An Interview with Wenda Gu
- by zhou yan, Doctor of Philosophy, Ohio State University, History of Art, 2004


I believe there are much more exciting part that had been cut off due to limit of length. For instance, the Interpal piece must be more exciting if we can see more details of how the Russian guy destroyed the work & response from the organization side, etc.
i do appreciate your insights about this. it is not only the limit of time for my video document. as matter of fact, the whole thing hapened was like this: the russian artist began his performance as a rock-in-roll drumer was playing a drum while he paid so much attention to my presence during the opening. i knew something would hapen. i was video taping his action till i went out to receive my german friends. just about a few minutes i went in with my friends. the whole situation was already a chaos. he pull down the most of my hair panels and immediately left the scene (i have video footage about his action at all). then the other russian artist was still playing as a naked dog to bite the audience. my assistants who assisted the fabrication of my work were crying...all of the audience came around me. soon 6 police cars arrived and they catched the “naked dog”. all media reporters were all jamed in the space. i asked a national conference for the next day. however, the discussion went on for more than a year in sweden and spread to all of the art world. one year later a swedish artist told me in nyc, my name is bigger than a rock-in-roll star in swenden that moment. a half year later, i accedentally met this russian artist in west village in nyc, and i invited him for a coffee. i think i did a very strong thing as a silent and powerful statement. i’m sure he cant face me regard what he did to me.

I have a question for you. The work you made seems very aesthetic (wei2 mei3) in terms of form. The "beautiful" appearance, instead of the message of cultural exchange, conflict & confrontation, etc. seems to have drawn more attention. I'm not questioning you, but just wondering. I heard many times of comments from audience, such as "beautiful", "pretty". I feel it's beautiful too.
it is a complicated issue. i hope i have a time to explain to you thoroughly. may better when we get together.

#1, you have to know the aesthetical and visual finalization is the spirit of a piece of art creation. that is why the most of conceptualists verbally or their writings describe their works well, but the actual works will not convey their solid and clear and precise concepts if without their words. i always believe that is the predicament of conceptual art. for me, a great idea without a aesthetic solution is not enough. you can see from my “enigma of blood” to “enigma beyond joy and sin”, both works have stricking and opposites: extremely challenging material and concept and beatutil format.

the video documentation i mailed you has no work before 1993, simply i didn't have video footage yet. so after my travelling solo exhibiton in usa will produce dvds from this video document, plus all slide images of my works before 1993.

#2, you have to know the whole journey of my “united nations” project since 1993. now the most important art history books included my “un” as symbolic and important work of art during our post-modern and post-colonial internationalism. but when it began most of audience were mostly shocked when they just hear using hair as the material of art. i had one experience at moma san francisco. some audience went in front of this huge tower installation from the sky light to the lobby (un-babel of the millennium), first they reacted as seeing a paper hanging; second they are totally surprised it all made of human hair. third, they were totally astonished when they read the lable: the hair is collected from all of the world. they cant imagine what bad looking and the association with death in their minds about cut off hiar are now was a transcendental beauty in front of them. a good work will have those three steps to catch audience’s mind.

#3, the silent subversion and the beautiful chalenge are in my works all the way. you can view the newest national monument of “un” serise “united nations- australia monument” now showing at national gallery of australia. this work has extreme beauty of power. but you know what hapened to this work conceptually yet. the work had an article on the front section of “the canberra times”. traditionally the art show is only reviewed in the art section. why? this work hits the heart of australian. on the installation, there are two phrases: “genetically british”, “geographically pacific”. that is the center of australians’ mind conflict. they were prisoners to pushed to australia from britain, but today they still pride of being british and refuse their reality which is where they live in. the original title of this work ends with a created word by sythesize two words of english+pacific. the museum omited this word without telling me. the designer of my exhibition at national gallery of australia is french. he told me that museum people were shocked when this designer opened up the attached file of the design of this work in the computer. you dont see this fact when you saw the image of the work i sent to you.

#4, as for the forest of stone steles, you cant indeed to feel the power of the work from a photo. my works are mostly monumental in size. when the audience actually presence in the stone installation. it is so dramatically silent you down. the peacefulness, and weight of the stones are so efective on your psychology. then you can read all the retranslation for a half day.

#5, the genetic ink project for me is like a bom for chinese traditional treasure-ink.

Zhou Yan: Can you tell me more about the book? Say, author's name, the whole title, etc.
wenda gu: aldous huxley published his shocking book, "brave new world" in 1932 and in 1993 andrew kimbrell wrote "the Human body shop". i guess you didnt have the correct books' titles thus you didnt get it.

Zhou Yan: My record of your first menstrual art show is at Hatley Martin Gallery, San Francisco, 1990. When you said that Mapplethorpe's show was nearby, I checked the books on him, found he had two shows in SF in 1990: 1. "The Indomitable Spirit" (travelling show), at Fraenkel Gallery; 2. "Art in Bloom", at A.P. Giannini Gallery. If your first was the one above, which one was Mapplethorpe show nearby? Or if my record is not correct, what is your first menstrual art show (date, place)? And what is Mapplethorpe's show nearby according to your memory?
wenda gu: i didnt mean mapplethorpe's show was near by when my first show of menstrual art project "2000 thousand natural deaths" (then i changed the title ot "the enigma of blood"). i mean i didnt know mapplethorpe's controversy when my menstrual project exhibition opened. i didnt even know too much about those controversial issues and political correctness was the main concerns of the major museums in america when i started this project in 1988. it means that i was not particularly interested in controversy or provocation over issues in amerian society. i was generally in human body myth and the question how to deal with unusual artistic materials.

Zhou Yan: Why Oleg Kulik was detained? Under what charge? Attack? Threaten lives? Damage property? Or simply because of his "naked-dog" performance?
wenda gu: i never heared that oleg was detained. where did you learn of this information? do you mean brener but not lulik?

Zhou Yan: Can you give a bit more details of how the European press reacted to the event? You mentioned that the "Happening" hit the headlines in the Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, French and British press in your description of the event (in Chinese), can you tell me more about it? Or do you have any photocopies of those reports, reviews or comments, etc.?
wenda gu: there were so many articles and reviews about this incident. i have some but i would never be able to get all of them at all. and also mostly i couldnt read it due to different languages. basically i left it behind me. i didnt involve it too. however, i have a general sense that brener’s action of art with a theory of anti-west and america. you can see his later destruction on malavich painting in amsterdam was very obvious. he spraied paint with an american dollar sign on a malavich painting a few months later after his action at “interpol” in stockholm. then he was arrested and went to jail for a few months. the european art writers and media was a mixed feel of it - it was a vendalism or supportive to his anti-capitalism and anti-america.

Zhou Yan: The choice of word "Interpol" for the show has no specific interpretation. Why is "Interpol"? Something to do with international crime, or what?
wenda gu: “interpol” is the short form of international police orgnization. it was literally chosen for the conflicts between west and east europe. the took place right after the berlin wall pushed over. all of sudden, the physical separation of west and east berlin is goen. and the political, cultural and social differences are in obvious confrontation. this had appeared in during the discussions between two groups of artists - swedish and russian artists between a swedish curator jan aman and the russian curator. i guess the title “interpol” suggested that the directe confrontation between east and west europe. it was like an alarming situation.

Zhou Yan: You had been selected by Russian artist Dmitry Gutov. It's is a very important detail. Why did he choose you? You are something in common, or he likes your art very much? How did he think about Brener's action? Can you tell me more about the process of recruiting artists?
wenda gu: this exhibition was based upon two groups of artists: primariely russian and swedish group. then they selected international participants. yes, i was selected by dmitry gutov who i didnt know him before the exhibition. we exchanged few conversations during the meeting and then during the show. i remembered that he told me that my project was very powerful, it refered to my “eodipus refound - enigma of blood”. but I don't know other motivation why he selected my work. from very beginning, the curators planed that each invited international artist would collaborate with the artist who you were selected by. it means also the art works within this show were all collective works. due to the conflicts, this idea somehow didnt work out. so that almost all works were done by individule artists. i felt that the russian artists acted like a group, especially the russian artists such as brener, kulic and gutov. they all did the performances with a gression. mr. gutov is a very sensitive and soft spoken man. he did the work was titled “last supper” one evening before the opening of the show. all participating artists and curators are sit around for the “supper”. the dialogues were very political regarding the differences. what i enterpreted this as a signal of “last moment”. this can be read as “we split” if you put gutov’s work within the contaxt of the actions of brener and kulic. in my opinion, those three artists are strongly russian nationalistic. the others were more collaborative and friendly with the west.

Zhou Yan: The second Swedish-Russian-artists meeting in Moscow is interesting, but I may need more details about it. Say, who (Russian) did the performance of hugging the Swedish woman artist? Brener, Kulik, or somebody else? Who was that Swedish woman artist?
wenda gu: i didnt go for the moscow meeting because i had other comitment. but i was told by swedish artists that the meeting in moscow was intense. for one incident, brener did an action during the meeting. he huged an woman swedish artist so tight for so long till the other swedish artists went up to stop the action. but i dont know who was the woman swedish artist.

Zhou Yan: The last also the most important question regards to your work. What was the initial plan/proposal? Seems to me it had no missile and European Union flag in the beginning. If so, the missile and the flag had been added one by one when the plan had been executed, right? I'm interested in the whole process of development and execution of your plan? How did it change? Why the change had been made? What were your thoughts when you kept changing your plan? Is it true that in every step you predicted something interesting and amazing would happen? However, you said you didn't expect the event ended up with such a violent destruction, why you didn't expect it? What was you expected?
wenda gu: the initial plan of my work was “united nations - swedish and russian monument”. no, there was no contents of missile and european union flag planed. yes, those objects were added to my this project later on. because i was quietly reading what was going on during the process of shapping the exhibition. the progress of my this project was with the concept of my general idea of “united nations” project. it means it is not only on the side of utopian ideology of man kind unification. it is also refer to all possible conflicts we have in the reality. to be honest with you, i tried to stay with more on the possitive side. but unfortunately, the things within this show was going to a negative direction which is more realistic in our reality. to use those symbolic objects in this particular work of mine, i had a kind of idea to use military force to colm down the cultural controntation. the process of the development of my work went with the situations of this exhibition for sure. to the last moment right before the opening, i felt the urgent that something will hapen. but the work nature - a huge hair installation left me with no possibility to protect this work of mine. but somehow, i didnt expect it would be ended like this. it was a shock for me.

Zhou Yan: I attach the draft of "Prelude", wish to give you a bit idea of how I starts my dissertation. As always, any suggestions, opinions, and corrections are truly welcome.
wenda gu: i have no idea if this would be good for the beginning of your dissertation, especially at this current global situation today. it is realy depends.

Zhou Yan: Do you remember more details of your Xi-an solo show in 1986? What I have is only a few brief reports. What I'm interested in is like how many rooms you show occupied? How did they make it two separate shows while one was not available to the public? Two parts were far from each other or simply next door? How did they assign spaces for Huang Qiuyuan's show and your two-part show? I haven't been in Xi'an Artists Gallery, so have no idea of its space, plan and interior. For this part, your information will be very helpful if it could be as detailed as possible.
wenda gu: the xian artists’ gallery was a wonderful space. my solo exhibition was installed at the main space on the ground floor. it is a realy high ceiling, wide and deep. huang qiuyuan’s exhibition is on the second floor with also nice space of course with lower ceiling. and his works are not as big as my works. my another show was on the third floor. it is a room about 200sqm. this room showed my traditional ink works.

Zhou Yan: From when you started making installation? The Xi'an show seems to be the first complete "installation." However, I know you made Bi4 Gua4 (tapestry), and showed your ink pieces as kind of 3-D manner in other circumstances before the Xi'an show. Could you please tell me more about this? And it's important for me to know the intention and motivation of transition from 2-D work and display to 3-D work/installation.
wenda gu: there are 2 things: 1, 3-d is one and installation is another catagory. i started to create oil paintings with ready made objects in 1981. i have the slides. but those works were not intended to be installations. i was not informed about the catagory of installation in the biginning of 80s. i will say all my intention to create installation was beginning of 1985.

i did several performances within the installation of my huge ink paintings. one performance was i hired 6 students of mine to create a large ink painting. each one create a character of “quiet” in different forms. then i splashed with large amount of water on it (special ink technics i invented, later on become popular). then i used red colour to make “cross” and “circle” on those six characters.

the tapestry works yes with full intention of creating installations. that time they call it “ruan3 diao1 shu4”. but this is only way i can create installations in the academy. mr. varbanov loves my work and invited me to create huge pieces for the international beinnale in swiss although i was not the member of tapestry studio in zhejiang academy of art. he knew clearly that the creative power of my work would deliver the work to the swiss biennale. it was the most important goal for him and his tapestry stduio that the work will be selected by the biennale. i got the first place to create those works varbanov’s studio and got in the biennale. some people may not be happy during that time.

if you look at the tapestries of mine, the most important part of the works are the large ink work mounted on the woven banboo.   


related links

united nations projects

united nations- babel of the millennium

united nations- australia monument

united nations- sweden & russia monument: interpol

forest of stone steles

oedipus refound #3, enigma beyond joy and sin

Ink Alchemy

The centrality of culture in art: the contemporary challenge to Chinese artists, particularly Wenda Gu- by Yan Zhou, 2005.