Coursing through the mysterious world of photographer Wei Wei, there’s a sense of being suspended in time—in a dimension simultaneously futuristic and nostalgic—suggesting a longstanding fascination with the mysteries of the photographic medium. But in reality, Wei’s introduction to art was far more classical, substantiated by his traditional Chinese education, through which he learned painting and calligraphy. In fact, Wei’s discovery of contemporary art came much later in his life, when he discovered the artist Xu Bing’s Tiānshū, a book filled with meaningless glyphs designed in the style of precious books made during the Song and Ming dynasties.

Wei’s foray into photography evolved during his university studies, when he decided to enrol in some photography courses, ultimately falling in love with the medium and utilizing it as his primary creative output. Reflecting on his interest in photography, Wei explains, “In my opinion, the starting point of all photography comes from the heart of the photographer. Photography is a mirror for me. I learn about the world through myself, and I also know myself through the world I make in photographs.”

Free captive. Funeral of a fish © 卫 嵬

This contemplation of the human relationship to our surroundings is palpable in Wei’s project Dizzy, which feels quiet, yet full of information. Forging a bridge between our physical and digital worlds, the series was inspired by the virtual games that the artist spent significant time immersed in during the first two years of his university studies. Throughout his virtual explorations, Wei had the haunting sense that emotions like sadness and happiness in the game felt no different than the emotions we experience in the real world, prompting him to consider whether the significance of the real world could collapse under this conflation. “Nowadays, virtual games are becoming more and more real, and people are constantly pursuing perfect picture quality and a rich sensory experience,” he explains. “The line between simulation and reality becomes blurred.”

Snow Scene. Snow made of white foam © 卫 嵬

In order to process the potential distinctions between VR and reality, Wei started making photographs. “My initial idea was simple,” he says. “I would combine an image from the game with one associated from the real world. However, in the process of photographing, I discovered a more subtle connection between the two spaces—reflections on death, and on freedom.” The photographic medium’s tendency to fix time and misrepresent reality reflected the same collapse that Wei experienced between reality and VR. “When you take a picture of a pigeon, is the living thing fixed forever in a flying posture in the photograph, never decaying? In that same vein, by giving a virtual specimen meaning and a soul, do we make it real?”

The resulting images feel otherworldly, as through they were taken as records of a parallel dimension, captivatingly familiar yet beautifully unnerving. Much of this has to do with Wei’s attention to lighting, which he harnesses to create a fragmented visual universe. “My favorite lighting is strong daylight, which is direct and authentic,” he explains. “But the occasional use of overhead flashes can also create a surreal and romantic atmosphere.”

Dizzy © 卫 嵬

Wei’s decision to create the entire series in black and white contributes to the eerie in-between nature of the images. At first, they might feel slightly more removed from our reality than color renderings, but something about them contributes to that feeling of nostalgia and familiarity. “The color expression in black and white is more poetic and abstract,” Wei reflects. “The ancient Chinese preferred to simply create a mood with white paper and black characters, which was a reflection of the author’s inner self. Constructing an infinite space for reflection with just a few strokes is what I have in common with those artists. Many have asked if my photographs are painted, and I suppose this expression naturally incorporates the contradictions in my work.”

Map. Unreal is a reconstruction of the real world © 卫 嵬

This “illusory world of contradiction” is a compelling storyboard of hidden messages, conveying a sense of ominous loom and beautiful steadiness. With the line between simulation and reality blurred, Wei asks us to question the meaning of our daily realities: “If all experiences can be gained from virtual things, is it necessary for us to talk about real life? Is what we perceive as real life also some kind of ‘simulation’—part of some kind of program?” For the artist, his own images are just as much a warning for himself as for his audience.

“I think every artist eventually confronts the question of where they belong. My work is a warning for myself in the information age, which seems to be romantic, for all nightmares are not foretold, and there is dawn behind darkness,” he says. “It is like we are trapped in a fast-falling lift, which we cannot stop, but the wind, the shouts, and the cries can be heard as long as your eyes are closed.”

Editor’s note: We discovered Wei Wei’s work in the LensCulture Black & White Awards, where it was awarded a top prize. For more inspiring work, check out the rest of the winners!