GU WENDA (B. 1955)
GU WENDA (B. 1955)

Mouth Actions

GU WENDA (B. 1955)
Mouth Actions
Ink and colour on paper
44.5 x 555 cm. (17 1/2 x 218 1/2 in.)
Executed in 1980
GU WENDA (B. 1955)
Selected exhibitions
2013 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA (group)
2011 Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China (solo)
2010 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA (group)
2009 Shanghai Art Museum, China (group)
2008 Asia Society and Museum, New York, USA (group)
2006 Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong (solo)
1999 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA (solo)
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, USA (solo)

Notable collections
British Museum, London, UK
The Boston Museum of Fine Art, USA
Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California, USA
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

Gu Wenda studied at the Shanghai School of Arts and Crafts and later received his master's degree from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in 1981 under the tutelage of great modern painter Lu Yanshao. In 1987, Gu moved to the United States and since then he held numerous teaching positions and affiliations with institutions such as the University of Minnesota and Cooper Union, and has dedicated his time to creating ink paintings, large scale installations, and other art and design related projects.
Gu Wenda was a true rebel among his fellow classical paintings classmates. His inspiration stemmed from the big, miswritten characters on propaganda posters used during the Cultural Revolution, hence the creation of his pseudo-Chinese script which remains the main idea of his artistic direction. Gu attempts to explore the limitations and possibilities of Chinese language and writing and transforms the role of calligraphy in traditional landscape compositions.



C: Christie's
G: Gu Wenda
(interview conducted in Chinese)

C: What was the background behind the creation of Mouth Actions?
G: This work marks the start of my use of Chinese characters in ink painting. It began in 1980, before the Pseudo Characters Series. At the time I was exploring the relationship between painting and the human body, and how the meaning of Chinese characters related to the body, which was how it started. In fact this very early work is the beginning of my conceptual ink works. Before it I didn't use words or calligraphy in art; I was mainly painting symbolic and surreal landscapes.

C: What was the idea behind it, and what message were you trying to communicate?
G: In retrospect, this was a crucial work for me firstly because of what I mentioned just now. I also began to learn to write in Chinese seal script at that time, which had a profound influence on me and contributed to the idea of working with characters. I felt free and liberated when I wrote in seal script, because even if I didn't know what those characters were, I knew they were characters. There were no rules, which was liberating.
More importantly, this was the first time I appropriated symbols from Cultural Revolution posters (da zi bao) in my paintings. I did a series based on this motif later and most of these works are now in the hands of major collectors. I combined elements of Chinese literati painting and Cultural Revolution posters. You can say that it was the first attempt to connect political pop to Chinese ink painting, as I was linking the idea of socialism to the literati tradition from the feudal era. On the painting you can see forks in the colours of the Cultural Revolution: red, white and black. The arrows pointing up and down denote the movements and actions of the mouth; the Cultural Revolution was also a movement. As a result this piece manifests physical, mental and cultural movements.
All the characters I used in this piece contain the radical kou (mouth) structurally. These pieces became the foundation of my performance and installation art that began in 1980. I created the Red Series and other Cultural Revolution-themed works much later, but this piece is the first amongst all.

C: You painted Mouth Actions in 1980. What was the atmosphere of the art scene like in China then?
G: The Open Door policy and reforms put forward by Deng Xiaoping took place at the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s. When the contemporary art scene in China took off, there was the Stars Group (xing xing hua hui). The Stars artists aimed to break through social constraints and advocated for more freedom in the creation of art. Later on the more mature 85' New Wave Movement took place. Of course the backgrounds of the two movements are fundamentally different since when the New Wave Movement began, China was already a lot more liberal, and it emphasised much more on philosophy, literature, and thinking about art and culture in general.

C: You were at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts then, how did your teachers and peers react to Mouth Actions?
G: I worked in two different modes at the Academy - I did Chinese landscape painting alongside contemporary art, and Mouth Actions was obviously experimental and contemporary. During my degree exhibition in 1981, the Academy did not permit any media coverage as my works were too controversial socially and politically for China then. Moreover, it strayed too far from the Academy's teaching curriculum. As a result, I didn't show this piece to anyone - it was part of my studio research. That's why this work was not in my early exhibition records. In 1986 I showed some large experimental works in my solo exhibition in Xi'an and the exhibition was shut down. Of course these things also happen in the West and elsewhere, at any time - such provocation could trigger very negative reaction.

C: Mouth Action is a bold artistic statement. Why did you execute the work on a handscroll which is usually intended for a more intimate setting and appreciation?
G: I had two ideas when I participated in the New Wave Movements. The first one was that I did not participate in group activities, for I believed that such collectivity was merely an extension of a revolution, and I believed in the idea of the individual. Secondly, very few Chinese contemporary artists graduated from the Chinese painting (guo hua) specialty. I studied Chinese painting and have a passion and a will to reserve Chinese culture. My work is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, no matter how avant-garde it might seem. The handscroll is a diachronic movie for the literati: when Chinese scholars look at a handscroll, they only see it in parts, not in its entirety, and the act of appreciation becomes a process. I borrowed this from my own cultural tradition to make my work meaningful. It is my wish to produce art that marries forward-looking subjects with traditional symbols.

C: You moved to the United States in 1987, how did this experience affect your artistic direction?
G: An artist possesses two origins - on one hand there is his own culture, family, and biological DNA; on the other, there is the environment after he or she is born. In China I learned contemporary art concepts through books, but after I moved to the United States it became a real thing. The Forest of Stone Steles Series and the United Nation Project reflect influence the United States exert on me - my art becomes more Chinese and simultaneously more Western, but also increasingly global and radical. My brain works like a dual-core computer: my everyday encounter is half Chinese and half Western as my wife is from the West. Having graduated from the Chinese painting department and lived during the Cultural Revolution, I received education under socialism, communism, Marxism and idealism, but I currently live in the "old nest" of capitalism (New York). When I moved to the West, my Chineseness became more apparent than ever. As I become more international, I am at the same time more Chinese.

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