In a collaboration unusual for Maine academic museums, the Bates College Museum of Art and the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, Portland, will jointly present an exhibition by Wenda Gu, one of the most important artists to emerge from China in recent decades. "From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium" opens at Bates on June 12 and at ICA, site of the opening reception for both institutions, on June 18. Bates hosts the closing reception and a performance by Gu on Oct. 9.
Gu was active in the Chinese avant-garde before emigrating to the United States in 1987. He mines tradition and pursues innovation in works that explore globalism, diasporic art and transculturalism to present an idealized unification of humanity.
"Wenda Gu's work is timely in its ambitious attempt to address in artistic terms the issue of globalism that dominates discussions of contemporary economics, society and culture. The enormous scope of his vision -- conceiving of his artwork as existing over time and space and not constrained by convention, language or national boundaries -- is remarkable," writes Mark H.C. Bessire in the exhibition publication, the first major scholarly publication on Gu (MIT Press).
Bessire, director of the Bates museum and former director of ICA, edited the publication and, with counterparts at museums in Kansas and Texas, co-curated the exhibition. It consists of two site-specific installations, two other installations and a performance.
"Words, languages, human hair, glue, calligraphy and stone carving are just some of the components of his installations that catalyze discussion and broaden awareness among viewers," Bessire writes.
At the Bates museum, Gu will create an installation titled "united nations -- 7561 kilometers," the 20th piece in his "united nations" series. An ongoing worldwide project begun in 1992, the series consists of "monuments" made of human hair, collected from barbershops across the globe, that the artist presses or weaves into bricks, carpets and curtains. The blend of hair from different nations is a metaphor for the mixture of races that Gu predicts will eventually unite humanity into "a brave new racial identity."
For "united nations -- 7561 kilometers," Gu will construct a "temple" using thin and colored human hair braids. The structure will large enough for viewers to pass through and under the piece. Members of the Bates and local communities will be invited to participate in "united nations -- we are united," the artist's performance in October.
Among his works at the ICA, Gu will present a second original installation, a new chapter in a series using stone steles marked with retranslated, rewritten Tang Dynasty poetry, as well as rubbings taken from the steles. Inventing and misusing words and language symbols in a variety of languages, Gu embraces mistakes and misunderstandings. He finds absurdity and unexpected beauty in the acceptance of illogical retranslations.
How does the art in the two locations function as a whole? In a sense, they express two opposed outcomes of the great international convergence of nation, race and culture. Gu's idealistic intimation of an ultimate, corporeal and spiritual unification of humanity will be expressed in the spacious, ascendant monument at Bates -- a "temple" of hair -- where the steles at ICA convey poetic gibberish to frustrate viewers' attempts to secure their fundamental meaning and coherence.
A consortium of art college museums has organized the exhibition as a model to encourage collaboration among art colleges nationally. The MIT Press catalog includes an introduction to "Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium," documentation of the complete "united nations" series to date and useful background for the exhibition.
The project was supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
"united nations -- 7561 kilometers,"