Sun, 25 Nov 2001

Wenda Gu pursues 'one new racial identity'

Carla Bianpoen, Contributor, Canberra

At a time when Samuel Huntington's prediction of a clash of civilizations seems near to fulfillment, with the world plunging into ethnic and religious violence, Wenda Gu's art testifies to the contrary.

Born in Shanghai in 1955 and having lived in New York since 1987, Wenda Gu, an artist of international standing, unites cultures and races worldwide by using human hair for his aesthetic monumental installations.

Blood, semen and placenta powder are also used for his distinctive artwork. This is not meant as a stunt, but is a huge effort to create what he calls a "brave new racial identity".

Drawing on his cultural background, deep meditative ponderings on human existence and cultural and traditional myths and taboos, Wenda Gu's art takes on these issues of actual urgency in our time.

The Australian Monument epnagcliifsihc, unveiled at the Intersection and Translation exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra in early October, is part of the United Nations series, an ongoing global art project for the 21st century which Gu started in 1993 and aims to take to 25 countries.

Unlike the UN, which focuses on political and social alliances among countries, Gu's project is about multiculturalism based on the spiritual exploration of a country's social and cultural history and identity.

The epnagcliifsihc, a synthesis of the words "English" and "Pacific", is the 19th monument in the series. It was commissioned by the NGA and belongs to its permanent collection.

Consisting of huge walls and screens, the structure -- 1,140 centimeters wide, 1,552 cm long and 600 cm high -- is made of hair from Australians and Asians.

This human hair has been formed into beautiful lace-like patterns to form pseudo character inscriptions, put together from a combination of Chinese seal script, Arabic, Sanskrit and the Roman alphabet. Crossing the vertical screens to form an X structure, two phrases relate to Australia's past and present, namely "Genetically British" and "Geographically Pacific".

A second installation shows the artist's skill and imagery as he transcends his obsession with Chinese calligraphy and communication.

Forest of Stone Tablets -- Postliteracy resembles the sanctity of souls wrapped in an ambience of elegiac meditation. Writings on 15 black, finely carved stone tablets, suggesting tombstones, resemble a script of homage to the deceased. Mounted scrolls, ink rubbings using ink made of hair, surround the stone tablets.

The installation draws on the world-famous forest of stone tablets in Xian, the capital of six ancient Chinese dynasties, where poetry, great events and deaths were recorded, then spread across the country through ink rubbings. Eclipsing all is a blank tombstone, to mark the great T'ang empress Wu Zetian and her uncountable achievements.

In an apparent approximation, Gu portrays the uses and misuses of the written language. He retranslates Witter Bynner's translation of T'ang poetry back into Chinese, now based on sound. The result is hilarious.

Bynner's English for "A Tartar under the willows is lamenting on his flute/That Spring never blows to him through the Jade Pass", becomes "She finds a lady feeding her milk to a naked lion in the Garden of Techa./ Mentally disturbed and afraid of life, she vomits".

A third installation, Marriages, "explores cultural and physical meetings of gender and race".

Inside a wedding room in the shape of a towering wedding dress, constructed of 575 pieces of rice fiberglass casting (25 cm x 20 cm each). On its rice wall, four small video monitors (six inches each) show four provocative marriage performances of various couples, across sex, culture and ethnicity, which were performed in Germany, Japan and the U.S.

Rice grains, one of the most significant cross-cultural symbols of marriage and fertility, are embedded in the translucent panels and ceiling, and strewn liberally around the periphery of the installation.

"I believe biological 'marriage' is more essential than cultural 'marriage,'" says the artist, adding, "Just imagine, if all people are mix-blooded, we will have no racism in our world."

Over a million people have contributed their hair for Gu's monuments for, among others, Poland, Italy, Holland, America, Israel, Sweden, Russia, Britain, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Africa, Canada and China

Although using human bodily materials may provoke public resistance, for Gu it has a sacred meaning as he draws on age-old concepts, ingrained in one or the other cultural tradition.

Placenta powder, for instance, has long been used in Eastern societies symbolizing the body and the spirit, while in some societies hair is believed to be the location of the soul. When human bodily materials are reincarnated as an artwork, the significance comes from the inside of the bodily materials, he says.

Growing up in a family with a grandfather who was a theater and film director who taught him Chinese classics and a sister, now a musicologist, who studied the cello, Gu's artistic talents soon blossomed. Incorporating Chinese-looking ideograms of his own invention, he developed an individualistic style and created his Pseudo Character Series, giant walls of monochrome ink paintings.

Limitations to freedom of expression in China at that time made him leave for America in 1987. Yet he remains obsessed with Chinese culture, as he reinvents and takes it to the international level. A leader in the China contemporary art movement, he is mentioned in the Phaidon Press art book Art Today and Marilyn Stokstadt's Art History.

His art has been collected by, among others, the China National Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the British Museum. He has studios in New York, Shanghai and Xian.

Wenda Gu says the last monument in the United Nations project will be a giant wall made of pure human hair, representing the unification of mankind. A utopia? Perhaps it can never exist in reality, admits the artist, but he assures that it will certainly be achieved in his stimulating oeuvre.

The first two installations are on display until April 7, 2002, while the third installation can be seen only until early December 2001.