Wenda Gu is probably one of the most uniquely fascinating people I've ever talked to. Part artist, part activist, part philosopher, Gu is a leading contemporary Chinese artist who has even written essays on art theories, which have been published in his book, Wenda Gu: Art from Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium.
He is known for his ongoing united nations project--which he began in 1993--where he collects hair from barbershops around the world and creates monuments that attempt to make a statement about uniting people and creating a new racial identity.
Born in Shanghai in 1955, Gu came to New York in 1987. He has been known for challenging tradition and pushing boundaries from the very beginning of his work. He is no stranger to controversy, as he used to paint pseudo-characters in calligraphy and people assumed he was making a political statement just because it didn't make sense to them. He still remains determined to challenge and reinvent ancient Chinese traditions of art.
So far, his united nations monuments have been installed everywhere from Australia, Canada, China, France, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy, Russia, Sweden to South Africa. So far, he has done 30 monuments and estimates that a million and a half people have contributed hair for his work. Most recently, his piece united nations-7561 kilometers--the 20th piece in the series--is being displayed at the Bates College Museum of Art in Maine from June 12th to October 9th. He has used 7 kilometers of thin hair braids to create a temple large enough for people to walk under and through.
With his distinctive work using genetic materials such as hair and blood in his art, the question Wenda Gu gets most frequently is probably how he came up with these crazy ideas. It's a simple question--an obvious, not particularly original question--but also the most genuine question that can be asked of someone like Gu, because it's just so bewildering to wrap your brain around these projects that he envisions and passionately tackles in his art. He actually made ink out of hair! And green tea paper! Such is the eccentric mind of Wenda Gu. Impressively, his answers and musings are as bizarrely captivating as his art seems to be.
APA: So you're known for your work with hair. How did you first decide to use hair?
Wenda Gu: It's a long story actually. My creations when I was in China actually deal with a lot of languages, and afterwards I totally disbelieved in language and abandoned language in my art creations. So, I switched around to the material world. I found out that the human body is essential material to the universe, so my work tries to use the human body to present the ideas. I didn't know that the human body indeed is a taboo, and is prohibited in many senses.
APA: It seems like you create a lot of controversy with your art, even if it's unintentional.
WG: Yeah, in all my work later on, the controversy was actually not my purpose. I try to be thought-provoking and try to be challenging and the art should be able to challenge people's thoughts, to involve people's appreciation. The controversy was not in my mind until later on. After a few years in America, I literally understand what is the meaning, the definition of controversy. And also, especially so many issues are around in society now. Seminism, AIDS, human rights. There was no such vocabulary when I grew up in China.
APA: So I know you stirred up controversy in Israel.
WG: The united nations project is supposed to include all different races and hair in the work. And I have done many different projects in Italy and France and in many other countries and used their local hair. But the difficult one is Israel, because the hair reminds them of the Nazi period and the Holocaust. This work was really nerve-wracking, because the Jewish people are so sensitive about their hair, and I actually had a discussion with the chair of the Parliament in order to discuss whether this work should be done or if it should be cancelled, and finally I did the work because the united nations project without Jewish hair is not complete. And this work has the positive sign to unite people together. It's totally different than the actions of the Nazis, so the Parliament finally supported it. That work made me so popular in Israel because every day the prime news would follow the process of my work. Even when I went to the airport, the people working in the airport would ask me, if you want hair, I will donate. I mean, nobody wants to be excluded in the world, right? The united nations has to include everybody. So actually, I got a very positive response. I just needed a little process to let people understand what I'm doing.
APA: So what are your plans for united nations? How long is this project going to go for?
WG: I don't know yet. What I understand is that I want to do a final ceremony. When I feel it's the right moment. It depends on many factors. This project has done many, many monumental installations and I want to take a part of different ones and combine many pieces together.
APA: Where is this going to be displayed?
WG: I don't know. [laughs] I don't know yet. I'm not sure this work has to be terminated because it's ongoing, this project, and the ongoing for me is a kind of concept--the work is not just finished. It's like an open situation. You absorb the changing world and what is coming in the future, so it's always open to absorb future issues as well.
APA: So you were trained in traditional calligraphy and brush painting in China, but now you are trying to challenge the ancient tradition?
WG: This is actually what the book title [Art from Middle Kingdom to Biological Millenium] is all about. My goal is to try to actually link and bridge the Asian Chinese culture with what's happening today. What I understand is that the future of mankind is going to be very focused on genetics and research and human biology and engineering of human biology. This is going to be the most dangerous and stunning world, and I try to reflect the most striking research today, to provide an artistic vocabulary to reflect this world.
APA: How did you come up with the concept of hair ink?
WG: This also goes back to the biological millennium. I wanted my new ink painting to contain human DNA, so when you paint with the hair ink, you are painting with human genes and human DNA. So the patterns on the painting will be human structure instead of just objective material. And also this reflects my theory of creating art. By using human body materials, you close the gap between viewing audience and the work. It's totally different than when the audience sees a piece of marble or a piece of canvas. These are objects, right? When you use the human body to create art, it becomes subjective materials. People look at it and it's just like you¡¦re looking into the mirror, so you see yourself. So that's one of the theories behind why I use bodily materials.
APA: I'm really curious: what is the consistency of hair ink, as compared to regular ink?
WG: It's a little bit lighter than ink. Traditional ink is made out of charcoal powder and it's totally black, but no human hair is totally black. Asian hair is dark brown. Also, it's permanent. During the time I was searching to find how to make hair into powder, I was so frustrated, because hair is so strong. Any chemical material you put in your hair, it won't destroy the hair. So then coincidentally, my assistant knows somebody who works for the Chinese pharmacy. The Chinese hair is a part of Chinese medicine. The purpose is to cure, to strengthen your body and to cure anxiety. That's the powder hair's function. So I thought about it: when you make a hair ink painting, you can try to cure the anxiety that the ink painting creates, because today, a lot of Chinese are talking about how to revitalize, how to recreate the Asian tradition, and it seems there is no way to surpass the strong tradition. So, this ink painting points out the situation today in China and the anxieties around the Chinese traditional ink painting.
APA: So when you use hair, placenta and blood in your art, do you find that different cultures have different reactions?
WG: For sure. I don't think there is a general taboo. One thing in a particular culture can be prohibited and in another culture it can be free. For the placenta piece, the placenta has been the tonic medicine for the Chinese in the Chinese culture. And the placenta caused controversy because there are issues in this culture involving abortion and child abuse, and the human body itself is kind of taboo in Christian culture. So it's kind of a comparative research, why the same body material in one culture is used this way and in another culture the other way. It's about human knowledge, abuse of human knowledge and people using it according to what they need in their lives.
APA: Can you describe the one that is on display at Bates College Museum of Arts?
WG: This one, the latest one, "7561 kilometers," that's the calculation of the length of the single thin hair braid. This single thin hair braid made the temple walls. It took my 3 assistants 3 years to complete a 7 kilometers-long hair braid. The more interesting part is that this single hair braid is equally divided into 188 sections, and it's connected by stamps, 188 stamps. Each stamp is engraved with the name of a nation, but the nation name is backwards, so if you read it from the left to the right, it becomes a totally new pronunciation. So actually, in order to read these stamps, you created another 188 new countries.
APA: Is that you challenging the idea of language?
WG: It's challenging the old utopian idea of united nations. It's an idea, which in my opinion, will never be realized in reality, but what I want is to realize it in the art creation.
APA: In one of your interviews, you say: 'Artists don't have much influence. Only politicians do,' and you talk about art as ideology. Can you talk about what you mean by that?
WG: I think that I always have a strong ideology to keep doing artwork. Especially coming from another culture and immigrating into this country. And at the beginning, I had no money, no language. And in order to survive in the art world is extremely harsh and difficult, so it's the ideology that gives you the power and the strength to believe what you're doing is a good thing. And I have so many other friends that emigrate from China, many artists--I think more than 100 artists from China--they are all trained professionally, but in order to survive, they have to give up the other career in order to make a living. Art becomes a hobby, and in this culture, most artists are doing art as a hobby and what they're interested in, but it's not for the living. That's why I say that ideology and idealism is so important. It keeps you doing things that you want, so it's a power.