Interview: Gu Wenda

The avant-garde pioneer on education, feminism, and art wholeism in China

Known by some as ‘the hair guy’, Shanghai-born Gu Wenda, age 61, paved the way for a new generation of avant-garde Chinese artists. Since its creation in 1993, his ongoing and most famous project United Nations has seen human hair collected from over 20 countries and then weaved into enormous installations and banners of invented languages. This fascination with themes of national identity, language and culture have fuelled Gu’s exceptional career, inspiring abstract and often radical pieces.


Back in Shanghai for his latest project, Gu is currently preparing for his Flaming Mountain installation as part of his Heavenly Lantern series, set to take over M21- Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum with a display of 25,000 Chinese lanterns. For the upcoming exhibition, Gu has invited 3,000 local children to participate in the opening performance. The show itself has all the promise of a remarkable spectacle, with thousands of lanterns covering the museum, inside of which is a four-floor ‘retrospective’ – or so we are told – of Gu’s lifetime of work.


Heavenly Lantern - Tea Palace # 1


But Gu begs to differ. ‘It isn’t a retrospective,’ he quips, ‘because certain works, like installation pieces, I simply can’t bring and display. You’ll see some of my early works, like my ’80s – what I call my ‘graduation’ works – updated ink paintings and projects. It can give you an overall view of my work but it isn’t a retrospective. It’s an overview of 35 years.’


No stranger to monumental installations, Gu previously exhibited the first installation of his Heavenly Lanterns series in Brussels, Belgium, covering a building in the city centre in over 5,000 lanterns. When asked what the differences are between displaying the lanterns in Europe and China, Gu laughs, ‘5,000 lanterns now seems easy! But seriously, in Brussels the lantern installation worked as a kind of dialogue between the West and China, because the lanterns brought such an obvious Chineseness to the city that wasn’t there before.


‘It’s this concept of dislocation that is different when showing the heavenly lanterns in Shanghai. In Brussels, the lanterns act as a kind of mouthpiece for a civilization, but in China, they take on a different role. Chinese lanterns are usually red, and we don’t often see other colours, but in Shanghai they’re going to be all different colours, like contemporary lanterns, so this is different. In China, the lanterns represent a journey to the West, and all of the lanterns will have famous smiles from art history painted on them, you know, the Mona Lisa, Monkey King, things like that.’


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The children at the opening will be invited to write their hopes and dreams on the lanterns, and once the exhibition closes, to take home their lanterns as a gift. Gu explains, ‘I hope this will give the children a little piece of art history in their own homes. Most contemporary artists now stick to Western ideology and are open to Western ideas. China’s contemporary art history is very short. To promote contemporary art in China, kids are the first step. I want contemporary art in textbooks in schools.’


Having originally studied ink painting at the Chinese Academy of Art, Gu believes this background is the reason for the longevity of his contemporary art career, ‘It’s very unusual to have one of the leaders of contemporary art to come from very orthodox training, but it is because of this traditional Chinese art training that I have lasted so long, creating contemporary art for over 35 years. Ink painting, calligraphy… it’s interwoven within the Chinese culture.’


Now living with his wife in New York City, Gu moved to the United States in 1987, one year after his graduation show in Shaanxi Province was shut down by the Chinese government. ‘The show included fake calligraphy, like a made-up language, and the government at the time thought it might contain some subliminal message’, Gu shrugs, ‘but as they say, no publicity is bad publicity.’


And indeed, this closure catapulted Gu into the public eye, creating a media frenzy and ultimately acting as the catalyst for his move to the States. He now spends his time between the USA and China, with studios in New York, Shanghai and X’ian. This ‘dual life’ as Gu calls it, has had a profound impact on him as a person and an artist, ‘I didn’t feel I was Chinese before I left China. I have felt my Chineseness much more clearly since I moved out [of China]. Moving to New York extended my boundaries. I was trained during the Cultural Revolution with strict Marxist ideology. I had no financial education – I didn’t have a bank account and I’d never written a check before I moved to America! The first time I wrote a check was to pay for rent in New York. I’d had a totally ideologist education, but then the most capitalist experience in New York. Moving to America taught me that travelling is the best school, the best learning is from society.’


Despite his start, Gu somewhat refreshingly doesn’t set out to be controversial. ‘My life is a balancing act, my lifestyle, my language. As an artist I want to be a peacemaker, I am not a politician trying to create conflict.’ This ability to place the themes of his art right on the edge of contentious social issues is one that has carried his career for the past 35 years. And in his self-assigned role of ‘peacemaker’, Gu sure doesn’t shy away from weighing in on issues of the moment. In an abrupt topic shift, he says ‘I think art is female. Politics and finance, now, they’re male. I don’t really know what has changed since all of the feminism stuff, I think it’s still a man’s world, but I feel like all culture and charitable things would be female.’


The topic of charity is one that lies close to Gu’s heart, and he admits one of his biggest goals is to be able to make his own art foundation, supporting art in different communities through charitable work.


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In one of his most recent pieces, Gu directed 1,500 children to paint freely on rice paper with processed nontoxic algae water at an exhibition hall in Shenzhen. After the paintings dried, he combined the works together to create his own work, in a project that hoped to raise awareness for the need of environmental protection. The participating children were each given t-shirts with numbers on that corresponded to their section of the work, and Gu says that, ‘in the future, if the works are sold, I will give the children their percentage of the money. This is already teaching children about finance, and art.’


The project as a whole ended up donating over 1 million RMB to some of the province’s poorest schools, for clean water systems to be installed. ‘Sometimes it’s very tiring working with children [laughs]. It would be much easier to sit back and create a nice sculpture on my own. But kids are the future; kids inform what the future art market will be like. It’s not just about the value, it’s really a lot more fun making things with kids. How it’s been made holds a lot of memories.’


Taking responsibility for his role in society is something Gu takes extremely seriously, even creating a new art movement he has coined ‘art wholeism’, which he describes as being like ‘the wholefood industry, where everything is organic and put back into the industry itself’. Gu explains, ‘The thing is, people think of contemporary art as a bunch of poor and crazy people. I want to change this. The artist has to take responsibility, be responsible for his own wellbeing, and be responsible in society. I invest in myself, I make money, and then I re-invest in myself. I care about education and I care about art. I cannot change myself – this is my personality. If you don’t feel satisfied in your work, how can you convince the audience to be satisfied? If artists are just creating work for the purpose of selling it, I’m not interested. Now, looking back on almost 40 years of my career, it’s really my passion that has carried me this far. It’s not just art for art’s sake.’


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Gu’s ambitious Heavenly Lantern installation for Shanghai has been two years in the making, and the scaffolding alone has taken one month to set up above the museum. Art aficionado or not, 25,000 Chinese lanterns floating next to the Huangpu are sure to be a sight to behold. Don’t miss it.


Heavenly Lanterns: Flaming Mountain and the Journey to the West exhibition will be at M21- Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum from Wednesday 9 November-February 15. Entry to the exhibition is free.

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