Gu Wenda (谷 文達)(born 1955, Shanghai) is a contemporary artist from China who lives and works in New York City. Much of his works play off of traditional Chinese calligraphyand poetry, and he is also known for his tendency to use human hair in his pieces.
Just six minutes into our breakfast conversation mid-May in Hong Kong, Gu Wenda described himself as a “troublemaker,” who “didn’t follow school requirements—even as a teacher.” I’d expected as much from an artist who made his name outside of China beginning in the late 1980s with massive installations incorporating human hair and, for a notorious (but brief) period, using menstrual blood, placenta powder and even semen. Yet, as the amicable, bespectacled Gu revealed in our conversation, instead of repudiating the august history of Chinese art, he has spent the last four decades pursuing new ways of interpreting these literatitraditions: an iconoclast infatuated with icons.
mythos of lost dynasties series #1
When looking at gu's paintings, the deconstructe chinese characters inhibit the viewer's attempt to interpret the character's exact meaning. rather, the viewers are forced to face the “tushi” and to challenge preconceived notions of significance through word image. in many cases, gu's paintings are pure imagery of chinese written characters. these characters have been taken away from their original function to play a syntactical part in a sentence, they are detached, synthesized, misplaced, overlapped, miswritten, negated, and inverted to create an uncertain world.
By rendering the uncertainty of the world. gu wants viewers to feel dissatisfied with what they already know and to continue exploring the unknown world which, according to his words, includes“the nonobjective, uncertain, even the unspeakable feeling of human existence.” gu's pseudo-characters allow the viewer to be stimulated by their vague and variegated elements. the viewer is able to create their own meanings and establish their own aesthetic interpretation of the paintings. although gu is not the first chinese artist to create abstract paintings, he is the first chinese artist in mainland china to receive international recognition due to his conceptualized abstraction in ink. by creating an artistic schema, gu's silent presentation always aims at the innermost realm of the individual's incomprehensible mind. his goal is to provide the viewer with a mystical inner-experience beyond clear comprehension.
Professor of Art History, Maine College of Art
wisdom comes from tranquillity
a mixed media ink and woven installation commissioned by zhejiang academy of arts, china, 1985
Gu is most well known for his use of pseudo-languages in most of his works. Ever since the exhibition of Chinese Painting Invitational in Wuhan City in 1984, Gu’s large scale ink paintings have been increasingly exhibited. His first personal exhibition was closed by the authorities to public audiences before the opening because of the invented, fake, miswritten Chinese characters, and printing style calligraphy. After investigation it reopened only to the professional art circuit. The works from this show are regarded as the beginning of conceptual ink art in china.
In his work Temple of Heaven, he covers the room with ancient Chinese seal script: the oldest written form of the Chinese language, which most people can no longer speak. In other works he develops various unreadable texts based on language influences in the area in which he is creating an installment. Gu states that the unreadable texts are used to evoke the limitations of human knowledge. In his poster for the Cultural Revolution, Gu's use of miswritten, deformed, or crossed letters signifies the meaninglessness of the written word and the futility of human endeavor in a communist society.
In his own life, Gu adheres to a core tenant of Confucianism: “Filial piety is the root of all virtues.” He cares for his nonagenarian parents whenever he is at his studio in Shanghai, although he primarily lives in Brooklyn with his wife, interior designer Kathryn Scott. The youngest of three, Gu was born in Shanghai in 1955 to a family of bankers, who, like many bourgeois Chinese, suffered greatly under Mao Zedong’s reeducation campaigns of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). His paternal grandfather Gu Jiancheng was China’s first spoken-drama playwright who, in the interwar era, founded the Shanghai Drama Society—but was later exiled to the countryside, where he died alone.
Gu’s works, as well as his subtle asides, point to his dedication to the legacy of Chinese culture, as well as his own grandiose ambitions (it was no surprise, then, that Gu calls Nietzsche “the most influential guy for me,” who gives him energy “anytime I have trouble”). He’s dismissive of oil painting—introduced to mainland Chinese artists by Soviet Socialist Realist painters such as Konstantin Maksimov, at Mao’s urging, in the 1950s. He refers to Marxism itself as an “import from Europe”—though he’s also quick to rail against the “feudal culture,” particularly in education, that was a legacy of a Confucian society. As a youth, Gu was conscripted into the Red Guards, wrote “big character” propaganda posters and was assigned to a Shanghai factory producing folk-style wood-carvings before he attended the Shanghai School of Art.
Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, Gu left Shanghai for Hangzhou, where he attained his master’s degree in 1981 at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art). He studied under Lu Yanshao (1909–93), whom Gu recalls was “last master of the classical Chinese landscape tradition [shanshui].” Lu recognized Gu’s prodigious talent—“along with my rebellious side,” Gu admits with a laugh—and hired him to teach at the school, from 1981 until 1987. As a teacher, Gu was close in age, or even younger, than many of his students. But he was popular because his approach emphasized personal innovation above all else: “Tradition is important, but you have to associate it with creativity—it’s not just about copying.”
The 1980s were a fertile period for Gu. Drawing on his experience creating big-character posters, Gu began his ongoing “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series (1983– ) that combined styles of simplified characters typical of Maoist propaganda with that of ancient seal-scripts, the earliest codified form of the Chinese language. He also worked with students on live-action pieces such as I Evaluate Characters Written by Three Men and Three Women (1985), in which they wrote the character jing (“quiet,” or “still”) and Gu took red paint and crossed out some and circled others, mimicking both traditional pedagogical marks and the harsh ideological purges of the Cultural Revolution. He waxes nostalgically about those days: “At that time I had no commercial market in mind—totally different than the generation today. It was absolutely pure art.”
Even before he left for the United States, in 1987, Gu was well-known in China. Authorities had closed his 1986 exhibition at the Xi’an Art Gallery, leading students to take the censored works—large ink paintings of fake ideograms that government officials assumed contained subversive messages because they couldn’t read them—and parade them in the streets. Though a contemporary of the artists of the ’85 New Wave movement, which culminated in the notorious February 1989 exhibition “China Avant-Garde” in Beijing, their practices were too Western-derived for Gu. Instead, he has sought a “middle position” between international art currents and his own Chinese artistic heritage.
He has inhabited two worlds ever since. Hanart TZ gallery owner Johnson Tsong-zung Chang exhibited Gu alongside Xu Bing in “Desire for Words” (1992) and, in 1997, mounted Gu’s memorial to the Hong Kong Handover, United Nations – Hong Kong Monument: The Historical Clash. In 2014, at Art Basel Hong Kong, Hanart TZ showed Gu’s series of carved stone slabs and printed books, “Forest of Stone Steles – Retranslation & Rewriting of Tang Poetry” (1993–2005), while his massive hanging installation United Nations: Man & Space (1999–2000), in which Gu used human hair to re-create 188 national flags, was prominently featured in the Encounters section of the fair.
Always thinking long-term, Gu envisions sending each flag from theUnited Nations to a museum in each of the 188 countries. In the meantime, he speaks of more ambitious projects, including one with the Murano glass factory in Venice, to produce Chinese-style lanterns for next year’s Biennale. Some projects remain secret, however. While revisiting Gu’s exhibition at Hanart TZ several days after our conversation, ArtAsiaPacific was talking to Chang when the dealer’s phone rang and he excused himself. As we were leaving, Chang came to say goodbye. “Sorry, that was Wenda,” he said as the elevator door of the Pedder Building was sliding shut. “We’re planning the greatest exhibition in the history of the world.”