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Reviewed by:
  • Wenda Gu: Art from Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium
  • Rob Harle
Wenda Gu: Art from Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium edited by Mark H.C. Bessire. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2003. 230 pp., illus. ISBN: 0-262-02552-3.

The problem with book reviews is that we are constrained by the meaning of words! There are many things in this world that words fail to describe adequately, and Gu's art is one of them. Interestingly, much of Gu's work consists of Chinese-like ideograms that are pseudo-ideograms deliberately created to transcend the traditional content of Chinese "words." As Gu says, "I felt such freedom, leaving behind the content of words" (p. 145). Having only words at my disposal, I will do my best to give the reader a feel for this magnificent book.

The book is wonderful to just glance through, but it is much more than a coffee-table presentation. It documents much of Gu's work, both through serious academic discussion and lavish color photographs. It also includes an insightful interview with this complex, unique artist by David Cateforis, professor of art history at the University of Kansas.

Gu was born in Shanghai and now lives and works in Brooklyn, with studios in Shanghai and X'ian. In the East he is Gu Wenda; in the West, Wenda Gu. This naming convention in a sense sums up Gu's work. He is constantly striving to juxtapose Eastern and Western symbols, not in a unifying sense but in transcendent third position.

Globalism has intensified ethnic difference on a local level while increasing ethnic unity on a global level. This environment . . . is referred to as "transculturalism" by Wenda Gu whose work tends to parody the role of cultural colonialist from a suspended cultural position as a citizen of a diasporan world

(p. 12).

Gu, like David Suzuki and Isamu Noguchi, constantly deals with this "transculturalism," both on a personal and professional level. Gu has to consider not only minor changes in conventions such as names but also [End Page 75] fundamental ideological differences on the most profound levels. Not long ago Gu, born in 1955, was painting large propaganda posters of Mao for the Red Guard in a totalitarian communist state. Now he is a leading avant-garde artist in the most capitalistic society on earth. The materials he has used in his art in the past, including menstrual blood and placenta powder, are challenging to say the least in either culture. He now uses human hair as his main medium and is sometimes known as "the hair artist."

Gu collects human hair from many countries around the world, donated by over a million people so far. He then weaves it, compresses it into bricks, presses it into glue to make translucent hanging panels and uses it arbitrarily in his massive installations. Most of Gu's work is monumental. His ongoing project united nations contains hair woven into a braid 5,000 meters long. The different hair colors, their origin and the different locations of the "work" all point to Gu's notion of "transculturalism." It also works as a metaphor for "the mixture of races that he [Gu] predicts will eventually unite humanity in a 'brave new racial identity'" (p. 12).

Large ink on paper calligraphic or ideogram-style painting is usually combined with the hair components in his work. United 7561 kilometres is a new piece in the exhibition Wenda Gu: From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium, and is the 20th installation of his united nations series, which incidentally he began in 1993. This book is an accompaniment to this traveling exhibition.

The book's rather enigmatic subtitle refers to Gu's perception of the traditional Chinese middle kingdom (Chou empire, circa 1000 B.C.E.) and the new millennium of the biological era. The human body materials he uses represents the present and the calligraphic paintings the former.

As mentioned, this book has an interview with Gu, together with essays by leading Chinese academics, a fascinating exhibition history and bibliography and an academic essay by Gu himself. This artist's vision is as grand and monumental as his creations...


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pp. 75-76
Launched on MUSE
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