HANOVER, N.H. — The massive banner in Dartmouth College's Baker-Berry Library runs the length of the vast foyer, bright green lettering stretching from end to end.
But the gut reactions that artist Wenda Gu's latest installation provokes aren't because of its size, but its contents: 420 pounds of human hair.
A viewer's first impulses are to lean forward and scrutinize the swirling, flattened locks; stealthily sniff (it doesn't smell); and fight the urge to touch it — and perhaps quickly recoil.
Sophomore Julian Ng has spent a lot of time with "united nations: the green house," which hangs just feet from the information desk where he works. Part of his job involves handing out brochures on the artwork and explaining that the unrecognizable green lettering spells the words "educations" and "advertises" superimposed on each other.
Ng says viewer reactions fall into two camps: the freaked out and the fascinated.
"A lot of people don't understand that it's hair," he said. When they do, "they get really freaked out."
Then again, "I've seen a lot of people try to look closely to see different hairs," he said.
Maybe they're looking for a piece of themselves.
42,000 haircuts needed
Hair for the 80-foot-by-13-foot banner was collected over several months last year from 42,000 haircuts of Dartmouth students, faculty, staff and local residents in Hanover.
It was shipped to China, where workers in Gu's Shanghai studio dyed and shaped the locks into paper-thin panels held together by a film of Elmer's glue and tied together with twine.
It and a second work, "united nations: united colors," displayed in another part of the library are the latest installations in Gu's worldwide "united nations" project, begun in 1993 and all made from human hair.
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Dartmouth's Hood Museum commissioned Gu to create art in unexpected places. Museum director Brian Kennedy said placing "the green house" one level above 1930s-era murals by Mexican painter Jose Clemente Orozco was intentional.
"We've ... created this symmetry between an artist who was critiqued as an atheist and a communist, who was neither, but from the Mexican Revolution in the '20s, and then an artist who came from communist and atheistic China, you know, but is neither," Kennedy said.
Different reactions to the art
The banner's "green house" title and green lettering symbolize not just Dartmouth, whose nickname is "the Big Green," but money. Gu's unconventional medium, and his message — that education and capitalism are inseparable — have drawn mixed responses since the unveiling in June.
"I know it probably has some other meaning," said 20-year-old history and Spanish major Laura Sayler. "When I think of it, I don't think of that other meaning. I just think of, like, hair."
"I'm amazed by it," said Sandra Michael, a visitor from New York who went to the exhibit looking for the coarse locks of African-American hair, but couldn't pick them out. "It shows me that there is no difference because I can't see it. ... Someone who can create something like this, to think of something like this and then to create it, it's phenomenal."
"Absolutely lacking in aesthetics. What ... pretentious junk. The artist and the commissioner ought to be ashamed. So many flaws," one viewer wrote in a comment book.
Not an exorbitant cost
Kennedy said the installation cost a fraction of the rumored millions, "a six-figure sum starting with a one."
Gu's second installation is a braid of roughly 7 1/2 miles of hair purchased from wig factories in China and India. Rising from a spaghettilike mass and hanging in long loops on both sides of the library's central corridor, it elicits a generally positive reaction.
Stainless steel medallions attached to sections of braid dyed in electric colors bear the names of 207 countries. Written backward, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, leaving viewers to puzzle over the letters (Finland becomes "dnalnif," Lebanon "nonabel") and smile at the decoding.
Gu was born and raised in Mao-era communist China and came of age during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s, he put on his first solo show in China — an installation of massive ink brush paintings of made-up Chinese characters. He moved to the United States in 1987 and these days divides his time between Brooklyn and Shanghai.
The installations are on display at Baker-Berry Library until Oct. 28. Another Gu exhibit, "Retranslating and Rewriting Tang Dynasty Poetry," a collection of prints of translated Chinese poetry and their carved cases, is at the Hood Museum of Art until Sept. 9.
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