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Wenda Gu: Transformations and Translations

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2007
Brian Kennedy, Director

The art of Wenda Gu is founded in the history, culture, and traditions of his native China. He has been preoccupied artistically with finding contemporary and global applications for the knowledge and skills he has learned about Chinese traditions of printmaking and bookbinding, the carving of stone steles and the building of great walls, the writing of Tang poetry, and the design of political posters. He has explored these traditions in radical ways through various media, including calligraphy, ink drawing, sculptural installation, electronic multimedia, and performance art. In a vigorous embrace of the contemporary art market’s models of exhibition and promotion, he has shown his work in commercial and museum galleries, in artist-run spaces, and at the major art biennials and triennials of the world. Wenda Gu’s artistic practice is inextricably linked to his migrant identity as a Chineseborn and trained artist who came to the West in search of the “American dream.” His work engages constantly with the comparisons and contradictions between his upbringing and training in communist China and the circumstances of his life after he settled in 1987 in the world’s most multicultural city and the leading center of capitalist America, New York.

In a unique fashion Wenda Gu brings together particular characteristics of practice that are to varying degrees typical of contemporary artists internationally. First, he views his art making as “truly international,” embracing all cultures. Second, he uses text and the distortion or corruption of language as a device or format to present his concept of contemporary culture. Third, he favors human body material as his medium. Fourth, he embraces the involvement of the public in the process of his art making while employing many assistants. Fifth, he does not have a gallery dealer and prefers to organize his commissions and sales himself.

Wenda Gu has commented that some people say that he is like a “cultural ambassador,” while others call him a “cultural colonist.” He is both, of course, because he represents a model of a contemporary globetrotter international artist promoting international harmony, and because his materials are supplied by people locally in order to be refashioned elsewhere and then brought back to the host community. Although he is a highly trained calligrapher and has other artistic competencies, many of the technical skills required for his largescale projects require special assistance. He is very demanding about specifications and goes to inordinate lengths to achieve his standards of accuracy, whether in book binding, hair braiding, video projection, stone carving, or printmaking. He declares: “For me, I think the art has a purpose to serve a public.” He is fond of saying that his work is only half complete when he installs it. The dialogue with his audience begins then and continues for the run of the show, and this builds on the recognition by exhibition viewers, especially of the hair projects, that they are witnessing a creation to which they have themselves contributed. He has described the typical viewer’s response to his hair installations: “The overall reactions to this work range from severe ‘repulsion’ and ‘disgust’ to puzzling queries, then ultimate recognition—it is us.”

One of the more remarkable artists active on the international art scene today, Wenda Gu has invented a form of art making that is distinctive, unique, and wonderfully imaginative. His works engage in profound ways with themes and ideas of great relevance to contemporary discourse. He creates installations of extraordinary visual power that are engaging for their audiences. He transforms human waste material into visual creations that captivate and fascinate, provoking many questions and causing people to think in new ways. This transformative experience is related directly to the artist’s preoccupation with translation, migration, and the transcultural avantgarde. Cross-cultural translation may be impossible due to its complexity, but the artistic creations of Wenda Gu present an alternative route, a shared visual experience where artist and community enter into intellectual dialogue. His utopian vision of an international community united through works of art made from materials contributed by the world’s peoples is a truly inspiring ideal. And it is necessary one, now more than ever, because the capacity of technology already allows us to do things we may not wish to do. It is a world of choices, and to envision its future, society must continue to dream, and then to strive to make its dreams a reality.

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