February 27, 2023

PEM Presents Extraordinary Immersive Installation by Leading Contemporary Artist Gu Wenda

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Gu Wenda: United Nations
On view April 1–November 5, 2023

SALEM, MA – The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents a monumental installation that immerses visitors in a vision of shared humanity, global connectivity and mass participation. Gu Wenda’s united nations – man and space uses a material viscerally associated with the human body to create a dramatic installation: 188 flags measuring 6.5 by 4 feet each represent the member states of the United Nations at the turn of the millennium. Each flag is made from human hair collected from barber shops, beauty salons and individual volunteers around the world, weaving a collective portrait of human connection. Gu Wenda: United Nations is on view at PEM from April 1 through November 5, 2023. PEM’s presentation is the first museum exhibition of this extraordinary work in the United States since it was created in 2000.

Gu Wenda is among the most significant artists to emerge from China in the last 50 years. He began as an ink painter, and by 1993 had begun his united nations series. This exhibition includes additional drawings and illustrations from the artist, and shares his process of making ink with human hair. The work makes a powerful statement about what unites us as human beings across borders and racial and political divides and draws attention to the tenuous nature of our perceived divisions.

“Gu is not the first artist to use human hair as a medium,” said Trevor Smith, PEM’s Associate Director – Multisensory Experience, Curator of the Present Tense. “Across centuries and cultures, hair has many uses and holds dramatically different associations. It can express beauty or virility or inspire disgust. It can be understood as sacred or profane.” Hair can be highly charged personally and culturally, but it’s also an enduring medium of creative expression, as with Victorian mourning jewelry. The keepsake of hair as a memorial is a universal reaction to loss and mourning, and Gu has turned it into an awe-inspiring masterwork, Smith said.

“A single strand of hair contains enough DNA to identify an individual person from a billion others,” he adds. “Each of us lives under one flag or another, at times separated from family or ones we love who live in a different country. Gu inverts these symbols of separation and distinction to invite us to consider what unites us as humanity beyond nationalism and cultural differences, to try to imagine the immensity of the collective ‘us.’”

Today, Gu divides his time between Shanghai and New York City. After gaining renown in China, he immigrated to the United States in 1987, a move which had a profound impact on his thinking and his art. united nations has been shown in 14 locations around the world, and PEM will be among the last venues for this traveling installation. It is also the first installation in PEM’s Garden Atrium. “Since its founding in 1799, PEM has invited visitors to rethink their own place in the world,” said Smith. “Trade and immigration continue to be important topics today, and are themes that the artist explores by challenging the permeability of cultural boundaries. Gu’s ambitious message and creative process place him at the forefront of an international conversation around contemporary art and ideas, and we are excited to share this momentous work with our visitors.”

High-resolution images are available upon request.

Share your impressions with us on social media using #GuWenda

Gu Wenda: United Nations is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum. The exhibition at PEM is made possible by the generosity of Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation. Additional support was provided by individuals who support the Exhibition Innovation Fund: Jennifer and Andrew Borggaard, James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes, Kate and Ford O’Neil, and Henry and Callie Brauer. We also recognize the generosity of the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum.


  • Gu Wenda, united nations – man and space (detail) (1999–2000), as installed at the Saatchi Gallery, 2014–2015. Human hair, glue and twine. © Gu Wenda Studio.

Gu Wenda was born in Shanghai in 1955 and today lives between Shanghai and New York. He is one of the most celebrated of a new generation of avant-garde artists who emerged from China in the 1980s He graduated from Shanghai School of Arts in 1976. In 1981 he received his MFA from the China Academy of Arts, where he studied under the classical landscape painting master Lu Yanshao and where he taught from 1981 to 1987. He became well-known for his bravura large-scale ink paintings using invented Chinese characters. Following his emigration to the United States in 1987, he began developing his united nations project, which launched in 1993 and is still an ongoing endeavor. In this series, Gu uses materials associated with the human body to invite us to consider what unites us as humanity beyond habitual cultural and demographic divides. This installation of united nations: man and space at PEM marks the 30th anniversary of this extraordinary body of work. Gu’s work has been exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions around the world over the last 45 years, and is held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Asian Art Museum; the National Museum of Art in Beijing; and M+ Hong Kong, among many others.

Over the last 20 years, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) has distinguished itself as one of the fastest-growing art museums in North America. Founded in 1799, it is also the country’s oldest continuously operating museum. At its heart is a mission to enrich and transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. PEM celebrates outstanding artistic and cultural creativity through exhibitions, programming and special events that emphasize cross-cultural connections, integrate past and present and underscore the vital importance of creative expression. The museum’s collection is among the finest of its kind, including superlative works from around the globe and across time — American art and architecture, Asian and Asian export art, maritime, Native American, Oceanic, and African art, fashion and textiles, and photography, as well as one of the nation’s most important museum-based collections of rare books and manuscripts. PEM’s campus offers a varied and unique visitor experience with hands-on creativity zones, interactive opportunities and performance spaces. Twenty-two noted historic structures grace PEM’s campus, including Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old Chinese home that is the only example of Chinese domestic architecture in the United States. HOURS: Open Thursday–Monday, 10 am–5 pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. ADMISSION: Adults $20; seniors $18; students $12. Members, youth 16 and under and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission. INFO: Call 866-745-1876 or visit  visit pem.org.