Wei Ding’s Surreal One-a-Day Photography Thrives in the Taobao Era
"I’m literally trying to outwork everybody," says the Shanghai-based photographer, now 1/3 of the way through a trippy #365daychallenge
Sep 18, 2019
4 mins read
To beat the odds of getting noticed by art dealers, some artists put their works out in ingenious ways. 25-year-old photographer Wei Ding follows this trend.
Earlier this year, Wei started the #365photochallenge — a pledge to take at least one photo every day this year. Piece of cake, right? Not exactly. Wei goes beyond the “aim & shoot” approach, and once a day he meticulously turns eccentric ideas into surreal photography. The outcome invites people to question their values and change their perspectives.
Wei was born in Shanghai, but moved to New York City when he was 13. His parents had a plan for him in the United States: university, followed by a stable and well-planned career. Only half of it worked out — as the pressure started to build up for him to join the corporate rat race, he jumped on the first opportunity to come back to China.
After university, Wei moved to the northeastern city of Qingdao to run a magic company with a friend. Knowing a handful of card tricks, they produced tutorial videos and sold the rights to other magicians. However, the business was not profitable enough, and they eventually split. Not wanting to go back to New York, Wei moved to Shanghai, where he landed a marketing job.
Wei Ding self-portrait
As a hobby, he took portraits of people (mostly female models) that he met online. These early photos had a strong cyberpunk style, playing with Shanghai’s neon lights for a bustling effect. They eventually caught the eye of fashion brands, and Wei became a streetwear photographer.
The catalyst for him to start making art was the death of American rapper Nipsey Hussle this past March. “It hit me hard,” he says. “I admired him as an artist, entrepreneur, and someone who gave back to the community. I realized then that you can do everything right, and still just die all of a sudden.”
I realized that you can do everything right, and still just die all of a sudden
He began to feel a sense of urgency to work on what he wanted, so he started the ongoing 365 challenge, for which he has to create one non-commercial photograph every single day and upload it online. It was a practical approach, and a way to put his artistic ability on display.
Wei’s photographs are an interesting mix of the weird and the intelligent, infused with surreal and pop elements. They revolve around his observations of contemporary culture, especially in China. Shooting mostly in his bedroom-turned-studio, he carefully stages his images and captures them in high-key tones.
With more than 150 days completed (on the day this article was published), the challenge can now be subdivided into different series. One of them is Death and Other Inevitable Things, about harmful things people consume daily without noticing. This series is charged with a sense of illusion created by a combination of elements such as animal hearts, human heads, countless cigarettes, and pitch-black hands. The scarlet velvet backdrop and the model’s gloomy make-up create a dark glamorous impression.
Another series, Mouth, is composed of close-ups of open mouths holding LSD tabs on their tongues. The tabs have tiny logos of brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Supreme. “In China, people are even crazier about these brands,” Wei explains, “so the idea is that they are tripping on them.”
Wei collaborated with make-up artist Kong De Run to create the intricate lip art. These works grab your attention instantly, inviting you to think differently about these familiar brands.
“In China, people are even crazier about these brands, so the idea is that they are tripping on them.”
Wei is mostly self-taught when it comes to technique. He uses the internet to learn everything he needs and to look for references, but perhaps the best use he makes of it is to source the materials he needs to create his surreal compositions. “[Only] because Taobao exists, and people make cool stuff, am I able to create this work at this speed,” he says, referring to China’s dominant, freewheeling ecommerce platform. He buys everything on Taobao, from brain-shaped ice trays to an actual cotton candy machine. He even bought chicken hearts once, to replace the spheres on a Newton’s cradle.
Wei modifies most of the products he buys, slicing them, painting them over, and remolding them to achieve better storytelling results. Lately, he has been creating things from scratch with his own hands, based on tutorials and instructions he finds online.
His “Recommendation” tab on Taobao is a bizarre mix of unrelated and pointless products, but it makes sense to him somehow. “The algorithm is always recommending the weirdest stuff,” he says, “but it keeps leading me to new ideas.” He keeps his ideas in a notebook, with fifteen pending at any given time. Besides acting as a reminder, the notebook is also a visual drive: “If I don’t cross the ideas, it bothers me.”
Since his photographs are always posted on social media, Wei can keep a close eye on the likes. He says they don’t guide him, but instead help him to achieve an optimum level at which the weirdest compositions would still be attractive to most people. “As Kobe Bryant says: ‘If you are new to basketball and you practice every day for 8 hours, you will eventually catch up.’ So I’m also literally trying to outwork everybody.”
Wei’s work is a quintessential example of millennial art — fast-paced and largely defined by the internet in its production, distribution, and reception. Being new to the practice, he brings in a workaholic attitude, not willing to rely on the intangible (or on artistic genius), but betting on a mathematical certainty that consistency will lead to perfection.
He has now decided to become a full-time artist: “Why would you live any other way if that’s what you enjoy doing?”
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The survey revealed that only 1 in 10 youth spend their weekends engaging in outdoor activities. As a result, most rate their average weekend a low 5.7 out of 10. Interestingly, the younger they are, the more frustrated they feel. It would seem that while some young people embrace the idea of ‘lying flat’ at work, being stagnant on the weekends feels like a waste of time.
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