Meeting with Chinese artist Gu Wenda at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum

Art Radar met with Gu Wenda on the occasion of his major exhibition at the Shanghai institution.

Launched on 10 November 2016 and running until 15 February 2017 at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum (M21), “Gu Wenda: Journey to the West” features some of the artist’s major works, with his ink art from the 1980s to the present, as well as a documentary and performance.

Gu Wenda inspecting the installation of his new work 'Red Light in Heaven | Shanghai Station', 2016, at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Gu Wenda inspecting the installation of his new work ‘Red Light in Heaven | Shanghai Station’, 2016, at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

The joyful coloured lanterns that cover the façade of Shanghai M21 museum are a new work by Gu Wenda, part of his exhibition “Gu Wenda: Journey to the West”. The work, entitled Red Light in Heaven | Shanghai Station, is a typically impressive gesture from an artist who manages his own production, working directly with corporations, unfettered by the contemporary art market system. The show has taken five months of preparation. Art Radar went to speak to the artist in the final days before the opening of the show.

"Gu Wenda: Journey to the West", 10 November 2016 - 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

“Gu Wenda: Journey to the West”, 10 November 2016 – 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

"Gu Wenda: Journey to the West", 10 November 2016 - 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

“Gu Wenda: Journey to the West”, 10 November 2016 – 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

Gu Wenda graduated from China National Academy of Arts in Hangzhou and worked there as a teacher for six years before emigrating to the United States in 1987. Since that time he has maintained studios in both countries.

Gu Wenda has extended the vocabulary of traditional Chinese calligraphy, embracing new influences as China opened to the West in the early 1980s. He traces a direct line from the enlightened society of the Tang dynasty to the present, via the artless emancipation of calligraphy in the collective proclamations of the Cultural Revolution. Many of his works are made in a similarly collaborative spirit.

Installing the work 'Tea Alchemy', 2002 by Gu Wenda at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Installing the work ‘Tea Alchemy’, 2002 by Gu Wenda at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Despite the frantic state of last minute installation, he appeared calmly in the midst of the galleries to conduct a tour of the show with exuberant enthusiasm. He was appropriately dressed in elegant ink grey clothes picked out with a single red detail.

“The space is too small,” he lamented, “I need three big shows together to make a complete retrospective, so I am waiting for two other shows – then maybe they can work together to make a collaborative catalogue raisonné.”

Gu Wenda, 'I Evaluate Characters Written by Three Men and Three Women', 1985, detail view at M21 museum exhibition, Shanghai, 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Gu Wenda, ‘I Evaluate Characters Written by Three Men and Three Women’, 1985, detail view at M21 museum exhibition, Shanghai, 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

 Gu Wenda, 'United Nations - China Monument: The Great Wall of People', 2004, made with 1.5 tons of human hair crated into bricks and curtains. Installation view at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

Gu Wenda, ‘United Nations – China Monument: The Great Wall of People’, 2004, made with 1.5 tons of human hair crated into bricks and curtains. Installation view at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

The show is designed to enhance the museum’s idiosyncratic spaces. The structure, originally a temporary pavilion in the Shanghai Expo, cannot support the loads of his heaviest sculptures. Some of the volatile materials he has deployed in the past, notably body fluids, such as blood and sperm in the “Oedipus Refound” series, were not possible to ship, and this has helped to define the appropriate work for the current show, which in itself is a large survey.

Generally chronological, it presents several key projects such as I Evaluate Characters Written by Three Men and Three Women (1985) in which Gu’s students executed the Chinese character 静 (jing), meaning ‘tranquil’, on a monumental scale while he produces corrective marks in red paint suggesting both sharp pedagogy and subversion. Gu points out:

Most of my work has a history of collaboration. For my first ink performance piece I had six students to paint, and I criticised them as they painted. This has become a larger and larger and more public part of my work.

"Gu Wenda: Journey to the West", 10 November 2016 - 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

“Gu Wenda: Journey to the West”, 10 November 2016 – 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

"Gu Wenda: Journey to the West", 10 November 2016 - 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

“Gu Wenda: Journey to the West”, 10 November 2016 – 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

His collaborations have recently also included thousands of children. He says:

I thought about young people as the future. Because contemporary art in China has a short history, contemporary art is not mainstream, so I want to promote it. The more public participate in a contemporary art performance, the more they will understand it – and it will become more spread out. The textbooks don’t have the vocabulary of contemporary art because, basically, it has been imported from the West, and produces conflict with the local practices from Chinese history. Although its parallel they are always confronting each other.

Referring to the trajectory of his collaborations Gu says: “My next stage involves pop colours. I want to get away from the traditional paint, which is only red.” One such radical departure was the use of green algae. It was used in a 1500 square metre landscape entitled Verdant Mountains, Emerald Waters. The project was enacted in Shenzhen with the assistance of 1500 children.

"Gu Wenda: Journey to the West", 10 November 2016 - 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

“Gu Wenda: Journey to the West”, 10 November 2016 – 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

"Gu Wenda: Journey to the West", 10 November 2016 - 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

“Gu Wenda: Journey to the West”, 10 November 2016 – 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

Gu flags up the enlightened support of Ping An Insurance Corp, who made the work possible:

More and more my projects use the platform of the corporation as the patron. I think this is the future. The artists of the past, Michelangelo and Da Vinci ‘belonged’ to the church, Beethoven and Mozart ‘belonged’ to noble families, the future of patronage is the corporation […]. It has a marketing relationship with people and also a collaborative relationship with the government. The corporation is an intermediary, just like an agent. I learned this from being in New York. It’s a kind of capitalistic approach to everything.

The project with Ping An is in three stages. The final stage will involve a work for the centre court of the shopping mall at the base of the Ping An Finance Centre in Shenzhen, the world’s second tallest building. Gu will make a multimedia fish where, “every scale is an iPad, [and] visitors can use their cell phones to interact with it. They can change and compose the image to whatever they wish.”

Gu Wenda, 'Tea Alchemy', 2002. Detail showing 30000 sheets of paper made out of 4000 ponds of green tea. Installation view at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Gu Wenda, ‘Tea Alchemy’, 2002. Detail showing 30000 sheets of paper made out of 4000 pounds of green tea. Installation view at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

"Gu Wenda: Journey to the West", 10 November 2016 - 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

“Gu Wenda: Journey to the West”, 10 November 2016 – 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

The M21 Museum looks back at previous works in multiple parts. Many of these challenge the defined meaning implied by uncomplicated readings of Chinese characters. The stone inscriptions entitled Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry (1993–2005), too heavy for the museum’s floors, are here represented by ink rubbings. The works each take an original Tang poem and provide an English translation by Witter Bynner, who himself interpreted the poems to maintain a poetic form. Gu uses the sounds of Chinese characters to make a phonetic version of Bynner’s words and then provides a literal English translation, by now abundantly seasoned with a surreal spirit.

Gu’s work takes place on conceptual platforms that are not usually considered. This is partly the outcome of his ease with both Chinese and Western creative thinking. He says:

I have two cores, the American mind and the early Chinese mind. I was lucky in the last thirty years, as China has moved from an isolated country to an economic player and America from an important country to become a super power. I was in-between.

Gu Wenda, 'United Nations - China Monument: The Great Wall of People', 2004, human hair curtains. Installation view at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Gu Wenda, ‘United Nations – China Monument: The Great Wall of People’, 2004, human hair curtains. Installation view at Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

"Gu Wenda: Journey to the West", 10 November 2016 - 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

“Gu Wenda: Journey to the West”, 10 November 2016 – 15 February 2017, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. Image courtesy Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum.

In describing a current project for Ferrari, he reveals his belief in the aspirations of China, as well as the enduring relevance of traditional technologies:

Chinese lacquer is much stronger than commercial paints but you have to wait a few years for it to become solid and strong.

The bridge between ideological and capitalist systems is of necessity expressed in the financial models needed to make his grand projects happen. Gu feels he has to have:

art with a financial plan, not relying on the gallery or the auction house. When you create an artwork at the same time you have to think how to make well being, including the financial side. You don’t wait for someone to give you some food, wait for a patron to come, I want to actively be involved. If I have money I can invest in my work and not wait.

Gu Wenda stands in front of his own image from the 1980s. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Gu Wenda stands in front of his own image from the 1980s. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

His achievements show he has come a long way since he moved to the United States, as he recounts:

I was clueless when I went to America, I had a Marxist socialist ideology, I thought all the schools are free, I never had a bank account. I wanted to open a bank account – so I brought a sports jacket. I thought what if the bank rejects me?

Gu still adopts just such a simple approach, making his desires comprehensible to all sorts of people, by communicating in codes and symbols that are direct, be it a sports jacket or a lantern, or, as in the sincere examples in the M21 exhibition, human hair and green tea.

Andrew Stooke

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, installation, ink art, museum shows, events in Shanghai

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