Gu Wenda at his studio in Shanghai. Photo: Chen Zheng

Artist making giant coloured-water painting in Shenzhen to highlight pollution

Painting landscape using lake water turned green by algae, and with help of schoolchildren, is Gu Wenda’s way of drawing attention to China’s water crisis, though he’s not an activist like Ai Weiwei

Gu Wenda is often associated with ink. But while his work is the contemporary, cosmopolitan manifestation of years of training in Chinese calligraphy and classical ink painting, it doesn’t mean he always uses ink. For example, his multi-year project United Nations used hair from hundreds of people to create words and flags to convey a desire for harmony.

On September 24, Gu is going to be in Shenzhen for another project where a Chinese landscape painting will be created without ink. This time, hundreds of schoolchildren will help him produce a 1,500-square-metre shan shui (landscape) painting using lake water turned bluish green by algae. The idea of a materially wealthy generation being robbed of a future with sufficient clean water will be driven home by two symbols on the children’s uniforms: the distorted amalgamation of “verdant mountains, emerald waters”, a four-word Chinese phrase used to describe natural beauty.

Gu is no Ai Weiwei. He is not an activist. Sitting in his elegant studio in Shanghai’s M50 art district (designed by his interior designer wife Kathryn Scott), he describes himself as a peacemaker whose main desire is to promote the unity of the human race despite our inherent differences. His is a multifaceted perspective gained from decades of living in the US and from his family, he explains.

Qingshan Lushui by Gu Wenda. Photo: courtesy of Gu Wenda
“Like many children living through the Cultural Revolution, I made ‘big-character’ propaganda posters, which you still see traces of in my work. I witnessed the development of communism and, after 30 years living in China, I moved to America, a totally capitalistic world. I married a non-Chinese woman and we adopted a girl from China, who has grown up in New York – that’s my home when I’m not in Shanghai. She has no idea about China and we only talk to each other in English,” he says. “All these things make up who I am today.”

The fluidity of living between cultures doesn’t mean he feels any less Chinese than when he was a young man living in China. “It is a very strong identity. But being away from the country helps me examine what it means. It both dilutes and strengthens it,” he says.

It may explain his love-hate relationship with the Chinese language. His work often features large characters like those in the Cultural Revolution posters he grew up with, a reference to the totemic qualities of words, but they are mangled hieroglyphs meaning little. Making up words and tearing words apart is a practice he began in the 1980s, a time of rebellion that saw other artists such as Xu Bing developing their own pseudo languages.

In Shenzhen, however, he will turn to men’s relationship with nature rather than to each other.

Gu Wenda’s studio in Shanghai. Photo: Chen Zheng
Gu is appalled by the colour of the lakes he has seen around China in recent years. The children will be painting with actual water collected from lakes covered in algae because of human activities, much like Brazil’s green Olympic diving pools. Presumably, the green message also chimes with how Ping An Insurance, the sponsor, wants to present itself.

Gu is a rare artist who doesn’t mind discussing the role of corporate money in his art projects. In fact, he acknowledges the important role that sponsors play in his vision of a holistic, artistic ecology he terms “Artholism”.

“Artists have always worked with patrons. Without patrons, it will be impossible to work as an artist full-time. And if you don’t do it full-time, you are not a proper artist,” he says.

Artholism also means engaging the public. The Shenzhen project is the second large public art project he has done with schoolchildren. The first, executed in Foshan on Mother’s Day in 2014, was paid for by Hong Kong’s Shui On Property Group and involved 1,060 children writing out Confucius’ Classic of Filial Piety, that paradigm of patriarchal hierarchy, on 1,000 square metres of red silk. That, he points out, is more a reflection of Shui On boss Vincent Lo Hong-shui’s deep-seated Confucianism rather than his own.

Gu Wenda with one of the 25,000 red lanterns he created to hang outside the Minsheng Art Museum. Photo: Enid Tsui
In November, he will create another major spectacle, this time in Shanghai. The Minsheng Art Museum, owned by Minsheng Bank, will host a major retrospective of his work. Outside, he is going to hang 25,000 red lanterns all over the museum walls.

“I want to turn the museum into the Flame Mountain in Journey to the West,” he says, referring to one of many challenges the Monkey King overcame in the Chinese epic. Each lantern has small portraits of famous characters from art history, from artists to Mona Lisa. The challenge Gu has set himself is to make those characters just as well known in China as the Monkey King.

Thousands of schoolchildren will be asked to write down their wishes on the lanterns. And for once, the audience will be able to take the words at face value in a Gu Wenda installation.

A Story of Qingshan Lushui Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Centre, Sept 24, 10am-12pm. Journey to the West Minsheng Art Museum, Nov 9 to Feb 15, 2017.