In this “Words in Art” interview, our second-to-last in the series, seminal contemporary Chinese artist Wenda Gu explains how he uses poems from the Tang Dynasty, Chinese calligraphy and philosophy as tools to explore national and cultural identities and traditions.

Considered one of the pioneers of Chinese contemporary art, Wenda Gu (b. 1955, Shanghai, China) is an internationally recognised artist. In the early to mid 1980s, he challenged the establishment and influenced an entire generation of artists in China with a series of provocative ink paintings that employed fake or pseudo Chinese characters. Today, Gu is a powerful commentator on the cultural and linguistic barriers that continue to exist in a globalised era.

Click here to visit the official website for Wenda Gu.

Wenda Gu, 'The Mythos of Lost Dynasties – Form c: Pseudo-Seal Script in Ancient Wrap'. Gu created a series of fake Chinese ideograms during the 1980's. Image courtesy the artist.

Wenda Gu: Words in art

Could you tell me what language means to you? And to your work?

Language … is a symbol of the culture [that created it] and it is a way [for me] to maintain Chinese traditions and calligraphy. Within many cultural issues there are political issues. Can language [lead to] war? … For me, language represents a culture, just as writing does. My installations [present] a new way of dealing with language by using material [taken from the human body] instead of painting and writing with ink, a pencil or a brush. [This bodily material and culture are connected] to the concept of the body and modern developments in science such as genetic research.

Wenda Gu, 'you ni fu se ti bi ci bao ge', 2004, "Neon Calligraphy" Series, commissioned by University Pittsburgh, site-specific neon light installation: neon light tubes, Plexiglas. Image courtesy the artist.

Wenda Gu, 'you ni fu se ti bi ci bao ge', 2004, "Neon Calligraphy" Series, commissioned by University Pittsburgh, site-specific neon light installation: neon light tubes, Plexiglas. Image courtesy the artist.

Were you inspired by other artists who use words in their work?

I really don’t visit galleries and museums. I usually try to observe what’s happening in other fields like science, architecture, literature and philosophy, and try to avoid influence from fields similar to my own. After thirty years I get bored looking at the same thing. Earlier, I was influenced by philosophy and Marcel Duchamp. Later in my career I was influenced by conceptual art, Minimalism and artists working in the fine arts. But most of my inspiration comes from fields other than art. I have always believed that artistic knowledge and inspiration should come from my daily life; artistic influence is secondary and less essential. This doesn’t mean I don’t have any artistic influence in my art practice. I purposely avoided artistic influence and this became habit.

Your first of a series of projects, The Mythos of Lost Dynasties – form c: Pseudo-Seal script in Ancient Wrap (1983-1987), centred on “the invention of meaningless, false Chinese ideograms, depicted as if they were truly old and traditional.” The exhibition the work was shown in was shut down by Chinese authorities because they believed The Mythos contained subversive messages. While it is now known that the work did not contain these kinds of messages, can you explain why you created these false and meaningless characters?

These early works, which used meaningless but now readable or invented characters, actually contain several meanings. Our knowledge is limited by our written language;… the universe is infinitive [but] language [is not]. There are many unknowns [and] these are like unreadable characters, meaningless characters, [that can represent] imagination beyond the limitation of the language. Another meaning [stems] from the massive posters created by working class people during the Cultural Revolution. The calligraphy used on these posters is the most unique and modern Chinese calligraphy. It is creative and truly emotional because of what people believed during that period. It is also connected to mass culture rather than limited to scholarly [study]. Educated people wrote the calligraphy on these posters, so their language is not profound but defined. They use strong words. I took influence from this.

I still believe, as a modern Chinese living today, that your creations have to be somehow connected to tradition. I was kind of rebellious during my schooling [and] was creating contemporary art in a way that criticised tradition. As I grew older and more mature, I began to learn about [and be influenced by] Chinese tradition.

You seem to have moved away from a focus on your own culture to one exploring global cultural identity. How does your later work reflect this shift?

It’s kind of a parallel concept. In my work there are three elements: the past, the present (where I live) and the future. How can I focus on this parallel situation? My cultural identity is connected to Chinese tradition [but also to] New York, where I am connected to the art world. It doesn’t matter which artist [you look at], they each have their own cultural identity and, at the same time, they have their contemporary identity.

The Americanisation of the late 80s, when internationalisation began, meant all cultural identities were challenged. Later, cultural identity was reestablished in the global arena. This is why I started United Nations (1993-ongoing) and Forest of Stone Steles – Retranslation & Rewriting of Tang Poetry (1993-ongoing). These two works relate to cultural identity and identity crisis, and the reestablishment of cultural identity in the global community.

A goal of my art creation [has been] … to reveal the global cultural identity of modern times, instead of just focussing on my own Chinese cultural heritage. My Chinese background as a whole will always be there, in one way or another, although the interpretations of global cultural identity or universality [presented] in my long ongoing projects, such as United Nations and Forest of Stone Steles, have evolved through the combination of my Chinese and American experiences. At the same
time, my creations [do] not just present cultural identity crisis and the reestablishment of cultural identities, more importantly [they seek to] envision and reshape our future art and culture.

Wenda Gu, 'United Nations- China monument: temple of heaven', 1998, site-specific installation commissioned by the Asia Society (New York). Image courtesy the artist.

Wenda Gu: Artworks and projects

  • Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting Tang Poetry (1993-ongoing)
  • United Nations (1993-ongoing)
  • Gu’s phrase – ink – dvd cartoon (2004)

Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting Tang Poetry

Can you tell us about your ongoing work, Forest of Stone Steles? Can you explain what it means conceptually?

It’s a rewriting and retranslation of a Tang Dynasty poem. The translation involves the literature of two cultures. Classically, in cultural and literal translation, scholars try to translate precisely. For me, it is not important to translate the other culture precisely because there is no way to [do this]. You are left with misunderstanding, misinterpretation and mistranslation. [Imprecise translation] becomes an inspiration for creativity, [where] two cultures [can] come to understand each other. The surface of the stone is a symbol of how to treat cultural translation. In Chinese tradition, a stone stele is like a tombstone and is used to [memorialise] a person or a historical moment. … I used the stone steles as a forest to record what is going on today. We’re living in a global community. Before I moved to New York we communicated by telephone, and now we can communicate through the Internet. You don’t really live in New York anymore; it doesn’t matter where you’ve been.

Wenda Gu, 'Forest of Stone Steles – retranslation and rewriting of Tang Poetry'. This work was shown at the University of North Texas (USA) in 2003. Each stone is 110 x 190 x 20 cm and was created between 1993 and 2005. Image courtesy the artist.

Every dynasty has a different translation. There are books after books that talk about how to interpret Tang poetry. This [‘book’] is very unique. It talks about Tang poetry using English. … [The work discusses] how to treat the reinterpretation [of this kind of poetry]. Any kind of translation is actually a rewriting and the text, after you translate it, will never be the same as the original. … Tang poetry … was a high art form, but after several dynasties the poems were memorised. So the art form became
part of mass [or popular] culture.

We understand that you made earlier versions of Forest of Stone Steles. What are the differences between the earlier versions and the later version?

Before I was debating what text to inscribe into the stone I tested several ideas until I settled on the translation of Tang poetry. When you carve Tang poetry onto stone, it becomes permanent. Anything you carve onto stone becomes a historical mark.

Did you change any of the words used in these earlier versions of Forest of Stone Steles when creating the later versions?

The later versions are more focused on cultural exchange. The earlier versions are written in Chinese text only. [After extensive research I chose to focus] on stone stelae, which were symbolic to Chinese cultural history. From the first stele to the last one, the style of the calligraphy changes because the work took twelve years to complete and my style changed [during that time]. … The later pieces are more systematic, while the early ones were test-made. [This gradual change reflects] the process of development [when] trying to establish a personal calligraphy style.

Where did the inspiration for Forest of Stone Steles come from?

[The work] has historical reference. There is a museum in Xi’an, China, called the Stele Forest [that contains] several hundred ancient stone stelae, which are precious because they record so many historical moments. [I wanted to portray] this … important message … in my work: to record today, the changes of today.

Wenda Gu, 'Forest of Stone Steles – retranslation and rewriting of Tang Poetry'. Shown at the Contemporary Art Center of Hexiangning Art Museum (China) in 2005, each stone is 110 x 190 x 20 cm and was created between 1993 and 2005. Image courtesy the artist.

Do you consider Forest of Stone Steles to be invoking any particular feelings?

It’s a translation of very beautiful poems from the Tang Dynasty, which particularly discuss … oriental respect for nature. After I translated these poems into English they became humorous and surreal.

What experience do you want people to take away from Forest of Stone Steles?

[I like to think about] what kind of experience I want to create for the audience. The audience is creative. The first part of the work [was] created by me. The last part of the work has to be [created] by the public in the galleries.

United Nations

United Nations is similar to Forest of Stone Steles in its incorporation of words. Do you see this as a similarity or do you view the works as entirely separate?

They are connected: they both started in 1993; they both took over ten years to create. The hair pieces from United Nations are still being shown as exhibits in galleries. … [All] my works are continuing creations [that] … change according to time, experience and the development of a situation.

Can you tell us about this work? What inspired you to create United Nations? How was United Nations created?

United Nations began in New York, [which] is [both] racially and culturally diverse…. The project is [an attempt] to extend my creation, try to relate [it to] other cultures and other people … from different regions. … The title of United Nations is the meaning of the content of the work. It doesn’t have anything to do with the [organisation], the United Nations, [but is about] ‘united nations’ as a utopian idea.

Wenda Gu, 'United Nations – Africa monument: the world praying wall'. A site-specific installation for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (South Africa), held in 1997. Image courtesy the artist.

What experience do you want people to take away from a viewing of United Nations?

A universal peace and harmony. [The work] acts as a cultural ambassador that connects one place to the other,… one country to another.

Do you think your audiences actually feel this way?

Yes, [I think people feel] the peace and harmony, and [there is a] recognition of difference. You’re more tolerant of other things. ‘You’ here means the identities presented by the mixed human hair in the installations. Each hair type represents a nation and a culture. The mixed hair types represent mixed identities, [and] those racial and cultural identities co-exist in the art work. This is a strong message.

Gu’s phrase – ink – dvd cartoon

Wenda Gu, 'gu’s phrase – ink – dvd cartoon : #1 – mouse year'. Image courtesy the artist.

This is my latest development. … Scholarly ink painting [has] gradually disappeared among young people, just as classical painting or music has. Currently, I am trying to bring together popular and traditional scholarly culture. … Video games and cartoons are almost like icons of the new generation…. I use [new] media [technologies] to create calligraphy, instead of using ink on paper, [in order] to breach that vast culture [gap between] today and ancient China.

When did you create Gu’s phrase – ink – dvd cartoon? How was it made? How long did it take to create the works in the series?

It took a long time. … Of course, [the works in the series] are totally different and Gu’s phrase is an ongoing project. The ink [used in the works] is made of powdered human hair in a traditional Chinese ink factory. These works, on the one hand, are connected to Chinese tradition, but on the other hand, they are conceptually and visually contemporary. [I want] to merge calligraphy with cartoon, the traditional and the intellectual with popular culture.

Each work has been given a different title. For example, Gu’s phrase – ink – dvd cartoon: #8 sheep’s year. What does the title mean? How does each title relate to each of the works?

Actually, I reinvented the twelve [Chinese] zodiac animal stories. [Traditionally], ink paintings are to be appreciated peacefully and meditatively. [The works in Gu’s phrase] are not traditional anymore. [There is a cartoon] video located in the centre of each ink painting. If you listen to the videos and watch the cartoons, then this [series] is more for entertainment. The audience stands in front of each painting but listens to the sound, to the story, [watches] the movement. The ink painting has a sound, has movement, and that creates an experience for the audience.

What does each character in each of the ink paintings mean?

The characters are [invented in] a new way. … One Chinese character represents a phrase. Usually a person needs to have two, three or four characters in order to represent a phrase. I’m trying to give the meaning of a phrase to only one character, so it’s like I’m creating a dictionary of Chinese phrases. It can be any kind of phrase. The format of the characters I invent [resemble those from earlier works] in which I created unreadable characters, only this time they are readable. … The cartoon video describes and talks about [each animal of] the zodiac [and] the [Chinese ink] characters relate to the concept. … Because there are twelve pieces [in the series], each individual work is able to change according to the year it represents, so this work is more playful.

Wenda Gu, 'gu’s phrase – ink – dvd cartoon' (series). The 12 ink paintings each have one cartoon video projection (centered). Image courtesy the artist.

You draw particular inspiration from traditional Chinese culture and art: ink painting, drinking tea, the Chinese zodiac. Can you elaborate on these sources of inspiration?

Actually the meaning [of this series] is two-fold. The ink painting and calligraphy come from Chinese tradition. Cartoon is a new medium but the story relates to Chinese tradition. I have reinvented the story and it has become a modern story. It’s kind of fun, in a way, to give people the opportunity to appreciate more traditional works. It’s not only about the traditional zodiac story or ink painting, [it’s also about the] younger generation becoming interested in tradition through cartoon and video.

Wenda Gu: General art creation

Your medium varies from sculpture to installation, painting to ink art to performance. You have even experimented with new media. Why do you work in so many mediums?

The formats are all related; it is one kind of creation. Unlike in traditional [artistic] practice, contemporary artists [often] create using a lot of different media. [The practice is] colourful and experimental.

How does the use of these varied mediums relate to your use of words?

I think by using these words in a special way it gives identity to my work, but it is also a limitation in my work. Because anything that is unique also has limitations; you’re limited to the same kind of creation.

What are you trying to achieve or communicate through your art?

A powerful echo can be created by what I’m doing. For me, creating art is by itself an experience. Most of the people who look at my works will [feel this experience as an] echo.

Is this echo the experience you want people to take away from your work?

A lot of my works create discussion and, sometimes, controversy. They [provoke] a lot of debate and discussion and this is what I want…. My work is for people to enjoy, but at the same time to think about. First of all, I want people to look at [my work] as part of [a discussion on] modern issues, and, secondly, [I want them to see that] it’s kind of mixed into their own culture and that it relates to Chinese traditional culture….

Wenda Gu, 'Heavenly Lantern – Shanghai'. One of Gu's more recent projects, the idea is to cover up international architectural landmarks with Chinese lanterns inscribed with the artist's own invented Chinese characters. Image courtesy the artist.

What is your next project? Will you continue to work with text in your art practice?

These projects [Forest of Stone Stele; United Nations; Gu’s phrase] are ongoing. There is no set schedule. If a museum or gallery invites me to continue to exhibit these works I will do what I can. I will continue working with ink paintings. My latest works include the “Heavenly Lantern” series and a public art project called “China Park”.

About our “Words in Art” interview series

We have already spoken with Indian new media collective Raqs, Filipino painter Manuel Ocampo, new media artist Hung Keung and Australian new media artist Josephine Starrs. Who will we be profiling next? We are down to our last artist, Sujata Bajaj (India). To find out more about what Bajaj has to say about the use of words and text in contemporary art, please continue to follow our series over the coming weeks.

We would like readers to note that we hope to provide an insight into, rather than a comprehensive study of, the feature of words in art. Also, as we are focusing on a specific geographical area, Asia, we realise that this in no way represents a world-view of the concept and we welcome comments from readers regarding the use of text and words by artists living and creating in areas outside of the Asian region.

So, tell us what you think about the use of text and words in contemporary art. Go on, leave a comment below.


Related Topics: words in artinterviews, new media art, Chinese artists

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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