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Review: "Metamorphoses," by Wenda Gu


Made of hair, glue and twine, Metamorphoses by Wenda Gu (b. 1955), beautifully illustrates the transformation that one medium (hair) can take in becoming art. The three panels are, indeed, made from shades of human hair; a signifier across history and cultures. The significance of hair within a given culture may vary but common themes often do emerge. Hair is a human universal that may represent many things; including, the stages of life (birth, puberty, maturity, death), membership, status, allegiance and identity.

Across the three panels, Gu used hair to emphasize the relationship between our associations of hair and script. On the left, we see English Cursive. With flowing, curls of mostly black hair, the artist creates pen strokes and the hair transforms into words - a metamorphoses.

The piece continues to evolve as our eyes move from panel to panel and we recognize the changes in color, texture and text. In the center, a single character emerges as a combination of English and Chinese script made from a blend of black and brown hair. On the right, lines of pseudo-Chinese script emerge, each line containing four unique characters made of mostly brown hair.

Interestingly, none of the three panels contain legible script. The pseudo-script draws you in only to find that it is not what you thought it was. Drawing on the salience of language, Gu reminds us that although language is universally present it is not universally understood. In fact, even when we know another language, culture may affect how well it is understood; much the same way as art. Art Historian and University of Kansas Professor, David Cateforis, noted, "Gu’s pseudo-scripts suggest the limitations of language as a medium of communication, both within and across cultures. But the hair that constitutes the writing is something that all viewers can identify with and understand on a basic level."

Together, these three panels tell a story of Chinese-American integration that is rich in experience, context and symbolism! The work relates to Gu's own personal experiences as a transitional, Chinese-American artist and invites viewers to explore and reflect upon the weaving of communication, or miscommunication, through language and culture. - Sara Hancock


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