Intersections & Translations
Intersections and Translations, Wenda Gu's first Australian solo show, was launched on 4 October 2001 at the National Gallery of Australia. The exhibition continues at the Gallery until April 2002.
Wenda Gu is a leading Chinese contemporary artist with studios in New York and Shanghai whose work has been widely shown in international exhibitions and biennales: his work appeared most recently in Australia in Inside Out: New Chinese Art held at the NGA in 2000.
The exhibition includes united nations: australia monument, commissioned by the NGA for the exhibition and created from screens of human hair, a new installation of fifteen large carved slate tablets and rubbings on Chinese paper forming forest of stones, and wenda gu: marriages.
The works have recently been created in studios in New York and China. Together they introduce the strengths and concerns of an internationally acclaimed artist who has been widely recognized in international biennales and exhibitions for almost two decades.
Wenda Gu combines a long-standing fascination with Chinese classical calligraphy with a contemporary take on universal concerns that easily cross cultural and ethnic boundaries.
The installations in his aptly titled united nations series are all constructed of walls and screens of human hair. Frozen with adhesives in lace-like patterns, the hair also forms both comprehensible and nonsensical characters, letters and scripts.
Each monument is designed specifically for a country and made from hair collected from the floors of the nation's hairdressers. To date, the united nations project has incorporated hair from more than a million donors from eighteen countries.
united nations: australia monument is the nineteenth monument and represents the last continent in the series. Using hair from many nations, the artist has created a canopy of pseudo characters which combine ancient Chinese seal script and Roman letters with elements of Arabic and Sanskrit. The viewer is tempted to decipher the combinations in imaginative and personal ways.
In contrast in the walls of the installation made entirely of Australian hair, the artist also offers a challenge on the problematic nature of Australia's racial mix and geographic location in boldly stated English. The rope of Chinese and Australian plaits was used in a symbolic tug of war performance of dancers of different races choreographed especially to celebrate the creation of the united nations: australia monument.
Since his formative classical training in Chinese calligraphy, Wenda Gu has manipulated Chinese characters and meanings (or non-meanings) in various art media including huge ink scrolls and installations of human hair. In forest of stones, the artist has taken as his starting point well-known poems by Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) scholars of classical Chinese literature such as Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu. The poems have been inscribed by hand on huge stone tablets using ancient Chinese calligraphy. The early twentieth-century English translation by Witter Bynner appears next to the original text.
Challenging the accepted notions of translation and meaning, Wenda Gu has then transformed the phonetic sounds of Bynner's English translation into modern Chinese characters which dominate the central panel of each stone. Finally, avoiding the potential for nonsense that this retranslation process seems to encapsulate, the artist has created new and somewhat surreal poems in English from these carefully selected sound-words and characters.
The combination of the beautifully sculpted stone slabs, and the bold calligraphic rubbings on soft handmade paper creates a contemplative mood. The installation suggests solutions to the seeming lack of communication between different peoples and nations, while demonstrating how easy it is for misinterpretations to occur since it is not really possible for an outside observer to fully understand the depth of another cultural entity.
Fifteen poems, stone slabs and ordered sets of fifteen rubbings which form the forest of stones installation in Canberra are the culmination of almost ten years' preparation.
Wenda Gu explores cultural and physical meetings of gender and race in much of his art. In wenda gu: marriages he has placed videos of four marriage performances within a towering white 'wedding dress'. Various combinations of couples - across sex, culture and ethnicity - participate in provocative wedding scenes in locations as far spread as Germany, Japan and the USA.
The artist plays the groom in each marriage performance. His partners were France Kaplan (USA) at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA, 1999; Melanie Eastburn (Australia) at the Utsunomiya Museum of Art, Japan, 2000; Jeremy Wingfield (USA) at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 2000; and Anne Katrin (Germany) at the House of World Cultures, Berlin, 2001.
Fundamental to this new creation is rice, one of the most significant cross-cultural symbols of marriage and fertility. Placed in the hands or under the feet of bridal couples by hopeful parents, scattered over newlyweds by well wishes, rice symbolises marriage across many cultures. In wenda gu: marriages, the rice grains are embedded into the translucent panels and ceiling and strewn liberally around the periphery of the installation.
There are also more specifically Chinese allusions in the construction. The sheets of translucent material tied together with gold string has parallels in the jade burial suits of past emperors and the armour of the entombed warriors. In each instance the mystical protective qualities of the scaly surface is evoked - for the dead and for the living.
Wenda Gu (or rather Gu Wenda) was born in 1955 in Shanghai. He studied at the Shanghai School of Arts and Crafts and Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. His training in traditional Chinese painting, particularly calligraphy, laid the foundation for much of his later work, whether scroll painting or other less conventional media. Wenda Gu immediately invited controversy with his manipulation and re-formation of traditional Chinese calligraphy. His larger than life confronting canvases, filled with nonsensical characters or quirky word plays, challenged the expectations of the viewer. Unable to find a place for his work within the strict confines of a rigid Chinese bureaucratic order, the artist eventually left his homeland for the Unites States of America in 1987.
Since leaving China, Wenda Gu has established a widely respected and critically acclaimed international reputation. His use of human 'genetic' material - powdered placenta, menstrual blood, hair - to create monumental installations continues to be provocative. Best known for his united nations series, an ambitious project which will eventually include 25 hair monuments representing different nations across the globe, Wenda Gu's works explore the changing nature of world cultures in the face of globalisation. Yet, despite their monumental scale, his art also refers directly to the individual. The use of genetic material personalises his installations, providing a reference point that focuses the viewer on the tenuous nature of cultural divides. The artist's preoccupations with human interactions - across boundaries of race, gender and culture - are paramount in the works in this exhibition.
Wenda Gu's ongoing use of script within his work reflects the importance of language as a defining element of identity. The artist's brilliant manipulations and combinations of real and composite scripts and sounds also raise issues of cross-cultural understanding and translatability. Such themes resonate within his latest works, presented for the first time in Intersections & Translations.