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Odyssey of Culture: Wenda Gu and His Art 文化之旅:谷文达和他的艺术(英文版)
  • Yan Zhou
The twentieth-century China had experienced one of her most turbulent periods in her five-thousand years of history. This chaos, however, was different from any one prior to the twentieth century because the culture Chinese had been proud of for centuries faced great challenge, and Chinese, especially those intellectuals, felt for the first time that Chinese culture fell into a profound crisis. To react to this critical challenge, Chinese intellectuals had attempted to rescue Chinese culture from what I called “three levels of culture,” namely, technology, system and discourse. This rescuing campaign started from the May Fourth Movement of the 1920s, continued in the “Great Cultural Discussion,” or “Cultural Fever,” of the 1980s. Three intellectual schools in this national debate – Futurologist School, Chinese Culturalist School, and School of Hermeneutics – offered their prescriptions. While Futurologist School attempted to save the culture by imported sciences and management, Chinese Culturalist School tried to revive Chinese culture through exploring and maintaining the essence of this culture, particularly Confucianism. School of Hermeneutics, however, believed that the revolution should start from discursive level, so critique of culture was essentially critique of value system as core of culture, or critique of discourse.
Launched in the 1980s, Chinese avant-garde movement was an artistic incarnation of concepts and thoughts embodied in these theoretical schools, especially School of Hermeneutics. Rational Painting, Current of Life and Anti-Art were main schools in this new art movement. They were radical in their attitude toward Chinese culture, and believed that visual art revolution was an integral part of critique of culture because it tended to subvert the cultural tradition at discursive level, which made those vanguard artists natural ally of School of Hermeneutics.
Wenda Gu was a representative of Chinese avant-garde of the 1980s. His career from home to abroad has concentrated on the issue of culture. I consider his artistic adventure as three stages – critique of culture, analysis of culture and synthesis of culture. In the 1980s, Wenda Gu was a warrior who attacked traditional culture radically. Started from reflection on history and civilizations in general, Gu shifted his focus to Chinese written language, a strategy of discursive critique. Have destructed and reconstructed Chinese characters, Gu echoed call of School of Hermeneutics for discursive revolution.

Moved abroad and settled in New York in 1988, Gu had confronted with an entirely different art scenario and made necessary adjustments though the issue of culture retained in his thoughts. He had explored materials as artistic means and object of cultural analysis as well, especially human body materials that initiated his stage of analysis of culture. Started from this analysis, Gu expanded his viewpoint to the process of cultural confrontation and reconciliation in global level. This led to his stage of synthesis of culture. In this stage, Gu has utilized human hair to accomplish his ambitious on-going project, titled UNITED NATIONS, which crosses over all five continents.

The challenge Gu faces may be the one most of contemporary Chinese artists face today. The centrality of culture in art has been and will continue to be the case for them, though focus, methodology, strategy may change.

  • Chinese contemporary art,
  • China's Avant-Garde,
  • Wenda Gu
Publication Date
Chinese Contemporary Art Series
Publisher Statement
This book is the first case study on Wenda Gu that systematically investigates the cultural and artistic context of his life and works, examining selected images of his artwork spanning from the late 1970s to the early 21st century. It is the first monograph to provide a comprehensive and profound study of a Chinese contemporary artist. In the 1980s, the School of Hermeneutics attempted to launch a discursive revolution. Vanguard artists believed that the visual art revolution was an integral part of the critique of culture because it tended to subvert and rebuild the cultural tradition at a discursive level. This book, using a case study on Wenda Gu as representative of Chinese avant-garde, investigates the centrality of culture in art, providing readers with insights on the origin, rationale and methodology of Chinese contemporary art.



Citation Information
Yan Zhou. Odyssey of Culture: Wenda Gu and His Art 文化之旅:谷文达和他的艺术(英文版). 1stBerlinVol. 1 (2015)
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