Until March 14, visitors to Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art have the opportunity to view a powerful cross-cultural art installation. Viewing Wenda Gu’s “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry” from the lobby, a visitor peering down at the exhibit below might easily assume that it was nothing more than a sea of rock slabs and paper wall hangings covered in Chinese calligraphy.
Upon venturing downstairs to walk among the steles, the presence of a far more complex and contemporarily relevant work emerges. By perusing the books, information and videos that the museum provides — along with exploring the installation itself — a new insight into the intricate relationships of different languages and cultures in today’s global society can easily be obtained.
Gu, born in Shanghai in 1955, is in a unique position as an artist who straddles two cultures and has witnessed firsthand the results of two foreign worldviews colliding. After receiving his MFA from the China National Academy of Arts and working there for several years, Gu immigrated to the United States in 1987. He continues to produce art from studios in both Brooklyn and China, creating work which is a thought-provoking blend of both traditional Eastern and contemporary Western cultures.
Specializing in multifaceted works which often seem to form a continuous progression, Gu describes his art as “a process in search of perfection … 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, reflected on the related changes that accompany it.”
This philosophy is readily apparent in “Forest of Stone Steles.” The full installation contains fifty rock steles — 12 have been selected for this exhibit — engraved by hand. Gu has worked on them since 1993, and finished the final pieces in 2005.
The reason for this lengthy time-span is largely due to the formidable process of determining the text to be inscribed. For each stele, Gu first selected a portion of a poem from the Tang Dynasty (618-906), which is widely considered a high point for Chinese poetry.
After presenting the poem in its original Chinese, Gu then included an early 20th century English translation by Witter Bynner after which he phonetically translated the English back to Chinese.
He described this process as “very complicated and tiring.” According to Gu, the translation process included “searching for a Chinese word that sounds as exact as possible to the English version of the Tang poem [then] 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 the Chinese while constructing a readable new, post-Tang poem.” Gu then translated the words into English once more. This re-translation resulted in an entirely new poem, one that was often startlingly different from the original.
In their original form, the Tang dynasty poems easily fit into common conceptions of traditional poetry, while the new “post-Tang” poems are typically a bit more shocking. One Tang dynasty poem entitled “The Jade Dressing-Table” ends with the line “So here are my paints and my powders — and a welcome for my yoke again,” while its “post-Tang” counterpart reads “Rewarded for selling prostitutes, Ho! The lucky nuns with Viagra are followed by guests from the nunnery.”
Studying Gu’s installation, it becomes clear that if an average English speaker heard someone speaking in Chinese about nuns and Viagra, the English speaker would likely assume, based on phonetics, that the conversation involved paints, powders and perhaps farming.
Gu’s art ably illustrates the still-present lack of understanding between cultures, while
arguing that it’s crucial to attempt to translate language in order to facilitate tolerance, despite its essential impossibility. Gu believes that “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 the time a visitor has finished exploring “Forest of Stone Steles,” he may very well have learned to share Gu’s conviction that “misunderstanding is not just a phenomenon of the translation among cultures, and not only inevitable, but a necessity.”