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Gu Wenda: Liberating artistic creation tools to the universe

SINGAPORE — He was born in Shanghai and currently lives in New York, but Gu Wenda has a special attachment to Singapore. Not only is the Chinese contemporary artist going to be in town next week to receive the Lifetime Achievement award at the 2015 Prudential Eye Awards, his installation, United Nations — a massive screen of 188 national flags made out of human hair — was the opening installation for the grand opening of the Esplanade in 2002.

Chinese contemporary artist Gu Wenda will receive the lifetime achievement award at this year's Prudential Eye Awards next week.

Chinese contemporary artist Gu Wenda will receive the lifetime achievement award at this year's Prudential Eye Awards next week.

SINGAPORE — He was born in Shanghai and currently lives in New York, but Gu Wenda has a special attachment to Singapore. Not only is the Chinese contemporary artist going to be in town next week to receive the Lifetime Achievement award at the 2015 Prudential Eye Awards, his installation, United Nations — a massive screen of 188 national flags made out of human hair — was the opening installation for the grand opening of the Esplanade in 2002.

“At that time the Singapore population was smaller and Singapore’s art scene was conservative,” said Gu, who added that for him, Singapore “represents South-east Asia” when it came to the arts.

A graduate of the China Academy of Art, Gu is considered one of the country’s leading contemporary artists. He moved to the United States in 1987, where he became an associate professor of studio art at the University of Minnesota from 1989 to 1990. United Nations is perhaps Gu’s best known work. Started in 1993, it contains contributions from more than one million people, who donated their hair for this installation project. The work is currently on display at Saatchi Gallery in London and “represents everybody in this universe”, he said.

“This idea (came about) because I moved to New York, a place that has a diversity of races and cultures. Last year was (the project’s) 20th anniversary and it’s going from one country to another.”

Gu also added that through the work, he hopes to provide a meaningful angle and unite people through their participation.

“The image of flags is a symbol of division but the mixed hair unites the people. When the audience walk in, they immediately try to find their own flag, identify their home, their identity and you have participation. For me as the artist, I create my viewpoint of the world. It provides a meaningful angle for everybody. This work includes everyone in the world,” he said.

Gu, who maintains studios in Shanghai and Xi’an, also likes to draw from traditional Chinese elements. Ink Alchemy, for instance, utilised a product made of powdered Chinese hair, both as an installation as well as for ink painting. Another, dubbed Tea Alchemy, was created in a rice paper factory in China’s Anhui province that boasts a 1,000-year history in making rice paper His latest work, 24 Solar, involves Chinese calligraphy and is based on Chinese ink paintings. Using the solar cycle as inspiration, the work has Chinese characters all combined in a phrase. The work will be showcased at Suzhou Silk Museum in Jiangsu province, China, in early October at the grand opening of the museum.

In the meantime, the 60-year-old artist hopes to do another major project in Singapore, if not to tie-in with the country’s 50th anniversary this year, then sometime in the near future. “I wish to have a major art work in the National Gallery Singapore one day — a major event other than my Esplanade work,” he said.

As for receiving a lifetime achievement award, Gu said he felt “surreal and honoured” and that such awards do have significance for artists and the arts. “It is kind of a reward for my having an artistic career of about 30 — up to 40 — years and my efforts as an artist to liberate artistic creation tools to the universe,” said Gu.

The Prudential Eye Awards were launched in 2014 by the Prudential Eye Programme, a partnership between Parallel Contemporary Art, Saatchi Gallery and Prudential. The inaugural awards were staged last January at Suntec City. The awards focus on emerging artists from across Greater Asia and highlight the breadth, range and diversity of the works being made by emerging Asian artists. The second edition of the Prudential Eye Awards will take place next Tuesday at the Marina Bay Sands.

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