Born in Shanghai in 1955, internationally acclaimed artist Wenda Gu studied at Shanghai School of Arts, and earned his MFA from China National Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, where he taught from 1981 until emigrating to the U.S. in 1987. For the last twenty years he has worked from studios in Brooklyn and China, creating large-scale ink paintings and calligraphy in traditional format, and producing installations that are conceived as ongoing series, which the artist describes as “a process in search of perfection...ongoing becomes a concept in itself and a method of forming an open structure to observe, absorb, and deliberate the changing world...not a project created in a fixed moment in time, but continually adjusting with time, reflecting on the related changes that accompany it.”
Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry (1993–2005) consists of fifty hand-carved stone steles, each weighing 1.3 tons, accompanied by ink rubbings of the steles on paper. The artist chose twelve steles and ink rubbings to be shown here. The project’s historical reference is the Forest of Stone Steles in Xi’an, China, a museum of more than one thousand stone steles that record important political and cultural moments in China’s history and that preserve the major calligraphy styles of great masters from the Han dynasty (209 BC–AD 220) through the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Gu’s contemporary Forest of Stone Steles follows the traditional practice of making ink rubbings from the steles, for centuries an important way of disseminating the Chinese canon. Unlike the original steles, Gu’s do not stand upright but are placed horizontally in the manner of tombstones that would traditionally carry epitaph inscriptions. Gu’s contemporary stone steles present texts based on famous poems of the Tang dynasty (618–906), considered a golden age of Chinese poetry. Each stele includes the original poem in Chinese, an early twentieth-century English translation by Witter Bynner, the artist’s phonetic transliteration of the English back into Chinese, and finally an English translation of what Gu calls a “post-Tang” poem:
"The phonetic translation back to Chinese is a very complicated and tiring process involving four steps: searching for a Chinese word which sounds as exact as possible to the English version of the Tang poem (I call this 'Chinese sounds mimic English'); selecting the one Chinese word which allows itself to be a building block to the new story being created; repeating this process of the next words to develop context; and revising previous words until all the English sounds successfully mimic Chinese while constructing a readable new, post-Tang poem. Misunderstanding is not just a phenomenon of the translation among cultures, and not only inevitable, but a necessity. Only through the misunderstanding can we create the new!"
The stone steles were produced in Gu’s stone carving studio in Xi’an using a type of slate called Ink Jade King, traditionally favored for steles because of its density and smoothness. The stones were hand-mined from a quarry near Xi’an and hand-carved by professional stone-carvers. Gu created a special Chinese character structure system for the main text that simplifies the original characters by eliminating the left and right parts, retaining only the top and bottom parts. The calligraphy style combines influence from the elegant Fang Song style that resembles Song dynasty (960–1279) printing, and from the bold, vigorous, yet mellow seal script of the Ten Stone Drums, ancient stone inscriptions discovered during the Tang dynasty. Gu first wrote each main text on traditional paper with brush and ink, then scanned it into the computer and reserved it as a special font. The entire text layout was also designed on the computer and became the template used by the stone carvers.
“The fundamental concept of my Forest of Stone Steles is how our society, especially after post-modernism and post-colonialism, is beyond any traditional interpretation and study possible within a single culture. The texts are a symbolic examination of our contemporary culture’s influence through intercultural misunderstandings. By reading the retranslation and rewriting texts on the stone steles, we experience the satire, absurdity, and confusion almost to a predicament in a process of shaping a new culture. The texts also promulgate that public fanaticism and blindness can transmute misunderstanding and misinterpretation into an icon in our society.”
The Museum is grateful to the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation for a major grant to fund the exhibition, and to the Cornell Council on the Arts and the Cornell East Asia Program for their financial support and collaboration. Special thanks go to Wenda Gu, Wang Jing, and David Raddock for all their efforts to bring this exhibition to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.
Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art