Curators, security guards, and secretaries alike assist as a mechanical rig lifts up enormous translucent sheets scrawled with different scripts. Upon closer inspection, the monumental tapestry is woven from human hair collected from all over the world.
The work, “United Nations,” is by Gu Wenda, a contemporary mixed-media artist. Born in Shanghai in 1955, Gu moved to the U.S. in 1987, and he now splits his time between the two countries. His art has been shown on every continent except Antarctica, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the city he now calls home alongside Shanghai.
In the past, Gu’s work has riffed off Chinese esthetic traditions to address contemporary concerns such as internationalism and cultural anxiety, often using creative materials and a supersized scale. His latest project follows suit, drawing on the Chinese painting tradition of blue-green landscapes (qing lu shan shui) to comment on a current environmental issue — but this time using algae as the medium.
On Sep. 24 at the Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center, Gu will direct 1,500 primary school students from the southern Chinese city to paint a massive free-form landscape, using nontoxic food-grade algae, on 1,500 square meters of paper in an act of public performance art. Later Gu will remake the children’s creation into his own works. Titled “Verdant Mountains, Emerald Waters,” the project aims to draw attention to the overgrowth of algae in areas of China.
Though algae occur naturally, the runoff of chemical fertilizers into lakes and rivers results in excessive algae growth that upsets the ecosystem, threatening fish and other wildlife. But for profit-oriented farmers, fertilizers promise an escape from poverty. Human sewage in the densely populated area also boosts the water’s nutrients. As the population and agricultural industry flourish, so, too, do algae.
Sixth Tone spoke to Gu about all things art, society, and algae. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
1,060 students participate in a calligraphy performance based on the Confucian ‘Classic of Filial Piety’ on Mother’s Day, Foshan, Guangdong province, May 11, 2014. Courtesy of Gu Wenda’s studio
Sixth Tone: In the past you’ve worked with unusual materials: sanitary pads, semen, hair. This time you’re working with algae. What is the role of materials in your storytelling?
Gu Wenda: It all started when I left China and moved to New York at the end of the 1980s. I was a lucky witness to two movements: the economic reform of Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy, and America ascending from power to superpower.
I have tried to present both cultures, and show Chinese tradition evolving with contemporary art. Everybody talks about this millennium being about genetic discovery, and about how life science is going to crowd the mainstream. So that’s why I picked body material as a medium, a way of presenting scientific progress.
Sixth Tone: In the U.S. you are a Chinese artist, yet in China you are a U.S.-trained artist. How has straddling two countries and two cultures impacted your work?
Gu: I see myself as a third group. I have Chinese DNA and live in New York. Most Chinese think I’m Americanized, and Americans think I’m an immigrant. I was never aware of Chineseness until I moved out, because when you live in China, everything is Chinese. I have a deeper view of China than the people living here simply because I have a point of comparison. I see both societies from different angles, more angles. This gives me a foundation.
In terms of my work, this standpoint gives me energy and inspiration. When I left China, I was already kind of famous and leading others. I started to feel bored, like my spirit was doomed. I needed more challenges, and I wanted to be global.
A lot of artists were saying, “Because China’s environment is too oppressive, I want to leave.” But I left China to look for another challenge. At that time, I was young and fearless. Even my first solo show, in Xian in 1986, was shut down.
Sixth Tone: You are known for your collaborations with corporations — your algae project, for example, is backed by Ping An Insurance Company. What do you say to those who say commissioned art is not real art?
Gu: As an artist, I feel that especially in China, artists think you’re not supposed to touch the commercial side, that your art should be “pure.” I feel this is not responsive to the society we live in — artists aren’t nomads without homes.
I want artists to be responsible. In a sense I believe art should belong to corporations, in the same way that the pope used to be a patron of the arts. More than galleries and auction houses and individual collectors, I think corporations are the main sponsors and patrons, so I try to include the corporate side. I have a Chinese pop approach instead of a scholarly approach, with only a limited audience to appreciate it.
Artists are individuals, and you have a voice. But you also need support. This is especially pertinent in China, because after the Cultural Revolution people lost all their beliefs, and people continue to live today with no beliefs. Everything has become more and more individualistic and selfish, with no social awareness. Artists have a social responsibility to reflect the environment they live in, socially, politically, and financially.
But I’m not sure how great a role art can play in the future capitalist world. I feel it will be much less than the role it played under socialism. Most corporate art in China is just decoration; it doesn’t have any deeper meaning.
Gu Wenda poses for a photo at his studio in Shanghai, Sept. 14, 2016. Yang Shenlai/Sixth Tone
Sixth Tone: What role should art play then in today’s China?
Gu: I feel art has to reflect the era, the setting you live in. You have a dialogue with the society, the culture, and the social life at the same time. This is my concern. Art does well when it represents the time. Otherwise, your work isn’t worthwhile — it won’t be everlasting because you don’t represent the era you live in.
My generation after the Cultural Revolution was very politically oriented. We wanted to break against the barriers. But if you talk to artists today about these issues, nobody is interested. Young artists aren’t interested in critical art or social issues. The main body of young contemporary artists are doing fashionable, safe, market-focused work.
In one way, that’s a good thing because it’s a more realistic way to survive as an artist. But on the other hand, they lose a lot of their political and social edge. Hopefully the social and cultural criticism will come once they’re financially secure, but maybe that’s my fantasy. Hopefully there will still be balance, a spirit to point out the darkness in society.
Sixth Tone: How can Chinese artists offer social criticism in today’s highly politicized context?
Gu: As an artist, I want to be a peacemaker. I have no ability like a politician to make conflict and war. Even with the sensitive algae project, I have tried to make it as peaceful as possible, to make it more inclusive. There was a delicate balance; it wasn’t easy. If it’s only harsh criticism, it won’t work — it’ll become destructive to everything, and nothing will be improved.
The best social criticism needs leaders, not just confrontation. You raise the issue, but at the same time you point to a solution. If you do something differently, something more acceptable, you’ll have a good result.
Sixth Tone: What hopes do you have for China’s role in the fight against climate change? Are you encouraged by its recent ratification of the Paris Agreement?
Gu: I hope China will become more responsible for a green planet. The challenge has come in the wake of the open-door policy: China became a major producer of everyday goods, and at the same time contributed a lot of pollution.
Hopefully its ratification of the Paris Agreement isn’t just a fleeting gesture, like cleaning up the skies for the G-20 summit. Hopefully it will bring awareness. If the government doesn’t address the question or reinforce education, then it’s just a temporary veneer, a decoration.
(Header image: Gu Wenda stands next to his book collection at his studio in Shanghai, Sept. 14, 2016. Yang Shenlai/Sixth Tone)