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Art Basel 2016

Like music on canvas: Chinese choreographer Shen Wei’s paintings on show

Artist who choreographed Beijing Olympics opening ceremony likens process of applying oil paints to canvases such as those in Hong Kong exhibition to putting dance steps to musical orchestration

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2016, 10:32am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2016, 10:56am

Shen Wei is an accomplished choreographer, known for works including his 2003 reinterpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, but dance isn’t the main reason the 47-year-old is in Hong Kong this week. He’s in the city because the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre is showing some of his paintings; its exhibition, “Shen Wei: Dance Strokes”, is the New York-based Shen’s first big solo art show in Asia, and features seven large abstract oil paintings.

Tastemaker: Choreographer Shen Wei

Accompanying the show on March 25 and 26 are free public performances at the Asia Society Centre in Admiralty – of Untitled No. 32 (Bodies and Rooftop, 2016) and Prelude - Untitled No. 12 (for bodies, 2015). There will also be a one-hour talk on March 25 from 3pm at Art Central on the Central harbourfront.

WATCH rooftop performance at Asia Society centre

Alexandra Munroe, an expert in Asian art and the curatorial advisor for the exhibition, said: “Shen Wei is internationally acclaimed as a force in contemporary dance, but until recently his painting practice has gone virtually unnoticed. This show at Asia Society should catapult Shen Wei into a new orbit, and stimulate conversations about the potential of creative synergies between the arts.”

Combining dance with Chinese ink painting or calligraphy is not new. Most notable is the Cursive series by Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min, who translates the aesthetics of brush strokes into fluid dance movement.

Shen, a Chinese-born American, has his own take on the relationship between these two art forms.

“There are many ways to explore this. You can, of course, literally visualise the movement or the flow of the strokes that are applied onto the canvas,” says Shen, who was the lead choreographer for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“But ... as an artist, you want to see how things are related to each other. The tension, texture, flow, movement, timing and speed... it’s like music. All that affect how I coordinate them in the way I want for a particular work, and how things are being orchestrated. That is very important when creating a dance or a choreography.”

The large oils in the Hong Kong Jockey Club Hall are from a series of 11 “black, white and grey” paintings. To those familiar with traditional Chinese ink aesthetics, they may look like landscape pieces, but the artist wants viewers to offer their own meanings, say curators Dominic Chan and Joyce Wong, and there is no one definitive way to interpret his works.

When Shen wanted to created No. 12 in the series last year, he decided it should not be an oil painting on canvas but a work “for the human bodies”, hence the title of one of his performance pieces – Prelude - Untitled No. 12 (for bodies, 2015).

The other performance piece, Untitled No. 32 (Bodies and Rooftop, 2016), just like the painting Untitled No. 31 that is hung outside the exhibition hall, was created specially for the Hong Kong show.

Shen says he’s been painting in oils since 1985 and it remains his preferred medium of expression because he is very familiar with it and so can control, develop and use it in ways he wants.

“The last decade I started [experimenting with] my own way to use oil. Some people think it looks like ink but it is not. Oil gives a [sense of] much heavier weight and it deepens the texture and expression ... it is as if it has its own life.”

Shen Wei: Dance Strokes, Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, until April 4. Performances on March 25, 6.30pm; March 26, 4pm and 6.30pm. Free admission.