Wenda Gu: from middle kingdom to biological millennium

June 6 - July 12


Installation view
Detail, Jason Middlebrook, "Plant," 2002, Plastic lumber, silk plants, and paint, 1.5 ft. high, 14 ft. in diameter, Courtesy the artist and Sara Meltzer Gallery, New York
Installation view
Wenda Gu, "mythos of lost dynasties, form g-10," 1997, Ink on rice paper mounted with silk borders and rice paper back, Courtesy of the artist
Installation view
Installation view
Detail, Wenda Gu, "forest of stone steles" retranslation & rewriting of tang poetry, 1993-2003, Six carved stone steles (#10-15), six ink rubbings on rice paper (#10-15), and monitor, Courtesy of the artist
Wenda Gu, "ink alchemy," 2000-2001, Three glass jars containing chinese hair (natural, charred, powdered), three jichi wood boxes containing liquid ink made of powdered chinese hair, three cases containing six ink sticks made of powdered chinese hair, ink stick mold, and monitor, Ink manufactured at Cao Su Gong Ink Factory, Shanghai, China., Courtesy of the artist
Detail, Wenda Gu, "hair brick (united genes)," 1994, Five cases containing solid human hair bricks, Courtesy of the artist


Wenda Gu is a leading member of a group of diasporic artists that includes Xu Bing, Shirin Neshat, and Chen Zhen (1955-2000). Homi Bhabba has referred to this diaspora as a “third space,” a location between East and West which is defining the arts of a globalized world in the 21st century. Wenda Gu undermines and reinvigorates traditional Chinese art forms such as seals, stone carving, calligraphy, and ink painting by infusing them with a contemporary sensibility.
Born into a family of artists in Shanghai, including a grandfather persecuted for his theatre work, Gu developed his art early on by painting Mao posters for the Revolutionary Guard. He attended the Shanghai School of Art and the famous Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. Gu was a pivotal artist in the new scholar painting movement where he combined traditional Chinese ink painting and Western surrealism. He also played an active role in the notorious ’85 Art Movement, which led to the closure of his exhibitions in China. Following the Open Door policy introduced in 1978, the ’85 Art Movement exhibitions were the first to publicly challenge official definitions of art. In response to the academic rigor and obedience of artists to ancient paradigms of ink painting, Gu infused the tradition with conceptualism.
In 1987, Gu moved to the United States where his career moved in a diasporic and global direction. Through such exhibitions as "China Avant-Garde" (National Gallery, Beijing), "Fragmented Memory: The Chinese Avant-Garde" (Wexner Center for the Arts), "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" (Asia Society and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), and "Global Conceptualism" (Queens Museum of Art), Gu is considered a leading artist of the growing global and diasporan art world. He has also participated in biennial exhibitions in China, France, Republic of Korea, South Africa, Turkey, and recently at the First Guangzou Triennial entitled "Reinterpretations: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art, 1990-2000."
Wenda Gu’s work is timely in its ambitious attempt to address the issue of globalism dominating discussions of contemporary economics, society, and culture. The enormous scope of his vision is unique – conceiving of his artwork as existing over time and space and not constrained by convention, language, or national boundaries. Gu’s art collapses the ancient into the future, as he revisits time honored traditional methods through a contemporary lens. At the same time, his installations present work in unexpected forms and media such as hair, which is the catalyst for his most celebrated project, the "united nations" series.
"united nations – 7561 kilometers," a work created for the exhibition, "Wenda Gu: from middle kingdom to biological millennium," is the twentieth installation of the artist’s continuing "united nations" series. The series, an ongoing global art project begun by Gu in 1993, consists of site-specific installations or “monuments” made of human hair. In these “monuments” Gu blends hair collected from barbershops across the globe and presses or weaves it into bricks, carpets, and curtains as a metaphor for the mixture of races that he predicts will eventually unite humanity in “a brave new racial identity.” In addition many works incorporate invented text which, by frustrating the viewer’s ability to read, evokes the limitations of human knowledge and helps prepare the viewer for entry into an unknown world. Gu has installed individual “monuments” of the "united nations" series in Australia, Canada, China, France, Great Britain, Holland, Hong Kong, Japan, Italy, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, and the United States.   
"Wenda Gu: from middle kingdom to biological millennium" has been organized by a consortium of art colleges: the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, and the University of North Texas Art Gallery. It was curated by Raechell Smith, Mark H.C. Bessire, and Diana R. Block. 

The exhibition has been made possible with support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council, and the H&R Block Foundation. 




"enigma of birth," 1993
four glass jars containing human placenta powders
(normal, abnormal, aborted, still born) and beeswax
"hair brick (united genes)," 1994
five cases containing solid human hair bricks
"mythos of lost dynasties, form g-10," 1997
ink on rice paper mounted with silk borders and rice paper back
"untitled hair panel," 2002
human hair, glue, and rope
"ink alchemy," 2000-2001
three glass jars containing chinese hair (natural, charred, powdered),
three jichi wood boxes containing liquid ink made of powdered chinese hair, three cases containing six ink sticks made of powdered chinese hair,
ink stick mold, and monitor
Ink manufactured at Cao Su Gong Ink Factory, Shanghai, China.
[Video documentation: making genetic ink]
"tea alchemy," 2002
30,000 sheets of tea (rice) paper made from 4000 pounds of green tea,
three cases containing classical Chinese accordion painting books made of green tea paper, four authentication stamps, and monitor
Paper produced at Hong Ye Rice Paper Factory, Jing County, Anhui Province, China.
[Video documentation: making green tea paper]
"united nations – 7561 kilometers (4698 miles)," 2003
twelve panels made of human hair, glue, and rope,
5000 meters of human hair braid, and rubber stamps of 191 world nations
"forest of stone steles"
retranslation & rewriting of tang poetry, 1993-2003
six carved stone steles (#10-15), six ink rubbings on rice paper (#10-15), and monitor 
[Video documentation: making forest of stone steles]

Exhibition Checklist PDF




Wenda Gu: art from middle kingdom to biological millennium
Raechell Smith


Naturally, ideas are extended through the process of collaboration.
Over the course of time and a shared dialogue, an ambitious exhibition, a comprehensive catalog, a public symposium, and a nation-wide itinerary of like-minded hosting venues, including the University of North Texas Art Gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, and the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute has grown out of three individual and preliminary inquiries into the work of the artist, Wenda Gu.
In cities and towns across the United States, university museums and college galleries offer a  unique resource for informed or inquisitive audiences. Public programs presented at these institutions are inextricably linked with creative, questioning communities and dynamic environments of learning and share a common, two-fold mission: to expand educational opportunities through innovative, quality programs and to extend these resources to public audiences in a relevant and thought-provoking manner. Ideally and at their very best, these institutions present exhibitions and educational programming to serve a multitude of constituencies – students, educators, professionals, and an increasingly diverse public – and they do so in a distinctive way.
In a recent article published in The New York Times, Stephen Kinzer cites the new role that university museums have assumed in recent years. As an alternative to the trend of blockbuster exhibitions hosted by large civic museums to draw very large audiences, or in regions that lack these public museums altogether, he points out that university museums are filling a unique niche and have gained higher and wider regard locally, regionally, and nationally. They are doing so by organizing and presenting more innovative, multidisciplinary exhibitions that take full and creative advantage of their resources. 1
The University of North Texas Art Gallery, the ICA at Maine College of Art, and the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, working together to organize and present Wenda Gu: Art From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium, have formed a model partnership. An altogether ambitious endeavor, the intended aim of this partnership is multifaceted. As both an example and prototype for innovative approaches to creating public programs, this exhibition suggests a standard that provides greater access to audiences, expands the project scope beyond the ambition of one university museum or college gallery alone, and combines the expertise and resources of regarded university museums across the nation. 
Often, it is an ambition and situation born of necessity, including small staffs and prescribed budgets, that leads university museums to further develop a penchant for creative, expansive thinking. To the benefit of many, collaborative efforts such as this one sometimes present an  opportunity to expand the scope of a given program and stretch the reach of collective resources.
As our individual and collective sense of community broadens, a shift in perspective encourages a different kind of consideration, one that is less defined by immediate and imaginary boundaries, both geographic and conceptual. In a cultural era dominated by a focused discourse on issues of globalism and its impact on economics, politics, art, and fostering a better understanding of the world we live in, it seems entirely fitting for an exhibition such as Wenda Gu: Art From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium to be organized in precisely this way at just this time.
A Chinese-born artist now living and working in the United States and exhibiting internationally, Wenda Gu creates imaginative and compelling art. His work is an intelligent fusion of historical and contemporary influences from eastern and western spheres alike. In his work, we see blended ideas of cultural isolation and assimilation. Ultimately, Gu is inviting notions of a metaphoric narrative that dares to speak of a brave new identity where differences of race, religion, language, tradition, culture, and geographical divisions begin to collapse and suggest something new.
These ideas are indeed timely and well suited for thoughtful and contextual consideration within more than one community. As university museums, serving as destinations and purveyors, strive to be relevant and add value to their immediate communities, they also look to absorb lessons, and cooperate with their peers within a larger, more national community. Timely meetings between issues and ideas, both local and global, begin and converge in the most likely and appropriate of settings.  
Research centers, laboratories, studios, and other learning-oriented environments like university campuses, classrooms, and museums enjoy and are by design positioned to capitalize in a positive way from the benefits and freedoms associated with innovation, experimentation, and the pursuit of new ideas. As quoted in Mr. Kinzer’s article, Ann Philbin, director of the U.C.L.A. Hammer Museum, a nationally-admired program focusing on recent contemporary art, claims this as exactly the unique purview of university museums. 2  In their aim to produce public programs, they are afforded license to explore and stretch boundaries within an environment that fosters dialogue, collaboration among colleagues, and a dynamic exchange of ideas.
[1] Stephen Kinzer, “More Ambitious Art Shows and Catalogues on Campus.” New York Times, December 11, 2002.
[2] Ibid. 




Press Release

"Wenda Gu: from middle kingdom to biological millennium" opens at the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute
KCAI Website |
Fri, 2003-05-16

One of the most important artists to emerge from China in recent decades, Wenda Gu was active in the Chinese avant-garde before emigrating to the United States in 1987.

Selected Press

We Are The World by Elisabeth Kirsch
The Kansas City Star |
Sun, 2003-07-20

Chinese artist explores the things that unite and separate us all.