Wenda Gu: From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium, at the H&R Block Artspace, presents Kansas City audiences with a sampling of several major works from the artist's career. It also marks the twentieth entry in his ambitious "United Nations" series. Since 1992, Gu has created unique installations at galleries and art museums in fourteen countries; collecting hair from local salons and barber shops, he creates thin, braided ropes and drapes them into templelike structures suspended from ceilings. "Hair is the only thing that contains all the DNA of humans," says Artspace Gallery assistant Jared Panick. "[Gu is] braiding it together to make a new race, to make a new blood, to make a new culture."
For example, "Hair Brick (United Genes)" combines a colorful variety of tresses into four solid blocks. One glistens with spongy, charcoal-black hair; another homogenizes white, brown and blond curls. Each brick, approximately 12 inches long and 6 inches tall, sits encased in a wood-and-glass receptacle -- for good reason. "If you open this up, I can't even describe the smell to you. It is horrible," Panick says. The bricks are Gu's conglomerations of the contributions of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people's scalps. "He could have a whole city represented in there," Panick says.
The "United Nations" piece Gu created for the Artspace, "United Nations -- 7561 Kilometers (4698 Miles)," uses braids hung from the gallery's lofty ceiling, looping up again about a foot from the floor. A rope falls from the center of the hair structure, spilling onto the concrete floor in a circle 5 feet in diameter. The rope is assembled mainly with dark hair, but red, white and blond strands occasionally blend into the black and brown segments. Hair panels -- textured like a congealing mess in a bathtub drain stuck together with glue -- form the roof of the enclosure. Adorning the roof panels are large, ambiguous markings created out of thickly concentrated hair clots. "The panels are pseudo English, Chinese, Hindi and Arabic characters," Panick explains. With his nonsensical vernacular, Gu alludes to a new hybrid language free from the shortcomings of translation. "He thinks a lot of the problems today are caused by cultural misunderstanding and our languages not being interpreted correctly," Panick says. Gu ties the ends of the hair braids through pieces of red rubber to reiterate that point in a considerably less intriguing manner. The oval discs contain the names of all the countries in the world -- only the names are written backward, reinforcing the imperfections of verbal communication.
Gu's attitude about his "United Nations" series is realistic. "As more institutions around the world became interested in participating in the project, I began to think more about its political, philosophical, and ideological dimensions," Gu told Art Journal magazine in 1999. "The target is the United Nations, an organization whose utopian purpose is to create a better world by unifying its different races and cultures -- a vision that probably won't exist in our lifetime. But it can be realized in art, whose function is to serve as a projection of our [imagination]."
In "Ink Alchemy," Gu transforms Chinese hair into ink with the help of an ink master and a factory in Shanghai. A tiny video monitor mounted on the wall documents the ink-making process step by step -- in the beginning, workers roll human hair, wrapped in huge burlap sacks, off trucks; eventually, they transform liquid ink into solid sticks. Gu displays his hair ink in its various forms on top of a long, white table with three glass flasks. One harbors the locks in their original state, another holds them dried in an obsidianlike form, and the third contains a fine, dusty powder. Inside three nearby glass cases rest solid ink sticks inscribed with the words "Black Silk Rain" -- Gu's brand name for his ink invention (black silk for the hair; rain for a drop of ink) written in a graceful combination of English and Chinese characters.
Gu told Orientations magazine last year that "ink alchemy" is an effort "to bridge the traditional and the biological." His hand and mind are steeped in customs; Gu studied Chinese ink painting in college in his home country. But long before immigrating to the United States in 1987, he said, he had begun to "redo ink painting." He keeps the classic genre alive by allowing it to evolve into something visually and conceptually challenging. "When I paint with hair, I am painting with human genes. This is different from normal ink painting," he said.
Pieces such as "Mythos of Lost Dynasties, Form g-10" exemplify Gu's progressive ink paintings. Again he plays with language: A visually boisterous, imaginary character, backed by a translucent, billowy cloud of ink, rises above a serene landscape. The Chinese government shut down shows of similar work in the 1980s, calling Gu's misuse of language rebellious and unacceptable.
But he continues his commentary. With "Tea Alchemy," Gu rethinks the Chinese cultural mainstays of tea and paper. Using traditional rice-papermaking methods, Gu has made sheets of dull, leaf-colored paper out of green tea, wrapped them in thin, red paper and stacked them on a long table, where they give off a delightfully sweet smell. Resting on top of the paper are three red-ink-stained stamps, their imprints appearing nearby; alongside, glass cases house Chinese accordion painting books folded out of the paper. A video presentation of the process completes the piece.
For "Forest of Stone Steles -- Retranslation & Rewriting of Tang Poetry," Gu presents a word game on six intricately carved, 1.3-ton stone slabs lying on the floor like giant, gray tombstones. Their accompanying ink rubbings hang on rice paper. Here, Gu flip-flops Chinese and English translations of poems from the Tang Dynasty, carving verses first in Chinese, then in English translations by Witter Bynner. Gu phonetically retranslates the poems back into Chinese and finally presents the phonetic versions in English -- once again pointing out the limitations and inconsistencies of language; his results bear little resemblance to the beginning poems.
Heather Lustfeldt, the Artspace's assistant curator, says the Gu exhibition is the gallery's most ambitious project to date. A joint effort of the Artspace, the University of North Texas Art Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art, it was funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. No small undertaking, the gallery's show brings a major survey of this internationally renowned artist's work to the Midwest for the first time. "We've really raised the bar with this show," Lustfeldt says.