New York Contemporary Chinese Artist Gu Wenda @ HKU

I had the pleasure of attending this talk by Contemporary Chinese artist Gu Wenda back in February, who is currently based in New York City. The poster which was hung all over campus really caught my eye, as his talk dealt with two issues which fascinate me, i.e. Global Art and Chinese culture. I was curious to see how Gu would discuss these topics and how his art revealed his multinational cultural identity (a Chinese man producing art in North America) Being a Eurasian female artist, brought up in the East but educated in a very Western cultured international school, i thought i could really relate to this man.

Modest, humble and mild spoken, Gu began his speech emphasizing the fact that he was not a very articulate person, and to excuse him for his poor linguistic skills. He made it clear that as a visual artist, language and words were not his strong suit. Rather, he expressed himself through his art, and hoped that the visual imagery he showed in his presentation could speak louder and clearer than he did with words.

Gu preceded to talk about his adopted daughter, who is 8 years old at present. I found that particularly heart warming, and made the audience see and feel a very personal, human side to Gu’s personality. He showed the audience pictures of his daughter’s artworks, as she is currently studying the fine arts back in their home town of Brooklyn, New York City.

What was most fascinating to me was Gu admitting that though his was born and raised in Communist China, his had never felt like he truly fit in, and therefore did not consider himself as fully ‘Chinese’. The first time in his life when he truly felt Chinese was when he first landed in the West. This is a concept which i could really relate to.

As a child, Gu aspired to become a member of the Chinese army-the Red Guards as they were known, just like most young men at the time. He eventually fulfilled his dream, and during his time as a soldier, one of his responsibilities was to simplify the ancient Chinese language and to encourage members of the public to embrace new attitudes towards their old language. It was during this period which his interest in Chinese calligraphy was sparked, which in turn influenced much of his later work. He later on went to train as a traditional Chinese ink painter in Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art, under the literati master Lu Yanshao. It would be in 1987 when Gu would land along the shores of the United States, where he sought to work in the world’s centre of contemporary art and to find a more international audience for his work.

An avant-garde artist who is considered to be the pioneer of Chinese Contemporary art, Gu describes his artistic style as a cross between Marxist China and New York capitalism, an embodiment of both his past and present. Miscommunication and misunderstandings of different cultures, the ‘new internationalism’, as well as the re-establishment of his identity within a global context, are all is a re-current themes amongst his work. The ability for art to to generate discussions and debates is far more important that its aesthetic beauty, said Gu, and this was evident in his choice to use bodily waste materials for his many installations.

Amongst such installations was his United Nations project, one which began in 1993 continues till this day. This was a project which saw 22 individual installations placed in 22 countries around the world, where human hair was the main source of medium. Countries included in the project included the United States, France, Poland, England, South Africa, Israel, Australia, Japan, Canada, China, Taiwan, Russia, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Italy.

The ultimate message Gu was trying to convey through this collection was to draw attention to the fragility of the human existence, and to bridge the divide between countries and nationalities by emphasizing the bond we share as human beings, namely, hair. The use of hair as both medium and subject matter as a metaphor for the welding of different cultures in the age of globalization. Through his United Nations installations, Gu explores the relationship between the sense of self and the sense of place in a global community.

For more information on the artist and his works, visit


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