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Review: Hair hangs from ceiling, sparks stories from the heart

Detail from one of Gu Wenda's pieces on display

Detail from one of Gu Wenda's pieces on display. See it larger.

Ed. note: Starting today, UHub will be posting Boston-area reviews of local cultural happenings and restaurants by Sasha Patkin of the Independent Review Crew, a new initiative of the nonprofit Online Journalism Project. Let us know what you think!

The introductory video to Gu Wenda's "United Nations" exhibit, currently on display in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, states that a single strand of hair contains enough DNA to identify one of us from a billion of us. When the Chinese-born artist creates his pieces from the combined hair of thousands of people, therefore, his work becomes a collective portrait that both transcends and unites the singular human experience.

This theme of individuality and connection was woven throughout a special Moth event that also took place at the museum. Participating storytellers were invited to view Wenda's exhibition and then tell their own stories on the theme of "Hair."

Another hair piece
Hall of hair

I walked into the "Hair" storytelling event about an hour early so I could be sure to see Wenda's exhibition. My knee-jerk reaction to the idea of "art made of hair" was immediate disgust - maybe because hair used to be a part of the body, or maybe because I have nasty associations with disembodied hair, like finding it in a drain.

Gu Wenda's approach to hair is thoughtful, intentional, and respectful, however, and I was taken by surprise at how beautiful I found it. The "United Nations" exhibition hangs in a large, open hallway lit from above with skylights. The hair hanging from the tall ceiling resembles woven tapestries which layer on top of one other like a patchwork quilt. From a distance, it isn't obvious that the pieces are made of hair. They seem delicate, soft and intricate, and shine in beautiful earth tones that catch the changing light of the hall.

Up close, the details of the individual strands of hair become visible and appear like purposefully-arranged thread. Seeing the hair so close was a bit more shock-provoking, since up close the hair seemed much more lifelike, but I still found that my feelings tipped toward fascination, rather than disgust. The strands of hair managed at once to retain some of its essential unruliness - twisting and spiraling and clumping around what I assume are chunks of glue holding the piece together - while also being delicately and artistically arranged.

While the exhibition also included hair bricks that Wenda had used in another project to turn hair into ink, the main feature of the "The United Nations" exhibition consisted of 188 constructed flags representing member states of the U.N. The work isn't meant to be political, or about the U.N. itself, but rather a larger statement on the shared commonality between all humanity and what united us beyond national, racial, and cultural divides.

The exhibition video mentioned that Gu Wenda has used hair from five million people since 1993, and a single piece uses the hair from 500,000 people. Gu Wenda explains that it was important for him that the hair be given freely, and also that he grew to learn the different cultural, social, and religious significance hair can have for different groups. I was surprised by how emotionally the exhibit resonated with me, and how present all the owners of the hair felt in the room. Like viewing printed hands in a cave painting, it felt like the people who had left these markings had just been there.

Spoken word at the exhibit
Photo by Ricky Steel.

As the time for The Moth approached, I headed back into the main atrium to grab a seat. Volunteers with Moth-branded tote bags went around collecting slips printed with a prompt, giving the audience a chance to participate anonymously from their seats: "Tell us about a time you had a bad hair day." (The responses read between performances were predictably humorous: "When I had hair," "I'm having a bad hair decade," etc.)

The host, comedian Bethany Van Delft, kicked off the event by outlining the rules and introducing the three audiences judging teams (“Bowl Cut," "Follicle Follies," and "Blonde Highlights"). Van Delft promised that the producer Julie would do some "math like an MIT grad" after all the stories were completed and calculate the final scores, which were tallied on a board on stage.

Although all of the stories were interesting and the audience was supportive, I found the best stories had, as the rules indicated they should, a beginning, a middle, and end, and were more than just a listing of humorous hair-related mishaps. Many people spoke of trying to fluff, struggle, pull back, put into place, mold, coif, and generally go to extremes to tame and subdue their hair, a task which was often accompanied by strong feelings about self-esteem, body image, self-worth, racial identity, and self-image.

Iman told a story about realizing that her hair was different from her white classmates' and how it ties into her thoughts on professionalism, all of which came to the fore when she met a young hospital patient from Uganda and watched Black Panther with her.

Deborah told a story about how, in an attempt to hide her wet hair from her mother after being told she wasn't allowed to go swimming one Memorial Day, she began headbanging on her bicycle on her ride home from a friend's pool and ended up with a fractured neck.

Noemi told a story about the shame she felt when a comb broke in her thick hair on picture day.

The winning story of the night, and my personal favorite, was told by Donna, a put-together looking woman in a skirt and a blazer who told a story about a time she was heading out for a hair appointment and unknowingly ate two of her teenage son's "special" brownies. Her story left the audience in stitches, earning her enthusiastic round of applause and whoops.

Overall, many of the stories focused on self-image and learning to live with mess and imperfections. Like the strands of hair in Gu Wenda's exhibition, their stories were unique in their differences but united in their similarities.

Gu Wenda notes in his exhibition video that some people say that when human hair leaves the body it continues to grow longer - and that meanings can extend from the human body, growing and changing long past their point of origin. Similarly, The Moth spoke to how our stories don't end with us, or in the moment in which they happened - we're continually making meaning, learning to craft the strands of our life into something meaningful and beautiful, and figuring out where we fit into the larger human tapestry around us.

Gu Wenda’s exhibition continues at the Peabody Essex Museum through Nov. 5.



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Welcome, Sasha Patkin of the Independent Review Crew! Thank you for this review and I look forward to reading future ones.

Voting closed 58

My repulsion by this particular exhibit notwithstanding, I am happy to see a dedicated arts contributor to uhub! Welcome and thanks Sasha!

Voting closed 53

Is this a revival of the 1990 MIT Student Center hairball sculpture?

Voting closed 10

I think this will be a great addition to the site.

Quick question for you Adam. I noticed on the OJP site that it says that they have editorial control over everything. Is that still the case with what will be put on UHub or is it a partnership where you remain the editor for content here?

Voting closed 14

Which I hadn't thought about, but here goes:

These are reviews, not news stories, so not really any reason for me to do major edits. Plus, from what I've seen so far, Sasha's a good writer.

I might make some style changes (for example, I'd change "Malden, Mass." to just "Malden" ) but if I saw something more significant that I had an issue with, I'd talk it over with Sasha and the folks in New Haven first (the way the reviews are getting onto UHub is I cut and paste from their site into a UHub editing box, then do something similar with the photos, so I get to read and reformat everything first).

And thanks!

Voting closed 17

Magoo found a hair in Magoo’s turkey sandwich Magoo had for lunch today. What’s really gross is that there was a bit o’ hair follicle hardened puss oil at the end of it. Magoo.

Voting closed 48

Your schtick sucks and please consider doing literally anything else with your time on earth

Voting closed 17

Thank you for this review!

Voting closed 21

...that hair doesn't contain any DNA. Hair is made from a protein called keratin, which is extruded from specialized cells in the follicle. The follicles contain DNA; hair does not.

Voting closed 12

Techniques used in sequencing the human genome (namely shotgun sequencing) have been able to find that hair has lots of very short nuclear DNA sequences in it. They can be amplified and if enough are gathered then they can be overlapped and the DNA sequences used in DNA fingerprinting can be discovered and used.

It's an expensive process because you have to basically hunt for and then amplify thousands of pieces of DNA to find the parts that are overlapping and they're very short (10s-100s of base pairs long) so it takes a good amount of computer power and technique to get the overlaps right from the thousands of pieces you amplify...but it is possible and there is DNA there.

InnoGenomics has been pioneering this for the most part.

Voting closed 11

Thanks for this information. I'll change my tune to something like, "There isn't intact DNA in hair - just the in the follicles - but it has DNA fragments".

Voting closed 2

One wonders where the artist obtained all the human hair required for this creation.

Voting closed 10

The artist contacted/visited salons/barber shops around the world.

Voting closed 9

from the chain of crime stories, great!

Voting closed 12