2009-04-02 / Local & State

Chinese Art Exhibit Features Flags Made Of Hair


PHILADELPHIA (AP) - From afar, the nearly 200 world flags hanging in a Drexel University science building are recognizable but monochromatic, their stars, stripes and crescent moons rendered in shades of brown.

Up close, you can see why: They're made of human hair.

The flags, which inspire reactions from revulsion to fascination, are the centerpiece of "Ink Not Ink,'' a contemporary art exhibition that features painting, photography, sculpture and video by 40 Chinese artists.

Wenda Gu's stunning flag installation is likely to get most of the attention. Titled "United Nations: Man & Space,'' Gu created the banners using hair tufts, clippings and strands collected from millions of people around the world. And lots of glue.

Watching sunlight filter through the flags - which cover a glass wall section that's six stories high and 100 feet long - exhibit co-director Abbie Dean called the work "monumental, astonishing, thrilling.''

"It's very cathedral-like,'' Dean said. "It almost gives it a stained-glass feeling.''

Joseph Gregory, chairman of Drexel's Department of Art and Art History, worked closely with Dean and curators at the Shenzhen Art Museum and National Art Museum of China to bring the mixedmedia show to campus. It opens Thursday.

"This art reflects a great culture that's undergoing a profound internal change, urbanization and globalization,'' Gregory said. "China is a colossal culture with colossal power. It's here to stay.''

"Ink Not Ink'' refers to the ancient Chinese tradition of ink painting. Taoists believed artists were vessels for re-creating nature, so ink painting frequently depicted landscapes, Gregory said.

Modern Chinese ink painters have expanded the subject matter and even added other media to depict the world as it is today. Qiu Anxiong, whose work is included in the Drexel exhibit, uses ink painting in animation videos.

"In recent years, there's been a concerted effort ... to use this esteemed material, the ink and brush, in new ways that incorporate contemporary forms and speak to a contemporary audience,'' said Richard Vine, senior editor at Art in America magazine.

Vine, one of several experts speaking at a Drexel symposium Wednesday before the exhibit's opening, also noted that Gu was a renowned and one-time radical ink painter earlier in his career. He even experimented with an ink product made of powdered Chinese hair.

Gu immigrated to the U.S. in 1987 and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He began collecting hair in 1993 for an ongoing global art project called "United Nations.'' The flag installation is part of that, having premiered at a South Korean biennale in 2000.

In 2007, Dartmouth College commissioned "United Nations: The Green House,'' a piece comprised of clippings from 42,000 haircuts of students, faculty, staff and community residents. The result was an 80-foot-by-13-foot banner in which Gu used hair to spell the words "educations'' and "advertises,'' superimposed on each other.

Reaction at the Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H., ran the gamut from "pretentious junk'' to "somewhat gross'' to flat-out amazement and admiration.

Gu, who sports a buzz cut with a waist-length mullet, said he works with hair because it's easily collected, it's permanent, and it represents a person's identity - both culturally and genetically.

At Drexel recently, he said the flags speak to the universality of human existence while also depicting the artificial borders that divide us.

"It's more beautiful than people imagine,'' he said.

The exhibit runs through May 9.

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