Today’s post features Chinese artist Gu Wenda’s piece entitled “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry”. (For my previous post on Gu, click here).
To produce this piece, Gu carved translations of Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) poetry into 50 stone tablets. The poems were translated first literally from Chinese into English, and then phonetically from English back into Chinese. As you can imagine, this convoluted method of translation renders the final product completely incomprehensible.
Gu Wenda, “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry” (2001)
Gu’s “Forest of Stone Steles” comments on issues of translation and cultural misunderstanding in a globalized world. His artistic rendition of misinterpretation challenges the accepted notions of translation and meaning, arguing that a misunderstanding of text, writing, and language inevitably results in a misreading of culture itself.
Gu Wenda’s concern with translation can be interpreted as a distinctly post-modern, global problem, but his knowledge of traditional Chinese poetry and writing systems ground him firmly in ancient Chinese history. In this way, Gu manages to straddle the past and the present, the East and the West, addressing contemporary, universal questions with an understanding of tradition and a sense of history.
“Forest of Stone Steles” can alternatively be interpreted as an exploration of the Chinese cultural identity as it stands in opposition to “the other” or “the West”, exposing the miscommunications that occur because of that dichotomy. Gu’s artwork does not offer a solution to cross-cultural misunderstanding, nor does it provide a concrete definition of what it means to be Chinese; however, his work clearly exposes the linkages between Chinese writing systems and the Chinese concept of cultural identity. Through his commitment to ancient Chinese methodology and his deep understanding of Chinese linguistic traditions, he proposes that ancient Chinese language and text can serve as a source of distinction and definition.
Stay tuned for my next post featuring another contemporary Chinese artist who deals with issues of language and translation in his work!
Another Chinese artist who works with language as a means of deconstructing the Chinese cultural identity is Gu Wenda. Gu has an array of fascinating pieces to explore – which is why this post will actually be divided into two parts (A and B). Part A will focus specifically on the “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series, which explores the historical significance of the simplification of Chinese characters. Check the blog again in the next few weeks to see my next post about some of Gu’s other works.
Born in 1955, Gu Wenda experienced the Cultural Revolution and even joined the Red Guard, where he was asked to contribute to the simplification of Chinese characters. His experience during this time sparked a fascination with the ancient Chinese writing system, and he was inspired to study traditional Chinese calligraphy. As a result, text and language are central to his “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series, which are large-scale ink paintings on scrolls depicting subverted Chinese ideographs.
Gu Wenda, “The Mythos of Lost Dynasties” (1983-1987)
Much like Xu Bing’s “Tian Shu” (check out my previous post on Xu Bing here), Gu Wenda’s characters are “meaningless” and invented, but both artists’ works remain true to traditional Chinese methods of calligraphy and printing, and both pieces clearly maintain a distinctively Chinese quality. Gu Wenda’s characters are in fact based off the ancient Chinese “Seal Script” that was widely used in the Qin (221-206 B.C.E) and Han (206 B.C.E – 220 C.E.) Dynasties. Aside from the fact that the ideographs are completely indecipherable, Gu’s art works look remarkably historically accurate. He utilizes conventional media such as ink, paper scrolls, and traditional calligraphy tools to create a seemingly authentic pseudo-language.
Gu posits that writing and text are fundamental to Chinese cultural identity. He argues that language is a signifier of cultural conventions, but by manipulating language, one can both embrace and challenge tradition simultaneously. Like Xu Bing, Gu’s “meaningless” characters also provoke questions about the limitations of language and human understanding. Perhaps Gu Wenda, in calling attention to the fact that language and text can be manipulated, is drawing upon his own experience in the Cultural Revolution and referencing his own role in the process of simplifying traditional Chinese characters.
Although his work provides no easy answers, I would argue that Gu, like Xu Bing, laments the current state of Chinese identity, and proposes a renewed interest in ancient Chinese writing and language as source of self discovery. His fastidious commitment to historical accuracy in the process of writing the characters and clear respect and knowledge of the discipline of calligraphy itself can be interpreted as somewhat nostalgic; perhaps Gu is arguing that a renewed understanding and of the process and methodology of traditional Chinese writing systems can provide meaning to the Chinese people.
In 1993, Gu began a fifteen year project called “United Nations”, in which Gu collected human hair donated by people around the world to create massive calligraphy installations that explored the idea of “internationalism”. You can learn more about that project here.
Also, check out Gu’s website for his bio and some of his other works. Look forward to part B of this post, which will feature more on Gu Wenda!