Gu Wenda

谷 文达

Painter, *1955 Shanghai, lives in New York with studios in Shanghai and Xian

Gu Wenda, 2006

Gu Wenda, born 1955 in Shanghai, is a contemporary artist from China who lives and works in New York City. Most of his works employ traditional Chinese calligraphy and poetry, and he is also known for his use of human of hair in his pieces. Gu lives in Brooklyn Heights with his wife, interior designer Kathryn Scott, though he also maintains studios in Shanghai and Xi'an, China.

Gu Wenda's parents were bank employees. His sister being a musician, and his mother an amateur painter and singer, Gu was exposed to culture throughout his childhood and encouraged in his pursuits. His paternal grandfather, an actor, was the first to introduce the spoken word into the traditionally sung Chinese theatre. As a result of the Cultural Revolution, Gu's grandparents were taken away for "reeducation", and much of the artistic documents and objects in the house were seized or destroyed by the authorities.

As Red Guard, Gu worked to simplify Chinese ideograms. This was the time when he became educated and interested in traditional calligraphy which would play a major role in his artwork. He was also taught wood-block printing. He was sent to design school, where his teachers saw the beginning of his career as an artist. He would later study at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.

Gu Wenda dwarfed by his first calligraphy exhibition 'Tranquility' in Hangzhou, 1985

In the 1980s Gu began inventing new meaningless Chinese ideograms, depicted as if they were truly old and traditional. One exhibition of this work, held in Xi'an in 1986, featuring paintings of fake ideograms on a large scale, was shut down by the authorities who assumed it carried subversive messages. The exhibit was later allowed to re-open to professional artists only.

After waiting for five years, Gu came to the United States in 1987 on a student visa and exhibited his calligrapic work in San Francisco and New York City. He met his wife, interior designer Kathryn Scott there and eventually became a US citizen.

Around 1993 Gu developed a fascination with human hair which he felt could help understand humanity across ethnic and national boundaries. He wove hair into oriental paper and mixed it with ink to use it for his calligraphics and other constructions. These became an ongoing UN-Project.

Woven hair calligraphy on paper, 2004

Simplified 'fengshui', 1995

UN- Proj. 'Great Wall of People', hair bricks, 2004

To his surprise his hair projects raised strong objections in Poland, Israel and Sweden. He had to learn that human hair, very different from Chinese traditions, had the power to raise near violent, emotional reactions in Europe. Delighted Gu continued these experiments. There exists an enlightening video interview with Gu on YouTube (2012), which I highly recommend.

Exhibition under the rotunda at MOMA San Francisco, 2013
A tower of nonsensical pseudo-Chinese, English, Hindi, Arabic and synthesized English-Chinese,
paper, woven hair, and ink, 75 feet high x 34 feet in diameter, photo Tim Messick

Besides his United Nations art project, at the same time in 1993, Gu also began to plan another 10-year project which he calls 'Forest of Stone Steles - Retranslation & Rewriting Tang Poetry'.

50 Stone Steles, 1993-2005, Xi’an City, China

This project consists of 50 stone steles to be carved with his own contemporary version of “Tang poems” resulting from a literal translation of Tang poems from Chinese to English, then a translation by sound of the Tang poems from English back to Chinese.

This sounds absurd. Gu gives a lengthy detailed description of the history of ancient Chinese steles, his idea, and the process on his website. Open the link then click on: Image Galeries->Installations->Forrest of Stone Steles->Concept. - Besides its length Gu's text – in mixed English and Chinese characters – is not simply copyable. It turned out that one cannot even extract sample paragraphs for presentation on this webpage. -Read it in the original, it says much about the Chinese language, the man, and his thinking.

Gu Wena's signature 'chop'