Gu Wenda

Gu Wenda
b. 1955, Shanghai
Oil, traditional Chinese painter and installation artist
A talented and versatile artist, Gu Wenda’s mid-1980s modern ink-wash paintings were generally taken as evidence of the vitality and viability of this traditional media (see Modern Ink-Wash Painting). Gu was drawn to the shanshui (landscape) painting tradition while studying woodcarving at the Shanghai College of Applied Art and subsequently when admitted to the shanshui (landscape) masterclass at the Zhejiang (China) Academy of Art, where he studied under the tutelage of Lu Yanshao (see art academies). Upon graduation in 1981, he turned to oil painting, only to effect a surprise return to guohua (traditional Chinese painting), producing powerful, enigmatic, monumental ink-wash paintings, such as Contemplation of the World (Jingguan de shijie, 1984) and Crazy Door God (Fengkuang de menshen, 1986). In the second half of the 1980s, Gu attended the workshop on soft sculpture and tapestry organized at the academy by Bulgarian artist Marin Varbanon, which was to have a lasting influence on his oeuvre. Gu’s solo exhibition in Xi’an (1986) was considered a sensation. The most controversial works (including a pyramidal installation) had to be exhibited separately, for a restricted audience only. Gu’s work in the 1980s was informed by cultural struggle. He was wary of becoming captive to Western modernism, but his reaction harboured a deeper distrust with respect to certainties and the authority of knowledge (including the written word).
Since moving to New York in 1987—a transition marked by the changed phrasing of his name to Wenda Gu—he has been progressively active in the creation of controversial installations employing organic, human-derived products, such as used hygienic tampons, sent in by voluntary participants, for the project 2000 Natural Deaths (1990) or powdered placenta, as in Oedipus Refound (1993). Most recently, his work revolves around the more innocuous material of human hair that he weaves together with glue, forming transparent tapestries and banners where often languages and scripts from across the world are brought together in a message emblematic of a future not ruled by racial or national boundaries. This ongoing series, for which Gu has created various national editions, is titled United Nation and is normally site-specific, i.e. created for a precise place with the hair of its inhabitants. It is striking that the formal sensibility and the colour palette allowed by the use of such material maintains the monochromatic visual qualities of traditional Chinese landscape painting, in which the artist was trained. Wenda Gu lives and works in New York City.
He has shown his work in many important exhibitions: ‘China Avant-Garde’ in Beijing (1989); ‘Silent Energy’ at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (1995); ‘China New Art, Post-1989’ in Hong Kong (1993); the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (1997); ‘Inside/ Out: New Chinese Art’ in New York and San Francisco (1998); the 49th Venice Biennale (2001); and the important solo exhibition, ‘From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium’ in Texas, the Kansas Art City Institute, and the Maine College of Art (2003–4).
Bessire, Mark (ed.) (2003). Wenda Gu: Art from Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gao, Minglu (1998). ‘From Elite to Small Man: The Many Faces of a Transitional Avant-Garde in Mainland China’. In idem (ed.), Inside Out: New Chinese Art (exhibition catalogue). Berkeley: University of California Press.
——(2003). ‘Seeking a Model of Universalism: The United Nation Series and Other Works’. In Mark Bessire (ed.), Wenda Gu: Art from Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 20–9.
Gu, Wenda (1990). Gu Wenda, 2000 Natural Deaths: March 8-April 21, 1990. Curated by Peter Selz and Katherine Cook. San Francisco: Hatley Martin Gallery, c. 1990.
——(1993). Oedipus Refound \#2: The Enigma of Birth: Installation. Oxford, England: Museum of Modern Art.
Hou, Hanru and Gao, Minglu (1998). ‘Strategies of Survival in the Third Space: A Conversation on the Situation of Overseas Chinese Artists in the 1990s’. In Gao Minglu (ed.), Inside Out: New Chinese Art (exhibition catalogue). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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