HANOVER, N.H. -- A puzzling and mildly repulsive work of public art hangs from the ceiling of the grand lobby of Dartmouth College's Baker Library: a screen 80 feet long and 13 feet high composed of thin rectangular panels made of human hair mixed with Elmer's glue. Incorporated into the screen are large block letters made of hair dyed moss green. It's hard to tell what they spell because letters are superimposed on each other, but a brochure available in the library explains that the blended words are "EDUCATIONS" and "ADVERTISES."
What this work , titled "the green house," by Wenda Gu , a 52-year-old Chinese artist with studios in New York and Shanghai and a growing international reputation, is supposed to mean is not immediately clear. Conflating the words "educations" and "advertises" and rendering them in Dartmouth's school color green (besides being grammatically perplexing) might imply a social critique: A diploma from an upper echelon school such as Dartmouth is as much an advertisement of social status as a symbol of educational achievement. The hair, on the other hand, might signify something that all people, whatever their status, have in common. So the whole screen embodies tension between elitism and democracy.
If Gu's work is a critique of Ivy League privilege and power, it's ironic in that it is also being billed as the most important commission of a public artwork by and for Dartmouth since the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco's creation of a suite of wall paintings in a lower-level reading room at the Baker Library in 1932-34. The politics and aesthetics of Orozco's social realist vision, titled "The Epic of American Civilization" and still on public view, stirred up such a storm of controversy at the time that a plan to continue commissioning major artworks for the Dartmouth campus died, only to be revived more than 70 years later with the present work by Gu.
Gu's piece probably will not arouse the kind of controversy that Orozco's did. Its obliquely intimated themes of class, privilege, and democracy are now so integral to the pedagogical ideologies of liberal arts colleges everywhere, it's hard to believe many eyebrows will be raised. Reflecting influences of such textbook-certified political artists as Hans Haacke and Barbara Kruger , Gu's work is more academic than revolutionary.
Using such a supposedly unconventional material as hair is hardly noteworthy, either, as products of the human body -- from fingernails to blood -- are often used by artists these days. And adding a participatory dimension by having staffers from Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art collect hair from local salons and from community "hair drives" in which volunteers were sheared is a familiar gambit, too. Hundreds of volunteers help Christo and Jeanne-Claude produce their extravagant environmental sculptures, for example, and artists of the "relational aesthetics" school regularly engage the public in the production and consumption of their works. The New York-based artist Rirkrit Tiravanija , for example, is known for cooking and serving free Thai food as his art.
In any case, if Gu's screen does have any bite, much of it is lost in a second part of his Baker Library commission -- "united nations: united colours" -- which consists of a single, fine braid of hair dyed bright colors that measures 6 miles long. The braid has been hung in vertical loops to form a multihued curtain along both sides of a central corridor inside the library.
Close examination reveals that sections of the braid are joined by oval medallions, each bearing the words "united nations," the number 2007, and the name of one of the countries currently in the United Nations spelled backward (anihc, ilam, and so on). The braid, which was created in China using hair from commercial wig makers, represents Gu's larger mission, a 15-year project called "united nations," which includes "the green house." In this continuing enterprise, hair is the primary material and symbol in various artworks designed, as the Dartmouth brochure puts it, to "unite humanity and encourage international understanding." That may be a noble cause, but the braid is not so exciting visually as to overcome the numbing effects of its generic good intentions.
Over at the Hood Museum, a selection of works by Gu displays his involvement with hair in other projects. There are cinderblock-size bricks of compressed human hair displayed in separate glass cases, laboratory beakers showing hair in different stages of a process that converts hair into ink pigment, and ink blocks made from hair pigment. The Hood exhibit closes Sept. 9.
In these works, Gu's debt to the German utopian conceptualist Joseph Beuys becomes evident. As fat and felt were symbols of transformation and rebirth for Beuys, Gu wants hair to serve as his all-purpose catalyst of social alchemy. Under the present circumstances, however, hair seems more a branding device for promoting Gu's global career as a professional avant - gardist.
Another project by Gu of a different sort is also on view at the museum: a series of large, visually elegant prints representing Chinese characters that spell out Tang Dynasty poems. The prints, displayed along with the beautiful wooden boxes that they're stored in, are the result of a process of translating original poems into English and then retranslating them back into Chinese. One can imagine how amusing the end results might be, but to enjoy the full effect, you'd probably have to be able to read Chinese.
Ken Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.