Chinese Artist Makes Banner out of Hair

Dartmouth College has commissioned Chinese artist Wenda Gu to display monument-sized banners woven out of human hair. Earlier this year, the school held a hair-drive and has shipped 300 pounds worth of New Hampshire hair to China.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

You know, great art doesn't come easy. And if you don't know, just ask Juliette Bianco. She is assistant director of the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. She was told recently to collect raw materials for the school's latest art project. And that is human hair. That's the material.

New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein has the story.

DAN GORENSTEIN: Curls, locks, dreads, ponytails, 'fros, bangs and braids. Juliette Bianco had to collect all of them. She had to do that for Chinese artist Wenda Gu. Gu knits and weaves his colossal monument-sized hair screens and banners out of human hair. Bianco's job was to find the donors and start collecting. The assignment was a little uncomfortable for her.

Ms. JULIET BIANCO (Assistant Director, Hood Museum): I tend to be a neatnick. I tend to be very cleanliness focused. I like order - and just a clean person. So the fact that I would be collecting hair is very strange.

GORENSTEIN: Bianco spend a few months making weekly trips to the region's many hair shops. Split Ends, the Hair Affair. The Hair Shed.

Ms. BIANCO: One salon collected all the hair in a box. But I had to put it then in a bag. When I dumped it out and looked in the bag, the hair had stayed in the shape of the box. That was a little bit creepy. Something about a box-shaped clump of hair with edges and corners.

GORENSTEIN: Did you have to break it up with your hands?

Ms. BIANCO: No. I didn't, actually. It grossed me out. I just mushed it in the bag.

GORENSTEIN: How did you do that? You like grabbed the bag over it? Like almost like the way you pick up dog poo?

Ms. BIANCO: Well, I Folded it. I folded it over and just went like that without looking. And it was fine. I have to say, now when I find a little piece of hair on my desk, I wonder if it's mine.

GORENSTEIN: Once she got past her queasiness, she found herself staring into one of her 45 gallon bags of hair and it all began to make sense.

Ms. BIANCO: I saw the colors swirling around each other. I saw the art, the beauty, the softness. And I was one step closer to imagining the final project.

GORENSTEIN: By autumn, Bianco estimates she had hair from more than 14,000 haircuts. $2,500 later, the 430 pounds of hair was on a ship headed for Gu's studio in Shanghai. The Chinese artist had been creating sculptures out of human hair since 1993. He sees his hairpieces, which he calls United Nations Series, as a symbol of unity. Gu hopes people understand how the hair of different genders, ethnicities and religions are all bound together.

Mr. WENDA GU (Artist): When the audience walk in to my artwork, they feel the actual people in the project instead of a piece of metal, a piece of a stone or canvass.

GORENSTEIN: It's that vision that inspired New Englander Sarah Metigi(ph) to donate a lock of her own hair.

Ms. SARAH METIGI: To me, it's very exciting. Because I'm a person who hasn't really traveled much. I've pretty much never been off the East Coast my entire life. So to be able to be joined with someone even if I don't know who it is and where they come from, but someone way across the world that I might never even meet, it's amazing to me that that can be accomplished, that a piece of me will be with someone else that - who's on the other side of the world.

GORENSTEIN: Since Dartmouth's Juliette Bianco shipped the hair to China, the artist Gu has come to the college and showed her pictures of the work in progress. Bianco says Gu plans to use the New Hampshire hair for 13 by 80 foot panels. He'll embroider words onto those panels with Chinese and Indian hair he's colored neon green. He will then attach a single hair braid that, uncoiled, stretches several miles and is dyed 11 colors. Speaking to me by phone a few days after Gu's visit, Bianco talked about the braid.

Ms. BIANCO: Pink, green, purple, orange. They're luscious colors. It just - it's mind-boggling when you see these colors. And the braids are being made now. He says they're joining about 20 meters a day. He sent photographs of them. Just - they're fabulous.

GORENSTEIN: The exhibit will be unveiled this coming June. For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein.

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