Wenda Gu and the “Forest of Stone Steles”. When Culture is misinterpretation

Wenda Gu Forest of Stone Steles installation view

Wenda Gu was born in Shanghai in 1955, during those years the city was a black and white photograph with fuzzy edges animated by beautiful women in Qipao (the classic Chinese dress) who smoked cigarettes in western bars or in the shade of stone buildings (legacy of the old colonizers) today nostalgic observers of a future made of glass and cement. The Cultural Revolution, it is well known, upsets everything and Gu is one of many young Chinese animated by a spirit of change who use the famous posters called dazibao to express public social critiques and in which the Chinese language and characters are emptied of a real semantic content.

This is the period in which the artist actually begins his work on language and more specifically on communication itself, which will soon be the subject to be treated in his profound artistic actions. In his series Forest of Stone Steles – Retranslation & Rewriting of Tang Poetry, begun in 1993 and exhibited in its full version in 2005, the artist creates 50 steles in black stone on which he has the result of his artistic research. In the first part of the stele there is a Chinese poem from the Tang period (618-907) and immediately after the translation of the same in English taken from the book The Jade Mountain by the writer Witter Bynner. The work of Gu is nothing less then incredible, he translates the English version of the poem into Chinese this time, however, following the phonetic trace, thus minutely choosing those Chinese characters that resemble in the sound the words of the English language; as you can guess the content of the new adaptation is extremely and ironically dissimilar to the original. The new “version” of the Tang poem is engraved in larger characters at the center of the stele and its new translation into English just below. The search for suitable characters commits the artist for a period of about 12 years and adds character to this monumental work in itself exhibited in 2005 at the Hexiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen.

Wenda Gu used the classic medium par excellence, that of calligraphy, known and studied for centuries and upsets it in an almost sacrilegious way precisely to focus our attention on how to interpret a different culture. Our knowledge, our cultural “convictions” are often, directly or indirectly, an obstacle very difficult to overcome on the impervious path of understanding a cultural background different from ours and the interpretations are mediated by multiple political and social factors that often go beyond the historical period in which they are defined. The new decoding of the artist creates a new language, whose contemporary roots represent the basis for a mode of supreme communication that does not care about the primary meaning belonging to the single culture and breaks down the rock of interpretation.