anxious masses: Thinking about Gu Wenda´s Ink Alchemy

Yesterday at the opening for experimental ink artist Gu Wenda, I was struck by the unfolding of scale in his work. His early work could be completed by one person. There were large paintings, like Surreal Horizon (超现实地平线) or images from Lost Empires (遗失的王朝) but nevertheless the actual works themselves conformed to a human-sized world as I have come to know it. I felt myself and the art to be at the same scale. Indeed, often I was larger than the pieces and some, like the Red Heart Series (红心系列) of seals on small, abstract ink paintings, I could hold in my hand. However the later work, such as the Ink Alchemy Series (水墨炼金术系列 – above image) was large scale industrial. As such, these pieces could not be completed by any one person or even by a group of people working with their hands. Instead, the artist became both an industrial designer and an organizer of human labor and machines over time.

Made entirely of died braids of human hair, Gu Wenda’s most recent installation Black Gold (黑金)  fills the entire OCT Art Terminal. In the middle of the cavernous room, a large rectangle of ink powder lies flat beneath a canopy of black braids. To the left and right of the canopy, evenly spaced sections of died braids hang from ceiling to floor in fine, delicate loops. The installation is deceptively simple – blocks of color shimmering neatly beneath gallery lights. However, Black Gold took three years (2008-2010) to complete and thinking about what would be necessary to complete such a project left me feeling both frightened and exhilarated. Frightened because I imaged thousands of woman, who had given several years of their lives to grow their hair, scalped to make an epic statement. Exhilarated because the level of coordinated precision needed to execute Black Gold spoke to me of how one might go about representing Chinese society – massive blocks that from a distance seem a well-organized whole, but which upon closer inspection dissolve into idiosyncratic anonymity.

Neatness or tidiness (整齐) of large groups or objects is one of the mass aesthetic values that I have had difficulty appreciating. Not that I don´t enjoy watching several thousands of people making the same motion at precisely the same time, but when I think about the level of work that is necessary to achieve such precision, I feel the same anxiety that I felt upon seeing Black Gold. Several examples of mass coordination come to mind: military marching, classrooms full of Chinese students taking tests over and over and over again to prepare for the gaokao, highways full of cars, miles of grazing pasture in the American West and wheat fields in the Mid. Massive, national bureaucracies. Each of these instances of mass coordination exemplifies the human potential to submit to external hierarchies that take sameness and repetition to be the signs of unity and belonging.

And here´s the rub: one what?

Military marching and mass test-taking provide living metonyms for the modern, industrial state. Nevertheless, these mass exercises also remind me of feudal traditions, in which being born into oneś place enabled large societies to hold their form for generations. In other words, for many to become one, for each to find her ¨place¨ takes a lifetime of practice. This taking one´s place in a larger order is natural insofar as to be human is to belong to various groups of various sizes. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this is the whole point of education – helping young people figure out how to inhabit diverse sets of coordinated relationships.

The anxiety I feel when thinking about Black Gold, specifically and mass coordination, more generally has to do with the means and goals of mass practices. Military marching, mass test-taking, driving on the highway, planting acres of wheat: each of these practices takes an abstract idea of what it means to be human and imposes it on the diversity of the world, creating conditions of idiosyncratic anonymity. Moreover, these practices aren´t particularly healthy. Armies go to war, Chinese students become test-taking machines, carbon monoxide kills as do the pesticides necessary to maintain wheat fields.

In contrast, if there is such a ¨one¨ out there, I’m Buddhist enough to believe that the point is to create conditions of mutual recognition. Creative collaboration rather than mass coordination, so to speak. I’m not sure what this means in terms of reorganizing nations or highway systems or college entrance requirements. Yet I trust the process. When I take the time to understand each of my students, something happens between us. And that state of sharing between – elusive, delicate, and quite beautiful – could transform mass culture in unexpected and wonderful ways.

Gu Wendaś Ink Alchemy retrospective is currently up at the He Xiangning Museum of Art and the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. Worth a visit.

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