Dartmouth Supports Sweatshop Art

There is a fascinating new article in the Dartmouth Independent on Wenda Gu—the man responsible for the hair all over our library. I encourage everyone to go read it.

In the picture on the left, the girl in black is said to be 13 years old. Photo courtesy of Emily Mirengoff, The Dartmouth Independent.

Of Gu’s worker’s, one had formerly worked on the production line at a wig factory outside Shanghai. She described her life prior to Gu’s studio as more fulfilling. “Actually, I was happier working in the factory because first all of it was much easier working with the hair there,” she said. “There were also more people there, and I was friends with many of them… We had the means to live in the factory.”

[. . .]

Another worker had an even more interesting story to tell. Her noticeably young face, unnecessarily puffy black winter jacket and bright turtleneck stood out among her fellow workers. She was the sister of one of the other women, and appeared no older than 16, although our translator estimated her to be as young as 13. During filming, Gu’s studio director, Wang Jing, took me by the arm, and instructed that I not film the young girl. She explained that she was too young to be working and did not know what problems would result from her presence. Wang had told her not to work while we were present with cameras, but the girl had not listened. She needed the money.

Elsewhere in Shanghai, Gu was using the small fortune he and his designer wife had amassed to renovate an old mansion to be resold as a wine bar. The whole project cost a total of $5 million U.S. or $40 million RMB, an incredible fortune by Chinese standards. Everything, everywhere in the house, was custom made. Lacquer banisters erupted from finely stuccoed walls. Gu and his wife, Kathryn Scott, had flown in a team of Italian experts to show their Shanghai workers how it was done. The Chinese had learned their trade well. The unfinished result was spectacular.

Most of the house’s workers lived in the yet unfinished basement. Some, the bosses, had beds with steel frames, but the majority slept on thin mats that lined the floor. As we walked down the basement’s dark stairwell, we caught one of the men urinating into a small chamber pot that looked more like a plastic doggy dish. Pee splattered the floor and ran along the sides of the walls in other places. The conditions were worrying.

[. . .]

Other works Gu commissioned are sent to a local factory with which he has formed a relatively solid relationship. But when we tried to take a look at the factory, due to growing interest in the production process, Gu became oddly cold and angry. We could hear his voice on the phone as he yelled in Chinese at the translator, and when she, tearful, passed it on to our film’s director, he was still terse, nervous, and furious.

“I am Gu Wenda,” two of us later translated from our interpreter’s conversation. “Haven’t I done enough for you? You are asking too much of me!”

[. . .]

Then there was the issue of the process itself. As time passed, evidence mounted that Gu hadn’t produced his art ‘by hand’ as had been expected. Instead, his commissions were being manufactured by hired workers. “Wenda Gu really talked up the quality of the books he created as though he were doing it personally,” my source said, referring to a set of rubbings simultaneously put on show at the College. “But he didn’t work on the project at all, he just farmed it out.”

Part of the problem is that Wenda Gu, despite “farming” the labor, would naturally attribute the work to his own hands, even given evidence to the contrary. “I guarantee that he would take full credit for it,” the source said. “He wouldn’t give that information up front.”

[. . .]

“For me, I have kind of a conflict.” Gu said. “I’m not totally from the older generation [of Chinese artists] because they are always into the art for art’s sake kind of theory. For me I have 20 years in New York. … So for me I have this kind of conflicting two parts. And this is what made me rich, because I’m not completely older generation artist nor am I totally younger generation.”