The short comings of "Hair-itage": A closer look at Wenda Gu's united nations
Cheadle, Christina. 2016. The short comings of "Hair-itage": A closer look at Wenda Gu's united nations -- Lambda Alpha Journal, v.46, p.49-60
The contemporary Chinese artist Wenda Gu's prolific artistic repertoire begins pre-Communist China. Dormant since 2007, Gu's work in the 1990s and 2000s propelled him into international fame as an installation artist. His united nations project spanned 15 years and 14 countries and incorporated hair as a means of uniting viewers. Gu's fascination with globalization and a universal society that blurs cultural lines and connects all humans inspired the show. He acknowledges that a "utopia of unification" can never exist in reality, but believes that it can and will exist in the art world through his united nations series. These installations did not always garner a positive response, specifically his first exhibit in 1993 in Lødz, Poland (Figure 1). Once opened, this exhibition lasted half a day before public outrage regarding the insensitivity of the piece forced its closure. The controversy surrounding Wenda Gu's united nations pieces provides evidence of the limitations artists face when trying to create globally accessible or "universal" works of art through the use of corporeal materials. Controversies in Poland, Sweden, Italy, and Israel highlight the shortcomings of trying to utilize corporeal materials as means of connection without fully acknowledging the cultural relativity of their symbolic meaning. Through his search for the philosophically universal, Gu encourages us to forget the culturally particular, thus reducing entire cultures to simple shared concepts such as hair and leading to misinterpretations of his work. Gu's insensitivity to the different symbolic valences surrounding hair not only renders his project null but also undermines his original purpose.