Friday, March 02, 2007

hairy gu

So, last night I attended a Johnson museum lecture by star Chinese artist Wenda Gu (useful website with much photo documentation). The talk accompanies a current show of his work there. I'm planning to attend an afternoon symposium dedicated to the artist on Saturday (open to the public as these things generally are), so I'll keep things short and simple here.

Gu showed digital projections documenting his work while fielding questions from the audience. The focus was on his internationally themed United Nations installation series, along with a handful of early ink on paper pieces (featuring landscape and/or calligraphy) and some new "land art" projects. Curiously, he largely avoided mention of his Forest of Stone Steles series, a labor intensive project represented here in Ithaca by twelve elaborately carved stones, each with accompanying ink on paper rubbings. (You can see my not entirely favorable review—which I still stand by—here.) But he did conclude the evening by showing a video depicting some of the work behind the piece. His steles were quarried and carved, largely by hand, by traditional Chinese craftspeople.

Gu's presentation of the United Nations series was similarly (and welcomely) focused on material and technique, along with some of the more straightforward responses generated in his audiences. The installations are notable for being made primarily out of human hair (held together with glue and other materials). He discussed at some length how this made some people uncomfortable, both for general reasons and culturally specific ones—for example a version in Israel inviting the threat of government censure because of Holocaust associations. He talked about the collection process: from his early days going from "barbershop to barbershop" to his current method of getting museums or other organizations to collect local locks. He explained how his use of hair from different racial groups (along with "gay hair"!) was intended to symbolize both diversity and unity. I'm not quite sure that I quite buy this last claim.

Gu also covered the subject of his simplified or invented "Chinese" characters, a trademark of his (and of a number of contemporary Chinese artists, for some reason). Not being able to read Chinese characters, I am probably unqualified to fully evaluate this central aspect of his work. But I suppose Gu would respond that miscommunication (or lack of communication even) is his real central theme, in which case I may be perfectly qualified.
I'll have more on this topic and others after attending the Saturday event and having it all explained to me.

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