The Gao Brothers: Dissident Artists?

By Serene Fu

Midnight Mass, 1989.  Courtesy of the artist

The controversial practice of the Beijing-based duo, the Gao Brothers - Gao Zhen (b.1956) and Gao Quang (b.1962) - has steadily gained international prominence. Since the Chinese government decided to lift the brothers’ ban on foreign travel in 2003, their work has not only been widely exhibited across the globe but also acquired by important institutions such as the Centre Georges Pompidou and renowned art collectors including Steven Cohen and Charles Saatchi. It is well known that the Gao Brothers tackle a variety of Chinese taboo issues head on – from sex and nudity to a critique of the political establishment. Only able to secretly exhibit within China at one stage, being branded dissidents undeniably raised their appeal but the question remains: are the Gaos really dissident artists?

 20 People Hired to Hug No.1,  2001.  Courtesy of the artist

Commissioned for the China/Avant-Garde exhibition of 1989, Midnight Mass (1989), a giant inflatable sculpture of an androgynous figure made from balloons and rubber gloves oddly simulates male and female genitalia. In 2001, despite the fact that the Chinese Ministry of Culture had passed an ordinance prohibiting any form of body and performance art displaying “obscenity”, the brothers continued their famous nude hug performances. It is worth noting that Gao Brothers understand that bringing up Chinese taboo issues, such as nudity and sex in their oeuvre has helped strengthen their avant-garde appeal.

Miss Mao No. 3 (2007)
On view in Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis, September 17, 2010–January 2, 2011, at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
photo: Bruce Mathews

Nevertheless, the brothers’ pieces sarcastically mocking the former communist leader of the Chinese one-party system, Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), instigator of the catastrophic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and ultimately responsible for the persecution and execution of millions of "counter-revolutionaries", are invariably favoured by the international art world. A major reason why the Gao Brothers are so emotionally involved in their Mao series of works is because their father, Gao Wenchen fell victim to the system and was imprisoned and possibly even murdered in prison.

Installation view of the Gao Brothers’ The Execution of Christ (2009)
On view in Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis, September 17, 2010–January 2, 2011, at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
photo: Bruce Mathews

The Gao Brothers and Mao's Guilt (2009)
On view in Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis, September 17, 2010–January 2, 2011, at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
photo: Bruce Mathews

The Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis exhibition at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, USA in 2010 showcased several of their Mao works. Miss Mao No. 3 (2007) is a bulbous, baby-faced feminised Chairman Mao sculpture featuring an elongated Pinocchio nose, huge breasts and Mao’s distinctive chin mole - a parody of the tyrant himself. Another important piece, The Execution of Christ (2009) evokes Mao’s violent suppression of religious freedoms at the time of the Cultural Revolution when only the cult of Mao was permitted. The work shows a squad of rifle bearing Chairman Mao figures ready to fire at Christ. The sculpture, Mao’s Guilt (2009) which features a detachable head, shows the apologetic ruler on his knees, remorseful for his wrongdoings. These provocative works received critical acclaim in the West and the Gao Brothers have since been championed as dissident artists who dare to criticise the Chinese political establishment.

Aptly, on the fourth of June 2013, on the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the preview of the Gao Brothers’ current photography exhibition Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: The Photographic World of the Gao Brothers was held at Hua Gallery, south west London’s venue for Chinese contemporary art. Many art critics and the London art-loving public who follow the work of dissident Chinese contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei attended the event. However, those anticipating likewise provocative works in this London show may have found the Gao Brothers’ photographic works on display rather oblique, elusive, and even lacking in the poignant critique for which the Mao series made them famous.

According to the show’s curator Dagmar Carnevale Lavezzoli, the exhibition aims to present the artists’ unique critique of China and the world in transition: “I wanted to display those Gaos’ works that are dealing with Chinese current issues (such as frantic urbanisation, rapid economic development that generate a sense of loneliness and solitude among individuals), works that set China as their starting point and extending to the human condition,” she informed me.  Without showing the iconic Mao figure, the Gao Brothers thus strive to demonstrate that they are equally relevant through their photographic narratives as through their sculptures of the infamous ruler.

Sense of Space - Wake, 2000.  Courtesy of Hua Gllery

By capturing 14 nude male bodies juggling for space in a domestic closet, Sense of Space - Wake (2000), one of the most eye-catching pieces in the show emphatically sheds light into a human zoo of deprived freedom. The large influx of male migrant workers moving from villages to cities has since the early 1980s resulted in millions of young men living in excessively cramped conditions in urban settings. On the one hand, the piece can be interpreted simply as factory workers being placed in a closet where they are rendered helpless and isolated and on the other hand, the distressed and uneasy look on the men’s young faces is also an allegorical interpretation of the suppression of gay love in Chinese society. Until fairly recently, homosexuality was considered a mental illnesses in China so it is therefore quite daring for the Gao Brothers to raise the gay issue.

Outer Space Project - Map of China , 2008.  Courtesy of Hua Gallery

Detail, Outer Space Project, 2008.  Courtesy of Hua Gallery

Outer Space Project, Map of China (2008) looks like a monochrome honeycomb map of China taken from high above and sees the Gao Brothers acquire narratives from the Internet as well as from their own archive footage – adding miniature images of people into hundreds of honeycomb cells. In so doing, the artists explore the dilemma between hope and frustrations around the time of the Beijing Olympics. Beneath the booming economy’s apparent prosperity rested real social unrest. China is thus depicted as a large world leader but nevertheless a prison house with little freedom of thought - a conflict between the individual and the state.

The Forever Unfinished Building No. 4, 2008.  Courtesy of Hua Gallery

Miniature narratives that reflect the ordeal of life in present day China are also found in The Forever Unfinished Building No.4 (2008) a photographic work of an abandoned construction site in Jinan, the brothers’ hometown.  The premises serve as a re-enactment of pressing socio-political issues - depicting a troubled world whereby religious pluralism and political freedom is only a fictional utopia. Not only have the brothers incorporated religious figures such as Jesus and the Dalai Lama into the scene, but totalitarian figures including Adolf Hitler are called upon to join Chinese Communist leaders in a fabricated funeral of Mao Zedong cum Saddam Hussein.

Detail, The Forever Unfinished Building No. 4, 2008.  Courtesy of Hua Gallery

The piece also revisits seminal events in the history of modern China - from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest where the statue of the Goddess of Democracy was erected by Beijing art students only to be destroyed by the People’s Liberation Army, to the Sichuan province earthquake of 2008, which partly due to poorly constructed social housing, saw the deaths and injuries of many civilians. Resembling Dante’s Inferno, the work’s different layers of chaotic scenarios openly criticise the rampant corruption prevalent amongst the Chinese political elite. Images of nudity, prostitution and vagrancy also pervade the piece, conveying an urgency to lay bare the truth of human existence, human desire and a yearning for a better life.

The Gao Brothers have never denied the political aspects of their practice. In fact, they have long attributed being on the government’s blacklist and banned from traveling abroad to their 1989 signing - alongside other prominent Chinese intellectuals - of the famous ‘Open Letter to Deng Xiaoping’. In it, they called for the release of all political prisoners including China’s most famous human rights activist involved in the democracy movement, Wei Jingshen (b.1950). It has been established that the bold open letter was a catalyst to the Tiananmen Square Protest that led to the massacre itself. Like Chinese political dissidents forbidden to leave their own country, it took 14 years since the signing of the open letter that the brothers’ travel ban was lifted.

It is therefore understandable that they treasure their current freedoms and persist on negotiating a form of dissent that is allowed by the state. Alongside works showing resentment towards Mao, they are willing to experiment a new visual vocabulary of artistic detachment. The photographic narratives displayed at Hua Gallery require detailed scrutiny as well as a good understanding of Chinese society. They also reflect an attempt by the brothers not only to appeal to the international market but also to Chinese people. This is most certainly a response to the changing Chinese art scene.

Admittedly, in 2009, the Gao Brothers intended to bid a temporary farewell to producing Mao-themed works. This shift was not so much self-censoring but pure pragmatism - the rise of the Chinese internal contemporary art market is supported by younger generations of affluent buyers born after the Cultural Revolution and consider the figure of Mao passé. Equally, the international success of the Gao Brothers also helps seal their domestic credibility and consequently the Gao Brothers like many other Chinese artists, grasp every chance to exhibit their work abroad. This relatively recent development has seen commercial factors often taking precedence over what is actually being exhibited.

Henceforth, in the same manner as the Gao Brothers’ works have shown naked bodies in their hug performances despite the Ministry of Culture’s ban on this type of work, the siblings’ Mao themed works can be viewed as one of those experimental endeavors that help push boundaries and test the permissiveness of the Chinese authorities. As the Gao Brothers’ new exhibition at Hua Gallery demonstrates, for them as for other so called dissident Chinese contemporary artists who have already gained international critical acclaim - with Ai Weiwei at the lead - playing the market has become a priority. Being categorised as dissident therefore simply doesn’t cover the whole story.