Wenda Gu: the green house

Posted on September 01, 2007 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, summer 2007
Juliette Bianco, Assistant Director

Art is a conversation between its maker and the beholder, whether across millennia or in the here and now. Artists working today, of course, must negotiate along with the rest of us, in "real time," life in the twenty-first century. Their work is not a window into the past but a mirror of the world we inhabit. Avant-garde artist Wenda Gu was born in China in 1955 and was a Red Guard member who painted revolutionary posters during Mao's Cultural Revolution. His first solo exhibition was shut down by the Chinese authorities before it ever opened. He moved to the United States in 1987 yet maintains his Chinese citizenship, living and working between the two continents. He chooses to tell his story in hair—our hair.

This summer, the Hood Museum of Art and the Dartmouth College Library unveil a major site-specific work of art by Wenda Gu that has been over a year in the making. It is the latest in the artist's thirteen-year global conceptual human hair sculpture series, united nations. An eighty-by-thirteen-foot hair screen titled the green house will fill the main hall of Baker Library, the physical and intellectual heart of the campus. Created for Dartmouth, the sculpture is made of the hair of thousands of Dartmouth and regional community members. Last spring and summer, Hood staff collected hair from local salons and two "hair drives."  An estimated 42,350 haircuts resulted in the accumulation of 430 pounds of hair, which was shipped to the artist's Shanghai studio. The artist has combined it with brightly dyed hair from other parts of the world, fashioning a monument that is local in origin and global in conception.

Wenda Gu's united nations sculptures arise from his dream that through his art he might unite humanity and encourage international understanding: "The united nations art project is committed to a single human body material—pure human hair. Hair is a signifier and metaphor extremely rich in history, civilizations, science, ethnicity, timing, and even economics. [It] becomes the great human 'hairitage.'" Wenda Gu's sculpture at Dartmouth will be a powerful statement about the living, human dimension of globalization and the diversity represented by our own community. The hair screen is accompanied in Berry Library by a five-mile-long hair braid in twelve neon colors representing all of the countries of the world currently recognized by the United Nations.

The green house involved an extraordinary number of people from every racial, social, and economic background at Dartmouth and in the surrounding community, all united in a symbolic kinship by the simple fact that the hair they left on the floor of a salon or barbershop is now remade as a work of art. This sculpture realizes a very special and particular integration of students, faculty, staff, and community members, young and old, and signals that art can be a truly powerful catalyst for community dialogue. It will grow beyond personal, state, or national boundaries in its final form to show us—through innovative artistic provocation—how we all might fit together in the world's great cultural, racial, and spiritual tapestry.

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Written September 01, 2007 by Kristin Swan