FAQs for Gu Wenda: United Nations

Gu uses materials associated with the human body to invite us to consider what unites us beyond our habitual cultural and demographic divides. He is interested in the way that the meaning of hair can differ greatly across cultures and between people. Yet, at the root, we are all human, whatever our beliefs may be. For the artist, the fact that hair contains traces of DNA points to our shared genetic heritage. By having some 500,000 people involved in each one of his major works, the mixing of so many people’s hair produces, in his eyes, a collective portrait of humanity that can’t be created by traditional representational techniques.

The artist collected hair from barber shops, beauty salons and individual volunteers from around the world. For Gu, it was important that the hair was freely offered and not coerced or acquired under false pretenses.

The hair was sent to Gu’s studio where it was cleaned and sorted. To make the flags, the collected hair was mixed with white glue and applied to burlap to give it structure.

Gu is not the first artist to work with human hair, and in fact, he continues a long tradition of hair’s use as an artistic medium. PEM’s collection contains many expressions across time and history that incorporate human hair. These include Victorian American tokens of affection or mourning, such as hair jewelry, Chinese and Indian export clay figures, and ritual objects from Oceania.

This specific installation was created almost 25 years ago using a global network of people who gathered the hair. More recently, Gu's projects typically use hair that is gathered from the community that commissioned the work. The gathering area might be as small as a specific region or as big as a country.

Gu describes his ambition for the united nations project as follows: “I hope that through my hands, I can create a monument using this hair, and genes of people from every country. From the perspective of united nations, one can’t combine every living person into a single work, but one can use DNA as a representation. So, in reality, if you want to realize a united nation, it’s not quite possible. But this dream can be achieved through art by bringing parts of humanity together.”

The work makes a powerful statement about what unites us as human beings across borders and racial and political divides and it draws attention to the tenuous nature of our perceived divisions. Hair evokes visceral reactions, and it can be highly charged personally or culturally. Because of its various and deeply layered meanings, it’s been employed as a medium of expression across artistic practices and cultures.

united nations has been exhibited in Korea, Japan, China, Singapore, Chile, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and Italy. The work has been seen by several million people worldwide. This is the 14th installation of this extraordinary work.

Exhibition history:
Third Kwangju Biennale, Kwangju, Korea, 2000
Niigata Prefectural Civic Center, Niigata, Japan, 2000
Utsunomiya Museum of Art, Tochigi, Japan, 2000
First Chengdu Biennale, Chengdu, China, 2001
Grand Opening of the Singapore Esplanade, Singapore, 2002
Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2002
Tokyo Audi Centre, Tokyo, Japan, 2006
Museum of Contemporary Art, Santiago, Chile 2007
Drexel University, Philadelphia, 2008
Power Station of Art, Shanghai, China 2013
Art Basel Hong Kong, 2014
Saatchi Gallery, London, UK, 2014
57th International Art Exhibition - Viva Arte Viva, Venice, Italy, 2017

Works in the united nations series – which Gu began in 1993 – include large-scale installations such as united nations: man and space, which can consist of walls, flags or screens. He also uses human hair to produce everyday items, such as ink sticks, liquid or powdered ink or hair bricks (as can be seen in the display case in the exhibition). Each project takes on a form that is specific to its site of exhibition or creation.

The flags represent the 188 member states of the United Nations as of the year 2000. Today, the United Nations has 193 member states.

No, but it was important to the artist that the hair was collected from people living on each continent.

Shanghai and New York.

The work will be returned to Gu’s studio in Shanghai.

In the long tradition of Chinese ink making, hair is a nontraditional material. By devising a way to produce ink from hair, Gu connects his background as an ink painter to the concept of his united nations projects. He worked with a highly regarded company in Shanghai to produce the ink, but many of the artisans Gu worked with come from Anhui, a traditional center of ink production. This province is also where Yin Yu Tang, a historic Chinese house on PEM's campus, was originally built.

The installation underwent basic maintenance in the artist’s studio prior to installation and it is not anticipated that the work will require conservation during its installation here.