind. In particular he references Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow in which Harari explores the role of algorithms, machine learning and natural languageprocessing to transform and reconfigure human lives. We have witnessed these shifts in the very recent and explosive rise of ChatGPT in the world. Yet Harari makes another point which is so relevant to this exhibition – and that is about the power of knowledge. Harari writes:
‘Previously the main sources of wealth were material assets such as gold mines, wheat fields and oil wells. Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way.’
In essence, Guan Wei has the ability to swoop and delve and dive into myriad knowledge systems as he asks fundamental questions about human existence and meaning in the universe.
And finally, to the most recent work in the exhibition ‘Off to the Space’ painted earlierthis year which alludes to, in equal parts, Lascaux Caves, a zodiacal prophecy, Battlestar Galactica, and imagery sent via radio waves back to earth from uncrewedsatellites. Interstellar tracings of mythological beasts of the night sky and as yetundeciphered scientific codes coalesce in this beautiful painting with a supine body doubling as a mouth. And so we return to the beginning like an Ouroboros – the ancient Egyptian and Greek iconographic and alchemic symbol of the serpent /dragon devouring its own tail … a symbol of eternal cyclic renewal. To quote Guan Wei again, ‘… the Divine Comedy of humanity stepping out into the Universe … ‘
On my drive here tonight, I was listening to a recent podcast with Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jaar, he said ‘Art is a possible place to help us understand the world.’ These words could equally describe the art of Guan Wei. Thank you Guan Wei for bringing your vision to Australia, and thank you Paul for working with one of Australia’s leading artists to present this superb exhibition in Tarntanya / Adelaide.
1. All quotes by Guan Wei are taken from notes for the exhibition, Guan Wei: Assumed Reality,GAGPROJECTS | Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, 3 May – 4 June 2023.
2. The author met the artist in the late 1990s and worked closely with him on the presentation of his work in the 3rd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT3) in 1999 at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Guan Wei was commissioned to design the cover of that accompanying publication.
Director, Art Gallery of South Australia