Most of the light that shines in a recently added atrium at Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) filters through an astonishing installation. Textured, sepia-toned and emblematic, the 6.5’ by 4’ flags that hang along the walls and from the ceiling of the space are representative of 188 countries. From afar, the works’ qualities (at once shining and fibrous; organic and fabricated) are hard to pin down. In fact, these flags’ primary material was sourced from almost as many nations as represented. They are each made of only three substances: Elmer’s glue, twine and human hair.
Gu Wenda’s “United Nations,” on view at PEM through November 5, is an immersive exhibition rooted in some of the most pertinent themes in modern history. Identity, community, immigration, culture and diversity are all explored in this awe- inspiring exhibit. Using the dual symbolism of flags and human hair, the exhibition offers a confrontation with humanity’s simultaneous oneness and separateness. Wenda’s works make no judgments about either aspect of the human condition, instead blurring boundaries between the two.
Born in Shanghai, Wenda came of age during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He studied, then taught, at China Academy of Art and began his prestigious career with provocative works featuring experimentations with calligraphy. Via avant- garde paintings, installations, and performances, Wenda disrupted popular notions of language, culture and tradition. One of his first exhibitions, shown in Shaanxi Province in the mid-1980s, was nearly deemed undisplayable by Chinese authorities. Featuring novel Chinese characters made from deconstructed ideograms, officials worried the illegible words carried subversive meanings. It was later decided that professional artists could view the exhibit. Though highlighting the work as controversial, media attention at the time helped propel Wenda into the global arts community.