Art of Misunderstandings

Gu WenDa is a contemporary Chinese artist that works primarily with two materials, human hair and language, and confronts two subjects, globalization and inter-cultural communication. In the mix, he offers the insight that misunderstandings are an unavoidable and, in fact, essential part of growing internationalism.

Gu’s most astounding work is an international series of installations that employ copious amounts of human hair to create all manner of culturally significant objects, everything from rugs and walls and ropes to the more elaborate. An exhibit in Sweden included an 80-foot hair tunnel; one in Buffalo, NY a mock-up Fort Knox who’s hair walls protected a cash of tightly compacted hair bricks.

man and space installation. Photo from artist's website.

The central thread, though, is internationalism. There were lots of national flags made of hair, as well as the hair of different ethnic groups. Exhibits often display world languages written with hair. One exhibit featured a 5,000 meter long braid of hair, cut into 191 sections, each symbolizing a country of the world, then tied back together using rubber name plates labelled with each countries name written backwards.

The series of installations is called “united nations” and, starting in 1993, they appeared in more than 13 countries including all the usual suspects plus a few more like South Africa, Israel, and Russia. Part of the shtick is that each exhibit used hair collected from the country where it was hosted; much of it donated from individuals. To add to the global flair, the culmination of the project was a “temple of heaven” constructed in New York out of the hair collected from each of the other countries that hosted exhibits.

temple of heaven exhibition. Photo from artist's website.

The focus is clearly on internationalism, but it’s not a feel good ode to cooperation and integration. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Gu’s manifesto of the project is called “the divine comedy of our times.” The project is a comedy because it represents a vision that can only be possible in art, not in life. It’s an unattainable ideal.

As if to underscore the point, his exhibits in parts of eastern Europe and Israel drew criticism because of the connection between piles of hair and the Holocaust. His exhibit in Poland closed after only 24 hours even though he explained that there was no intention to reference the murder of Jews. But of course that didn’t matter, and in some ways that was Gu’s point. Real globalization involves a lot of misunderstandings.

The united nations project is infused with misunderstandings, not least of which is language. Many exhibitions feature incomprehensible words. One is titled “post-cmoellotniinaglpiostm,” a word created by combining ‘melting pot’ and ‘post-colonialism’. Others words are purely meaningless concoctions formed to look like English or Arabic or Chinese. An installation in San Francisco titled “babble of the millennium,” a clear reference to the tower of babel, consists of nothing but made up words.

babble of the millennium exhibition. Photo from artist's website

The effect is to enforce misunderstanding. Even a language the viewer supposedly understands is unintelligible. The thing that everyone has in common when looking at these fake languages of the world is that they don’t understand them. It’s mutual misunderstanding.

Several of Gu’s other works, outside the united nations project, deal with this theme of language and misunderstanding. His first major work, in 1985, was a series of fake Chinese characters. Chinese characters are in some ways pictographs and there are over 10,000 of them, so it’s hard to imagine a comparison in English. Maybe something between creating a new letter and inventing a word.

Either way, Gu’s show was closed down by the authorities, ostensibly because they assumed if they couldn’t read what it said it must be saying something bad. Perhaps the deeper social commentary at the time, borne out by the government’s ban, is that Chinese people had lost touch with their culture, saying even Chinese people don’t understand Chinese culture.

But if Chinese people don’t understand Chinese culture, it’s even more difficult for foreigners. Gu’s piece “the forest of stone steles” is an experiment in translation and misappropriation. A stele is a giant rock tablet engraved with the history or literature of the great poets and dynasties of ancient China. What Gu did was make some stele’s of his own, but instead of copying ancient poems he copied English translations of Chinese poems back to Chinese.

But he didn’t do a typical translation. He did a phonetic translation, using the sound of the words, not their meaning, as the basis for his translation. English words are transliterated into Chinese characters all the time, for place names and commercial brands, etc. and those characters have meanings that may or may not correspond to the meaning of the English word they stand for.

For example, Washington is translated into three characters hua, sheng and dun, which each have unique meanings. And, since each sound in Chinese can refer to several characters there are a lot of possible meanings from translating one English sound into Chinese. By putting together the possible options he created coherent poetry.

stone steles installation. From the artist's website.

The result of translating the English version back to Chinese phonetically created a poem with a completely new meaning. And for good measure he translated the new Chinese poems back to English and carved everything into giant stone tablets. The whole thing is an exercise to display the dissonance between languages, the inadequacies of translation, and the way meanings get re-shaped in the process.

After pondering Gu’s art I have renewed respect for the difficulties of inter-cultural communication. The web of connections is so complex and cultural gaps so big that misunderstandings seem inevitable. Even my above attempt to explain the comparative meaning systems of English and Chinese is likely to cause confusion. To coin a phrase: If you’re not misunderstanding anything, you’re missing something.

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3 Responses to Art of Misunderstandings

  1. eric says:

    Misunderstanding defines my experience in China. Standing under a bunch of fake words made up by Gu must make you feel that he sympathizes with you. Over the last month in China, I have been misunderstanding everything, everyplace, all the time. But I hear Chinese people say “aah??” so often that I don’t feel so bad about my confusion. The science of chiseling away at misunderstanding is grueling. I find shades of “sorry, I’m a dumbass, can you help?” to be the best introduction most of the time.

  2. S. Ward says:

    Hair is an interesting medium for binding together in misunderstanding. Words, the common medium, seem totally inadequate, but hair!

  3. Pingback: Words, Art and Meaning: Han Meilin 韩美林 | China Experiment

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