Portrait of Gu Wenda. Courtesy the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Human Materialist

Gu Wenda

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Just six minutes into our breakfast conversation mid-May in Hong Kong, Gu Wenda described himself as a “troublemaker,” who “didn’t follow school requirements—even as a teacher.” I’d expected as much from an artist who made his name outside of China beginning in the late 1980s with massive installations incorporating human hair and, for a notorious (but brief) period, using menstrual blood, placenta powder and even semen. Yet, as the amicable, bespectacled Gu revealed in our conversation, instead of repudiating the august history of Chinese art, he has spent the last four decades pursuing new ways of interpreting these literati traditions: an iconoclast infatuated with icons. 

A few evenings earlier, Gu’s solo exhibition opened at Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ Gallery. There, he was showing an abstracted landscape on custom-made green-tea paper, calligraphic works and a room-sized matte-black rectangle of hair-charcoal sprinkled on the floor—all created with his own “Chinese genetic ink.” Gu has the ink—which uses pulverized human hair in lieu of charcoal powder—specially manufactured at the renowned Shanghai Cao Sugong Ink Factory. The hair powder, used in Chinese medicine for curing anxiety, contains the DNA of countless people; Gu’s use of it is a symbolic gesture, meant to alleviate living Chinese of their cultural anxiety while connecting them to their indigenous heritage of ink painting. 

It had been a busy May for the artist. Just days before his Hong Kong show, Gu had been in Foshan, in Guangdong province, where he directed a large-scale project and performance, The Art of Filial Piety (2014) at the Yuanji Huanggong Ancestral Temple in Foshan Lingnan Tiandi. There, he choreographed 1,060 elementary-school students in a mass act of calligraphic-writing, copying the Confucian Xiao Jing (“Classic of Filial Piety”) onto hundreds of pieces of red silk, which, after their public display in Foshan, will be sent to the Suzhou Silk Museum to be permanently stitched into a single 1,000-square-meter banner.

In his own life, Gu adheres to a core tenant of Confucianism: “Filial piety is the root of all virtues.” He cares for his nonagenarian parents whenever he is at his studio in Shanghai, although he primarily lives in Brooklyn with his wife, interior designer Kathryn Scott. The youngest of three, Gu was born in Shanghai in 1955 to a family of bankers, who, like many bourgeois Chinese, suffered greatly under Mao Zedong’s reeducation campaigns of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). His paternal grandfather Gu Jiancheng was China’s first spoken-drama playwright who, in the interwar era, founded the Shanghai Drama Society—but was later exiled to the countryside, where he died alone. 

Gu’s works, as well as his subtle asides, point to his dedication to the legacy of Chinese culture, as well as his own grandiose ambitions (it was no surprise, then, that Gu calls Nietzsche “the most influential guy for me,” who gives him energy “anytime I have trouble”). He’s dismissive of oil painting—introduced to mainland Chinese artists by Soviet Socialist Realist painters such as Konstantin Maksimov, at Mao’s urging, in the 1950s. He refers to Marxism itself as an “import from Europe”—though he’s also quick to rail against the “feudal culture,” particularly in education, that was a legacy of a Confucian society. As a youth, Gu was conscripted into the Red Guards, wrote “big character” propaganda posters and was assigned to a Shanghai factory producing folk-style wood-carvings before he attended the Shanghai School of Art. 

Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, Gu left Shanghai for Hangzhou, where he attained his master’s degree in 1981 at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art). He studied under Lu Yanshao (1909–93), whom Gu recalls was “last master of the classical Chinese landscape tradition [shanshui].” Lu recognized Gu’s prodigious talent—“along with my rebellious side,” Gu admits with a laugh—and hired him to teach at the school, from 1981 until 1987. As a teacher, Gu was close in age, or even younger, than many of his students. But he was popular because his approach emphasized personal innovation above all else: “Tradition is important, but you have to associate it with creativity—it’s not just about copying.”

The 1980s were a fertile period for Gu. Drawing on his experience creating big-character posters, Gu began his ongoing “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series (1983– ) that combined styles of simplified characters typical of Maoist propaganda with that of ancient seal-scripts, the earliest codified form of the Chinese language. He also worked with students on live-action pieces such as I Evaluate Characters Written by Three Men and Three Women (1985), in which they wrote the character jing (“quiet,” or “still”) and Gu took red paint and crossed out some and circled others, mimicking both traditional pedagogical marks and the harsh ideological purges of the Cultural Revolution. He waxes nostalgically about those days: “At that time I had no commercial market in mind—totally different than the generation today. It was absolutely pure art.” 

Even before he left for the United States, in 1987, Gu was well-known in China. Authorities had closed his 1986 exhibition at the Xi’an Art Gallery, leading students to take the censored works—large ink paintings of fake ideograms that government officials assumed contained subversive messages because they couldn’t read them—and parade them in the streets. Though a contemporary of the artists of the ’85 New Wave movement, which culminated in the notorious February 1989 exhibition “China Avant-Garde” in Beijing, their practices were too Western-derived for Gu. Instead, he has sought a “middle position” between international art currents and his own Chinese artistic heritage. 

He has inhabited two worlds ever since. Hanart TZ gallery owner Johnson Tsong-zung Chang exhibited Gu alongside Xu Bing  in “Desire for Words” (1992) and, in 1997, mounted Gu’s memorial to the Hong Kong Handover, United Nations – Hong Kong Monument: The Historical Clash. In 2014, at Art Basel Hong Kong, Hanart TZ showed Gu’s series of carved stone slabs and printed books, “Forest of Stone Steles – Retranslation & Rewriting of Tang Poetry” (1993–2005), while his massive hanging installation United Nations: Man & Space (1999–2000), in which Gu used human hair to re-create 188 national flags, was prominently featured in the Encounters section of the fair. 

Always thinking long-term, Gu envisions sending each flag from the United Nations to a museum in each of the 188 countries. In the meantime, he speaks of more ambitious projects, including one with the Murano glass factory in Venice, to produce Chinese-style lanterns for next year’s Biennale. Some projects remain secret, however. While revisiting Gu’s exhibition at Hanart TZ several days after our conversation, ArtAsiaPacific was talking to Chang when the dealer’s phone rang and he excused himself. As we were leaving, Chang came to say goodbye. “Sorry, that was Wenda,” he said as the elevator door of the Pedder Building was sliding shut. “We’re planning the greatest exhibition in the history of the world.”

GU WENDA, Mythos of Lost Dynasties Series J, 2011, ink on paper, 27 panels: 97 × 60 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.