Using photography to explore social and political issues, as in the Sense of Space, the Hug series and the Forever Unfinished Buildings project, the Gao Brothers embody a two-sided intellectual complexity in search of a new utopia. And along the way they invite the viewer to share their works’ feelings of confusion: just what are they trying to say, just what are they trying to make happen?
In 1989 the pair found international fame with Midnight Mass, an inflatable installation that challengingly brought the viewer into contact with the “natural” in the form of an androgynous organism made of balloons. Showing naked bodies was a no-no in China at the time and this was their solution. Since then their work has freed up in line with ongoing change in the country.
In the Sense of Space series (2000), an assemblage of bookcases, they offer a deep exchange via a tearing down of boundaries and a move beyond the everyday. How can each individual fit in? How will individuals react to four different situations in a box titled Prayer, Waiting, Anxiety and Pain and the way these situations play on our most intimate feelings?
The Forever Unfinished Buildings project is a series in which empty public spaces all of a sudden become a cultural and social issue. These empty buildings reflect the way China is changing today and the fact that the Chinese have not yet accepted all the changes. Will everyone find a place in this new society where old habits (buildings) are being replaced by new ones? But while the new social situation becomes a major subject for the Gaos, the directness of their images protects the viewer from the information overload to be found in the work of many other artists.
Mao Tse Dong is a recurring figure in their work, but their presentation of him avoids the usual propaganda stereotypes. In the photo series Laughing Little Mao he is shown as a nice little boy, but always dominating the scene from above. In the photo of Installation on Tiananmen Square (2000) Mao’s portrait is shown hanging on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, as it still is today, and the viewer’s feeling is that as we walk under the portrait to pass through the gate, we become smaller and smaller: Mao, as they ironically point out, remains to this day an inescapable point of reference. The photo Ruins shows a flying coin striking a wall bearing four photos of Mao: an image of capitalism changing China?
The brothers are currently working on a project titled Miss Mao, in which Mao is portrayed as a woman.
In an exploration of the struggle between the individual and his environment, the Hug series shows people who do not know each other embracing for the first time: in their performance art the Gaos want to express the deep resistance of spirituality to the violence of everyday life. Hugging is a natural gesture, but there is embarrassment when someone first hugs a stranger for 15 minutes, and then again in the 5-minute group hug. How and when do our barriers break down? And how can these different people hugging be shown as a reaction against our times?
Tenderness, irony and humour are the keystones of the Gao Brothers’ work, of their joint attempt to cope with the harshness of life.
Janette Danel-Helleu, curator.
Exhibition organised with the support of HP.