Wenda Gu’s Journey in Words

Wenda Gu was undoubtedly one of the earliest and most important avant-garde artists experimenting with ink in the 1980s. His deconstruction of Chinese linguistic and cultural systems through calligraphy has been tremendously influential on the development of contemporary ink art. This auction presents four works by Gu from different points in his career, allowing us to approach his rich artistic oeuvre from multiple vantage points. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that humans could not clearly capture things in the universe with words, and that our languages would be refined sufficiently to do so in the future. This idea was precisely Gu’s starting point in the early 1980s, when he began to experiment with words in order to explain the myriad things in the universe.1

Wenda Gu was born in Shanghai in 1955 and earned a place at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in 1979, studying with the eminent Chinese ink painter Lu Yanshao. Upon graduation in 1981, Gu remained at the Academy as an instructor and began his creative experiments with ink. His submissions to the 1985 exhibition on “Recent Works of Traditional Chinese Painting” in Hubei caused a shock and forged a path for contemporary conceptual ink art. This was also the first time he publicly exhibited Changshen, a large-scale paintingcalligraphy ensemble composed of pseudo, modified, incorrect, incomplete, and printing-type characters.

Wenda Gu is an indispensable figure in any narrative on the New Ink movement in China in the 1980s. Most artists of the ’85 New Wave were trained as oil painters or sculptors, whereas Gu had a solid foundation in traditional Chinese art. He was unusual also in refusing to align himself with any group or movement. Amid the pro-Westernising and anti-traditional rhetoric of the ’85 New Wave, Gu was a striking exception, “Only when you have truly studied and understood tradition do you know where and how to go against it, how to reinterpret it.”2

In the early 80s, many works of Western philosophy were introduced in translation into China, prompting widespread interest in Western culture and calls for reforming Chinese traditions. Under the influence of many important Western philosophers of language and logic, Wenda Gu decided on words as his point of departure as an artist. His 1982 Pseudo Chinese Seals inaugurated his words-based series, in which he created many monumental ink paintings of incorrect, modified, or pseudo characters. At times he even disintegrated characters into senseless fragments and then randomly recombined them. Such deconstruction and reconstruction of words were his major themes in the 1980s, and led to his renowned Lost Dynasties series. Wenda Gu saw words as a new kind of figurative painting. By deconstructing and reconstructing them in form and meaning, he created a unique visual aesthetic. Lost Dynasties: Series A from 1982-86 was one of Gu’s important early works taking pseudo seal-script characters as a theme. The pseudo characters are interspersed among occasional legitimate ones, but both are equally impenetrable to modern Chinese readers. With this work Gu asks, “If we still want to understand objective universe and restore the history of our civilisation, do our language and words suffice as means?”3 Pseudo Character H9 and H12 from 2005 (Lot 996) are a continuation of this work. Faced with these pseudo Seal-Script characters, we cannot help but feel alienated from our own traditional culture.

Aside from outright nonexistent characters, modified characters are also an important part of Wenda Gu’s art. The modified characters chang and shen ( 暢神) in Chang Shen (Lot 993) from 1989 are a famous motif in the Lost Dynasties series, and have occurred repeatedly in Gu’s calligraphies and installations. Literally meaning “relaxation of the spirit,” the term comes from the Eastern Jin philosopher Zong Bing, who articulated his ideal for landscape painting as allowing the spirit to roam freely to its satisfaction and relaxation. In Changshen, Gu joins the two characters by placing the shared radical shen 申 in the middle. He adds further ambiguities by modifying the other radicals slightly and by not privileging a reading of the piece in either direction. As a result, a Chinese reader can see the text equally and simultaneously as changshen, changshi ( 暢示), yishen ( 易神), shenchang ( 神暢), shichang ( 示暢), and shenyi
( 神易). Such intractable and provocative ambiguity points to a new signifying potential for words, and at the same time cancels their original meanings and allows calligraphy to exist as abstract painting. Created between 1989 and 1990 when Gu was abroad, the lot on offer is a subsequent rendition of the aforementioned Changshen exhibited in 1985. The later work is conceptually more advanced than the earlier one. He renders the radicals shi ( 示)and shen ( 申) in stocky lines and puts them in a group; separates the yi ( 易) radical from them by rendering it in cursive script, switches the positions of shi and yi, and flips yi into a mirror image. Consequently, these simple characters gain even more potential readings and meanings. As he wrote in “Non-Narrative Words,” “Words and languages may constitute a special kind of aesthetic experience.”

In 1987, Wenda Gu was invited to work in Canada, after which he lived in New York until his recent return to China. Like Changshen above, Red Drawing (Lot 994) was created between 1989 and 1990 and is an early work from Gu’s time abroad. An abstract ink painting, it features two similar compositions of a circular form in ink at the center surrounded by red squares and lines in acrylic. The colour red can often be seen in Gu’s early works, and crosses and circles occur in Lost Dynasties: I Correct Three Men and Three Women’s Writings of the Character Jing. In Red Drawing, the rectilinear shapes painted in acrylic contrast with the amorphous ink-based forms and reflect the influence of modern Western art, which is unsurprising given the artist’s relocation to North America.

After living for some time in the West, Wenda Gu reached a new level of intellectual sophistication. In 1993, he embarked on a series of site-specific installations that incorporated hair donated by locals, addressing the issues of globalisation and cross-cultural identity. Entitled the United Nations Series, this was Gu’s most significant effort since leaving China, and he traveled tirelessly with it to countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Africa. Metamorphosis: Pseudo Latin (Lot 997) originated from this legendary series. Here Gu uses human hair to compose pseudo Latin words, deconstructing the role of words in civilisation and provocatively dramatising the contradictions in “Latin” cultural identity.

Few other artists working in the ink medium can match Wenda Gu’s creativity and output as he continues to produce works in China and abroad. In his recent public art project in Shanghai, entitled Central Garden, he has even made his “short terms” part of a garden, allowing the viewer to experience somatically the magic of calligraphy and landscape painting. For over three decades since the 1980s, Wenda Gu has persistently deconstructed Chinese culture. Words may never explain the myriad matters of the universe, but his experimentations with words are indispensable tools and potent symbols for the interpretation of Chinese culture by Westerners and the Chinese themselves. 

1 Wenda Gu, “My Journey in Ink: Exploration, Experimentation, and the Founding of Contemporary Chinese Conceptual Ink Art”
2 Zhou Yan, “Words as Images: From Ink to Stele Forests, From Deconstruction to Translation”
3 Refer to 1

Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG