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Digest of some Critical Responses to the Gao Brothers


BETWEEN SPIRITUAL AND MATERIAL SPACES: THE PHOTOGRAPHIC WORLD OF THE GAO BROTHERS
Dagmar Carnevale Lavezzoli, Gao Brothers' exhibition at Hua Gallery, London, 2013

Portraits of the 100 most Influential Artists in Chinese Contemporary Art
Gao Minglu, Hubei Fine Arts Press, 2005

The Evolvement of Gao Brothers’Art Since 1989 Susan Davis, Be-Word-Art, 2005

Deconstructing Texts and The Leaning Crucifix —On The Gao Brothers Work
Yi Ying, Contemporary Art No. 12, The Gao Brothers' Special Edition, Hunani Fine Arts Press, 1996

Chinese Art Today
Guo Xiaochuan, Beijing Press, 2003

Preparing Today’s Testimony for Redemptive Trial
 Daozi, China Art Net, 2005

Daily Life in Performance Art – On The Gao Brothers’ “One Day In Beijing”
 Yu Shicun, Chengyan Art, 23rd Ed., February 2005

Public Space and the Maturing of the Chinese Avant-Garde
 Guan Yuda, 21st Century, April 2002, No. 70

Our Flesh and Our Spirit Are Starving
Yu Jie, Chengyan Art, 23rd Ed., February 2005

Experience this Land – on five Photographers Zhu Qi, 2005 Spring Art Auction Catalogue

Contemporary Art and Idealism – Dialogue on The Gao Brothers’ Great Crucifix Peng De, Eastern Art 6th Ed., 1996

Recalling Misery and the Hope of Mankind
Wang Yuechuan, Art Observation, 12th Ed., 1996

Redemption or Criticism
Huang Zhuan, Contemporary Art No. 12, The Gao Brothers Special Edition, Hunani Fine Arts Press,1996

A Query on Worth in the Age of “The Culture Industry” - on the Gao Brothers’ "Crisis: The Great Crucifix" Series and others Ma Qinzhong, World Art, 4th Ed., 1998

Debauchery and Redemption Zhu Bin, World of Chinese Culture, 1st Ed., 1998

Deconstructed and Reconstructed Study of Poetry
Zhang Xiaoling,Conceptual Art, Jilin Fine Arts Press; Zhang Xiaoling, pgs 6,12

Contemporary Chinese Photography - The Gao Brothers
Olga Svilblova, catalogue of Gao Brothers' exhibition in Moscow, 2006

THE GAO BROTHERS AND THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF INNOCENCE
Paul Serfaty, catalogue of Gao Brothers' exhibition, New York, 2006

GAO BROTHERS
 Eleonora Battiston, Zoom (magazine), 2005

Photography as an Allegory of Human Emotion
 Bérénice Angremy, catalogue of Gao Brothers' exhibition, New York, 2006

A Pair of Disciples on the Margins: On the Art of the Gao Brothers
Zhu Qi, “Gao Brothers 1985-2005”, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2006

The Gao Brothers’ “Hug” Project – Art as Life
 C. M. Voskuil, Ph.D. “Gao Brothers 1985-2005”, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2006

Disillusioned Urban Art: On Gao Brothers’ Photography
Feng Boyi, MATADOR (magazine) Nov 2005

A Deconstructed Reflexion: Simulation and Substitution in the Gao Brothers' Art
Huang Du, exhibition catalogue “Gao Brothers”, CourtYard Gallery, Beijing, 2001

Zai Beijing Yi Tian Neng Zou Duoyuan
Olek Borelli, NY ARTS (magazine), Vol.10 no 3/4, 2005

We are not Performance Artists
An Interview with the Gao Brothers, Chen Yuxia

Starving Artist: Bending the Truth The Gao Brothers' photographs warp reality to convey the abstract
 Lee Ambrozy, “that's Beijing” (magazine), June 07, 2005

The Strength and Significance of “Embrace” - An interview with the Gao Brothers
Guan Yuda, Art China (magazine), no.1 2003


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Dagmar Carnevale Lavezzoli (Hua Gallery Manager, Chinese Contemporary Art Specialist)
Internationally recognised artists the Gao Brothers are two of the pioneers of contemporary Chinese art. Thanks to innumerable artworks and projects of political nature and humanitarian stance, their reputation has been growing steadily since the mid-1980’s. In 1989, the Gao Brothers participated in “China Avant-Garde”, the exhibition that officially marked the birth of contemporary Chinese art and would come to be known as the most important show of its kind to ever take place, as well as serving as a launch for the brother’s rise to acclaim.

Dissident and controversial, the Gao Brothers are members of a generation of artists who personally experienced the events of the Cultural Revolution, by which they were deeply affected (1). Their art developed in the post-Mao era and questions the role of the individual within society, exploring social issues and delving into the complex nature of human beings.

Leading the viewer to reflect about the notion of “social responsibility” their artistic creations also become an "allegory of human emotions"(2). Their art is not only a social commentary, but also presents itself as a manifestation of romantic spiritualism and intense humanist values. Their wide body of work covers a large spectrum of media, such as photography, oil painting, installation, sculpture, and performance. Among their performances, the ‘Utopia of Hugging for Twenty Minutes’ certainly occupies a significant role. This performance invites strangers to embrace each other for 15 minutes and to spend the last 5 minutes gathered in a collective hug. The purpose of this activity is to stimulate individuals’ emotions, to try to step away from the alienation of our contemporary society, to resolve social indifference among people, conflicts among states, nations and ethnics, to ease the inner solitude of people and therefore to establish a new human relationship and world order.

Regardless of the employed medium, the Gao Brothers’ art always conveys political, humanitarian and positive messages, as their purpose is to create connections between individuals and to explore the polarity of human nature, both evil and good, delving into collective and personal issues.

The Gao Brothers are currently exhibiting at Hua Gallery, London’s only gallery exclusively specialised in Chinese contemporary art. This exhibition entitled Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers is the brothers’ first ever solo-show in London and brings together a series of artistic creations whose focal point is the relationship between the individual and their own spiritual and material spaces. As Chinese artist and art critic Li Xinmo notes “The Gao Brothers continually seek and explore space; sometimes this exploration takes place along the axis of time, and sometimes within politics and society; other times it resides in the innermost corner of the heart”(3).

Through the medium of photography the Gao Brothers delve into a realm ruled by both the imaginary and the real, creating a dimension that is both magical and ordinary at the same time. This is what characterises the series The Forever Unfinished Building where people from different social classes, sexes, and beliefs share the same spaces, occupying the most hidden corners of this endless labyrinth. Reminiscent of Escher’s compositions, here the Gao Brothers’ images seem to re-create fragments of lives where the characters are experiencing everyday and ordinary feelings. Solitude, melancholy, curiosity, happiness, and indifference are just some of the states that permeate this bleak, yet enchanted scenario. As a clear criticism of rampant Chinese progress, here attention is brought to the consequent isolation of people who suffer from urban solitude.

This feeling is also well conveyed in Silent Space where two diminutive people stand in the middle of a large-scale empty space. Questioning their role within a constantly changing society, these individuals feel lost and are silently searching for their own identities. Whilst the figure on the right is dressed and therefore is in relationship with her materialistic space, the one on the left is naked, allegorising a yearning for spirituality.

In many of their works the Gao Brothers make use of nudity. Used this way, nudity is what Italian art critic Achille Bonito Oliva defines as a ‘laying bare of humanity itself’(4), rather than a flaunting of the body. The artists suggest it is only when we are completely naked, free from any kind of ornament, that we are thoroughly human. In Sense of Space, one of the brothers’ iconic works, several naked men are squeezed into small compartments of a large cabinet. Although they are physically very close to each other they are completely alienated in their own little spaces. There is a lack of communication and a sense of anxiety that permeates the scene. A strong social commentary, this artwork portrays the living conditions of many Chinese people, becoming a metaphor for China itself. Although China is a huge country, the living spaces of its people are often very cramped. The fact that they are trapped within these small cells not only highlights the lack of material space but it also brings attention to the lack of freedom of expression.

The focus on human feeling is amplified in Lonely Summer, Echo and Black Space. Here the large scale of the individuals reveals their emotions through the facial expressions and the body language. A sense of loneliness is conveyed through the sinuosity and the delicacy of this female whose image becomes an allegory for the fragility and vulnerability of mankind. This sense of loneliness reaches its apex in Black Space where a female face and semi bust embraced by light emerge from a dark background. The woman is covering her breasts, her eyes are closed and the atmosphere is sacral and meditative. Despite the spirituality of this scene, in front of her lays a material item, her bra, and her face is covered by a mud mask. It seems that she is attempting to reach external beauty as a way to fulfil her inner loneliness. A contrast between an inner research of spirituality and an external attempt to gain material and tangible beauty is well rendered through the interplay of sombre tones and luminous shades.

In Outer Space Project - Map of China, innumerable cells populated by many different people create a honeycomb whose perimeter forms the shape of China itself. The individuals are here trapped in a hierarchical system with limited and diminutive areas defining their living spaces.

The space expands in The New World of Nuclear Cloud Shape, a surreal vision exploring the polarity of human nature, both evil and good. This artwork depicts the silhouette of the atomic bomb, of the nuclear mushroom cloud associated with the evil side of mankind. But here the artists have transformed this sense of destruction into a stunning vision where the nuclear mushroom takes shape into a bright and alive green tree beautifully standing against an intense blue sky. Looking inside this tree one can see the diversity of mankind: Jesus, Adam and Eve, Buddha, a couple making love, and the Gao Brothers themselves, as well as ordinary people, are all sharing the same imaginary space. This artwork presents itself as a marvellous fresco portraying the entire world and is deeply imbued with a sense of faith and idealism. The destructive materialistic power of man is here transformed into a fresh and natural cloud that becomes a symbol of hope and spiritual regeneration for the whole of mankind.

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(1) Carnevale Lavezzoli, Dagmar, The Gao Brothers’ Embrace Project – Art in the name of Life, MA History of Art, Chinese contemporary art, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2012
(2) Angremy, Bérénice, “Photography as an Allegory of Human Emotion”, Le Passage du Temps, Galerie Guislain Etat d’Art, Paris, 2006

(3) Li, Xinmo. “Create Space through Art: Gao Brothers” Hwang, Arthur, The Gao Brothers Grandeur and Catharsis, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, 2010
(4) Oliva, Achille Bonito. “The Dream of Art in the Work of the Gao Brothers”, The Gao Brothers, Duncan Miller Gallery, Los Angeles, 2010


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Gao Minglu (Art Critic, Curator)

The most original and interesting aspect of the Gao Brothers is that they do not feel obliged to follow fashionable or popular artistic trends. Their wisdom has always been to follow their own artistic instinct and inspiration. At the Great Exhibition of Modern Art in 1989, Midnight Mass appeared with its extreme absurdity and banter and stood out in complete contrast to the rationalist and grandiose themes of the time. In the 90s, Crisis: the Great Crucifix went against the aggressive trend of ‘cynical realism’ which evolved into the early years of 2000. Now, at the beginning of the new century, the Gao Brothers have once again betrayed common violence and given us a gift full of humanity: Embrace.

Gao Minglu, The Portraits of 100 Most Influential Artists in Chinese Contemporary Art, Published by Hubei Fine Arts Press, 2005

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Susan Davis (Writer)
It is clear that the Gao Brothers' artistic nature differs from those of other Chinese artists such as Xu Bing, Cai Guoqiang and Huang Yongping who are popular in the international art world because of the special relationship with Chinese traditional culture in their art. From the beginning, the Gao Brothers have travelled down a unique path of artistic creation. From their 1989 Inflationist Installation and Copy Machine Art to their "Great Crucifix" installation series and "Hugging" performance series in the 90s, the Gao Brothers have been trying to give their art works a context that is wider and brighter in scope, and also more humanistic.

Be-Word-Art: 2005, Susan Davis ‘The Evolvement of Gao Brothers’Art Since 1989’

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Yi Ying (Art Critic, Editor-in-Chief – World Art Magazine
)
The hallmark of Chinese contemporary arts during the 1990s was the synthesis of popular culture and cultural criticism. However, the Gao Brothers’ art hinted at another possibility – a purely spiritual criticism. They use the individual’s spiritual crises a launching point and extend it to humanity’s spiritual condition, thus realizing two-fold criticism of both the material and spiritual world, also reflecting the postmodern world’s anxiety and worry over the losses and cultural vulgarities that stem from idealism. At the notorious 1989 Modern Art Exhibition at the National Museum of Art their provocative ‘Inflationism’ installation shocked a great many people, simultaneously criticizing and ridiculing culture . After transitioning to the 90s, and judging from works such as Copy Machine Art and Crisis: The Great Crucifix they maintained their ‘Inflationist’ zeal and added a new spiritual dimension to art observation; on a material level they raised the bar for modern creation and reinterpretation of traditional thought. With their two-fold aggressive stance they synthesized a new form for Chinese Avant-garde.

Contemporary Art No. 12, The Gao Brothers Special Edition,1996, Hunani Fine Arts Press; Yi Ying, ‘Deconstructing Texts and The Leaning Crucifix —On The Gao Brothers ’Work’


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Guo Xiaochuan (Art Critic, Curator)

Gao Brothers have achieved wide renown for their "great style" in Chinese experimental art. “Greatness” concerns both the formal and thematic aspects of their work. The artists often rationally ponder large philosophical issues in their work and examine subjects of ultimate significance. For instance, their early Crucifix Series is about the question of soul and belief. With regard to production, the works are often large-size. "Forever Unfinished Building" has these characteristics. The artists’ statement tells us that the work stems from their pondering China’s future. People hug each other, either clothed or naked, within a huge concrete frame; the scene looks unexpectedly like a giant game of chess, one controlled by a giant invisible hand. At such a massive Chinese “worksite”, whose hand might that be?

'Chinese Art Today' Published by Beijing Press, 2003, Guo Xiaochuan


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Daozi (Art Critic, Professor – Tsinghua University)

Through nearly 20 years of artistic creation the Gao Brothers are implementing a self-determined course of action ranging from passive discussion to a call to action. Breaking free from mere tabletop, dust collecting art - and then once again from traditional installation art - the Gaos employ a full spectrum of recording arts and environmental stimuli to define their realm. In the gradual process of their sometimes sudden, other times laborious interchanges they use the pretext of ‘performance art’ and other open-minded pretenses to infiltrate public space and society at large, right down to the lowest levels. For it is only at the lowest, layman levels of society can art realize its highest two-fold purpose of upholding redemption and salvation while consciously playing the social critic. In the past few years, their live Embrace performances inspired ‘International Hug Day,’ and appealed to our conscious state which was already looking for latent and meaningful value.
Through Embrace they recovered the love, friendship, sense of belonging, sympathy, modesty, tolerance and other precious qualities that the creator endowed to mankind; Embrace participants the world over learned the true power of love and redemption, and many young people were inspired to establish new lifestyles. This ‘call of the wild’ effectively exhausted the Gao Brothers’ strength, but at the same time, Embrace fostered for them a sense of self-trust and the everlasting roots of faith. In the eyes of someone who puts their faith in systems, this kind of forward-thinking, cult inspiring activity nurtures the growth and development of individuals’ spiritual life and thereby the bereaved soul of the entire world, making for a prayerful night’s vigil.

China Art Net; 2005, Daozi, ‘Preparing Today’s Testimony For Redemptive Trial’

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Yu Shicun (Writer, Researcher)

Among contemporary Chinese avant-garde artists, there are none such as the Gao Brothers who so consciously avoid individualism. They possess a sort of resolve to create for the vast throngs of people and absolutely do not want to materialize in their works, so unlike the majority of specialists and artists proclaiming they are cognizant of something, but what they try so hard to explain is what we know in our hearts through intuition: the already intimately familiar sense of moral justice. The Gao Brothers use performance art to explore the struggle between the individual and the commonplace; this ‘commonplace’ is not a contemptuous scorn for the masses, but a debauched sense of social ranking. Their performance art has a more powerful, anti-satirical nature: through popular culture mores and cynicism wrapped in a cloak of a different color, the Gaos are actually using performance art to express deeper levels of spirituality. What we see in their work is actually the most severe and miserable parts of Chinese life, the scarcities and things our changing society’s lacks most: virtue, doctrine, sympathy, base morals, etc., just the things that constitute a transforming society’s popular culture. Through the media’s garish propaganda, lip service and empty promises, so called demoralization, societal indifference, emotional vulnerability and other disgraces become common social ills. We see in performance art pieces such as Embrace, Great Crucifix, and Homeless Dinner a concern and love within their proposed achievable models for a communicative lifestyle. The Gao Brothers’ invite the everyday, nameless citizen to participate in their performance art, stirring in all kinds people a rediscovery of love. In the act of embracing a stranger every participant discovers that his or her individuality has a place in humanity, as well as an individual identity.

Chengyan Art, 23rd Ed., February 2005; Yu Shicun, ‘Daily Life in Performance Art – On The Gao Brothers’ “One Day In Beijing”’


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Guan Yuda (Art Critic, Curator)

The Gao Brothers’ performance piece, Embrace can be interpreted as a successful case study in how to create ‘public space’ belonging to the individual. In Embrace, the performance expands on various concepts, controversies and misinterpretations, rapidly evolving a ‘public space’ into a hotly disputed cultural and social issue; its networked interactivity, linking endlessly with the work’s un-finished nature forces artists within the public dialogue and intercourse to seek new motivations and inspiration. Therefore, the discussions triggered by Embrace illustrate that Chinese contemporary art in the Post-1989 world, and also of the ‘public space’ variety, is maturing day by day, thereby giving us a glimpse at the vitality of Chinese contemporary art.

21st Century, April 2002, no. 70; Guan Yuda, ‘Public Space and the Maturing of the Chinese Avant-Garde’

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Yu Jie (Writer, Researcher)

I believe the Gao Brother’s Embrace is not only a work of art, but in the history of contemporary Chinese thought and in her spiritual history, it is cannot be overlooked. The Gao Brothers have given us a state of mind embodied by the embrace; it is actually a call to arms for likeminded people, an appeal for love, a cry for spirituality, a call to the inner self, and a shout out to the universe.

Chengyan Art, 23rd Ed., February 2005; Yu Jie ‘Our Flesh and Our Spirit Are Starving’

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Zhu Qi (Art Critic, Curator)
In the 80s the Gao Brothers joined the ‘New Wave’ of modern art and their work possessed a kind of intellectualism and a spiritual, self-examining spirit. It was these inclinations that led them to walk a rather lonely, but notable and independent road during the 90s. During this time, their art toyed extensively with many avant-garde mediums including installation, performance, conceptual, and many others.
The Embrace series around 2000 lent our lives a sense of allegory in our modern era and society. It was also their official departure from their lonely and disparaging forms of physical vindication during the 90s, they began using powerful images to maneuver themselves into a place in society by placing different groups of people on a platform and using an absurd style embellished with the new hopes and desires ushered in with the capitalist era. In the Sense of Space photo series that came later they discovered a kind of space-narration and visual style, later on this style provided for a more capable and colorful allegoric vehicle: The Abandoned Building.
The Forever Unfinished Building (2005), The Passage of Time (2005), and other works are highly representative of the Gao Brothers’ creations. The Abandoned Building series became a meaningful image and place documentation, almost effortlessly expressing a powerful idea about this era’s escapism and universalism. It doesn’t matter whether this kind of universalism is self-inflicted or is a product of different influences on each level of society; it’s all overflowing with contradiction and is a baseless argument. It’s filled with the capitalist force of competitiveness, with the poetic expectations of ethnic pride or even human materialistic desires. At the same time, this universalism cultivates an unprecedented collective nihilism.

2005 Spring Art Auction Catalogue; Zhu Qi, ‘Experience This Land – On Five Photographers’

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Peng De (Art critic, Editor-in-Chief – Literature and Fine Arts)

“Your (Gao Brothers) mode of thinking embodies a new direction for the international art circles that have arrived with China’s modernism. Perhaps I’m blinded by visual preferences, but in my interpretation, The Great Crucifix Series uses ancient composition, a postmodernist shape, and also maintains a modernist spirit. Compared to Christian logic, the modernism and postmodernism in both art and culture are mere transients, but your Great Crucifix remains seeped in a sense of perpetualism and idealism – its revelations go far beyond those well-established by religion.”

Eastern Art 6th Ed., 1996; Peng De, ‘Contemporary Art and Idealism – Dialogue on The Gao Brothers’ Great Crucifix’


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Wang Yuechuan (Literature Scholar, Professor of Chinese Literature – Peking University)

After passing through the convergence of ‘Inflationism’ (sexuality) and Copy Machine Art (power), the Gao Brothers finally discovered the ‘crisis’ point on their road to personal development. From there the Large Crucifix Installation Series (spirituality) was testimony to the individual soul and the transformation of convergent art forms, realizing through ‘copy cat art’ the transformation to the intrinsic truth of ‘creationist’ art. These works demonstrate their creators’ heartfelt vision for the future, grandiose and with an artistic flavor - an inherent elevation of mankind. Viewed from this perspective we logically reach a crisis point where both despair and hopes reside.
Present in the still and soundless tension of the Crucifix, the spectrum of conventionalisms, cynicism, opportunism, consumerism, and that cold sense of money worship all lose their validity.

Art Observation, 12th Ed., 1996; Wang Yuechuan, ‘Recalling Misery and the Hope of Mankind’


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Huang Zhuan (Art Critic, Research Fellow – He Xiangning Art Museum)

The recent work of the Gao Brothers illustrates an alternative attitude in Chinese contemporary art, namely the saving powers of religion. In truth, ever since the 1980s a religious mood in Chinese contemporary art has always made up an important and alternative way of thinking. But there is another reason why I choose to fully acknowledge the creations and projects of the Gao Brothers – namely their contemplative attitude and sense of cultural obligation … although I can’t approve of their conclusions on religion. I believe at the very least we agree on the following points: opportunism, anarchism (irrationality), decadence, pessimism and cynicism are detestable; we must pay close attention to the existing cultural and artistic predicament in order to resurrect ‘nobility’ and ‘magnificence’ in art.

Contemporary Art No. 12. The Gao Brothers Special Edition, Hunani Fine Arts Press,1996; Huang Zhuan, ‘Redemption Or Criticism’

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Ma Qinzhong (Art Critic, Editor-in-Chief – Artist Magazine)

A sense of demoralization has already begun creeping into the artistic world and blaspheming art and a variety of other human activities. It is in exactly this semiotic environment that the installation art of the Gao Brothers faces the question of human worth and the contemplative, baffling complexity of individual existence. Their most moving works tend towards the heartbreaking, head aching, heavy and sorrowful nature, they are contemplative and inquisitive. The Gao Brothers are experienced and create using a historical perspective; they have not allowed Western exhibition methods to shape their point of view, nor have they used their status as international artists to peddle art to Westerners brimming with interest over the ‘China Problem.’ They create in China’s period of societal transformation, in the midst of the new ‘Culture Industry’ where the genesis of ‘celebrity myth,’ and other questionable motives inherent in this kind of culture raise serious questions about humanity and leads us to question their worth. Looking at the installation art of the Gao Brothers’ from an angle of visual effectiveness and one of metaphorical worth not only does it have a certain intellectual depth, but is has an emotional strength perhaps a product of their mutual encouragement. Their works are a classic embodiment of the direction and the desires of artists born in the 50s and 60s, simultaneously showing an essentially two-sided intellectual complexity through the popularized medium of performance art.

World Art 4th Ed., 1998; Ma Qinzhong, ‘A Query On Worth In The Age of “The Culture Industry”—On The Gao Brothers’ Crisis: The Great Crucifix Series and others’

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Zhu Bin (Art Critic, Research Fellow – Hubei Art Academy)

Comparatively speaking, I care more for the Gao Brothers’ art from 1994 to 1996, the period when they realized their Large Earth Performance Art. In 1994, on the southern banks of Jinan's Yellow River, they used red oil paint on abandoned railway planks to paint in calligraphy the history of the monarchical reign; In 1995, on the dried up riverbed of the Yellow River they installed three pieces, Another River, Hothouse Effect, and Long March on the Yellow River; In 1996, on a near mile of Shandong’s sun-bathed public beach they wrote continuously in calligraphy for nearly 3 hours various names for the nation and phrases related to civilization … the sea water intermittently washed the traces of their characters clean away.
I take a real interest in these kinds of performance works because the performer is sustaining a rare kind of tranquility. It seems as if they are using contemplative methods to appeal endlessly to Mother Nature, not to a ‘Creator,’ or to God. Obviously, these appeals are unanswerable, but it seems as if they don’t want an answer. This kind of contemplation can perhaps reveal another kind of conclusion: like ancient scholars in the end they achieve some of life’s necessary experiences and a sort of philosophical enlightenment.

World of Chinese Culture, 1st Ed., 1998; Zhu Bin, ‘Debauchery and Redemption’


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Zhang Xiaoling (Art Critic, Research Fellow – Art Research Institute)

From 1994 to 1996, at the site of the Gao Brothers’ Crisis: the Great Crucifix, we saw the power of ‘shamanism’ return to art. Five crosses, each standing more than 3 meters high created a mysterious, sacrificial atmosphere; the enormous serene space was transported far beyond the disturbances of the material world. These crucifixes earned their prestige in influential art circles … after passing through the ‘Political Pop Art’ experiment, and learning from the panicky nihilists and countless other absurdities, the Gao Brothers succeeded in transforming the word and the value of ‘art.’ At the 1989 ‘Modern Art Exhibition’ the Gao Brothers spurned controversial and anarchical criticism with their ‘Inflationist’ work of art, Mass at Midnight. The lucid transparency of their inflated finished product became an absurd way of observing reality. Using exaggerated generalizations to deconstruct ‘sexual politics;’ using the power of vice to deconstruct the evil side of human nature; using absurdity to deal with the absurd – all of these methods constitute that era of the Gao Brothers’ cynical, reversely-psychological statements and their cultural strategy.
Beginning in the 90s with Copy Machine Art they began to show an attitude critical of the rational norm; they seemed derogatory, self-flagellant and indignant towards a transformation to a machine-made era and the grave, numb outlook of the artist community. In this period of their work the act of reproduction becomes a statement of individual's rights, they use the act of duplication to show that it can control the course of humanity and affects the losses in art that have come from countless sources, and that it can also overthrow accepted norms and patterns of speech. After that, the Gao Brothers seemed to realize, even though the mocking the absurd seems fundamental to their lives, it is difficult to realize true powers of self-examination – self-examination can only be built upon ultimate values and ideals. This kind of deliberation and contemplation stimulates the Gao Brothers’ transformative arts. Crisis: The Great Crucifix is not just a symbol of this transformation – it is also its conclusion. In it, they attempt to use installation space to force art to return to its redemptive theme: ideal values stimulate a sense of inhibition and the banishment of absurdity; reconstructed, meaningful desires drive away meaningless threats; the profundity of words, flooding everywhere like broken pieces are transformed and reassembled into a complete structure.
But the Gaos indefatigable desire for knowledge gives this lofty artwork spirit, idealism, and nobility – in some viewers’ eyes, their power to overthrow is already tangible … the Gao Brothers must face the contrary conclusions of aspirations based on a reconstructed history: reconstructed crucifixes are exactly that kind of deconstruction, their metaphorical conclusion is at the same time a retransformation. Crisis: The Great Crucifix is both meaningful and meaningless, noble and comedic, holy and base - it is all-encompassing. To speak of its intrinsic qualities, this contradictory baseless argument doesn’t belong to the Gao Brothers, but is the baseless argument that we exist in, and are surrounded by.

‘Deconstructed and Reconstructed Study of Poetry’ from Conceptual Art, Published by Jilin Fine Arts Press; Zhang Xiaoling, pgs 6,12


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Contemporary Chinese Photography - The Gao Brothers

By Olga Svilblova
(Published in the catalogue of Gao Brothers' exhibition in Moscow, 2006)

Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang have been working together for more than 20 years under the artistic pseudonym the Gao Brothers. Their work has marked the beginning of the new wave in the Chinese art,the wave that has started before the beginning of economical and political reform and opposed the style of official propaganda.The brothers have espressed themselves in traditional forms of Fine Art, in literature, curator's projects However; presently their main specialization is photography and video.

The story of Gao Brothers has started in their native Shandong province in the North-East of China. In the latest years they live and work i Beijing.Since the beginning of their career the Gao Brothers have used art-photography as special kind of opposition to the official reportage.Today the complex compositions of Gao Brothers make the new social situation in Chinese society a subject for an analysis.And this new situation is a moment of breaking and transition,when the economical boom and political changes bring about the loss of habitual psychological and cultural coordinates.

In this context the issue of identity became unbelievingly relevant. The collective 'us' being replaced by the personal 'me' is a more severe problem than the economical gap.Gao Brothers have expressed the identity problem in their famous "Embraces" series of 2000 where a lot of strangers experience the feeling of embarrassment, the impossibility of integration, connected with the a-priori artificial situation of a collective performance. One of the main means,used by the Gao Brothers -- the body language.With its help they express complex emotional and intellectual reactions of their characters. This is where the artistic exposure comes from -- the technique, often used by the Gao Brothers in their sets. For many generations the Chinese civilization has tabooed the exposure of naked body and the eccentric gesture of the artists, masterly using the embarase and at the same time the naturalness of the moment, when the covers are put down ,creates a striking metaphor of the traditionally closed culture that suddenly opened up under the influence of the Western world.

The change in social attitudes inevitably changes the experience of the natural and city landscape that becomes alien and hostile but still retains the desire for human integration. The anxieties, fears and desires that penetrate the physical space are explicated very distinctly in the "Sense of Space' series.

The grand breaking,connected with the period of transition in the Chinese history has been reflected in everything, including one of the main elements of the living environment -- the architectural. Everything old has been destroyed and the new architectural forms have not been acquired yet. This is how the favorite attributes of Gao Brothers -- the bitumen ruins that symbolize the destruction and the unfinished construction at the same time and make people feel like nomads. In this sense the series "The eternally unfinished construction" is very expressive.

Reflecting the realities of contemporary China, the artists are actually describing the global problems, relevant for the whole humankind .In the latest series the Gao Brothers have let go the irony and sarcasm, so characteristic for their earlier work. They undertake an attempt to construct a new cosmos and a new collective mythology that will bring back the lost soil under our feet.

Since 1989 till 2003 the Gao Brothers have experienced many bans from censorship.For example, in 2001 they are invited by Harold Schiman, the curator of the 49th Venice Biennale to organize the opening performance. However they could no be present at their own act as they did not receive a permission to leave the country. Today these artists are among the leaders in the world of contemporary art, whose work is a metronome of changes that are happening in the Chinese society and on the world artistic arena.

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THE GAO BROTHERS AND THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF INNOCENCE

By Paul Serfaty
(Published in the catalogue of Gao Brothers' exhibition in New York, 2006)


The Gao Brothers offer a more subtle reflection of post-Mao China than the many artists who seek to astonish, especially in the fashionable auction-driven world of contemporary Chinese oil painting.

Given the oversized drama of "Miss Mao" sculptures, the ambitious scale of the Gao Brothers' images of misconceived Unfinished Buildings, the nude bodies crammed into their "Sense of Space" photographs, the cybernetic detachment of 'Mickey' Mao floating in and around Ti'anmen Square and the blood-drenched rivers in which Mao swims, this assertion may seem surprising.
However, to understand the subtlety, it is necessary to know a little of their history, as their work abounds in symbols of their times, personal and other, that may be mysterious i to foreigners – and even to younger-generation artists less exposed to the depredations of the Cultural Revolution. Seen in this light, action events such as their "Hug" performances orchestrated around the world and through the Internet, become gestures of applied idealism in response to the spiritual emptiness of the consumer and money-dominated values of China today.
Born in Jinan in 1956 and 1962 respectively, Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang lived in a family profoundly affected by the Cultural Revolution. Their father, accused of bourgeois and intellectual tendencies was shot in 1968. Present day reconstruction of family pictures such as were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and are today referenced by contemporary artists as diverse as Zhang Xiaogang and Hai Bo, point up the tragedy: a gap shows where a life should have been.
To 'read' a work by the Gao Brothers is an undertaking that takes place through many layers. On the surface is the immediacy of the visible: Mao's photo above the entrance to the Forbidden City, or burnt in the ruins of a building; a group of people embracing; the emptiness of a concrete shell; bodies crammed naked into tiny boxes; images of childish charm echoing Pop-style portraits of Mao, themselves a modern art cliché. These serve to remind us of the presently real: the continuing dominant power of politics; the search for emotional fulfillment in a world of wasted resources; the rejection of harsh reality for a childhood world of innocence, perhaps even superficial charm. These mental responses are also spiritual allegories of China today.
However, there is also a naivete, an openness and honesty which picks up the best of the psychology of earlier times. Susan Sontag observed in 1975 that "… official art in countries like China and the Soviet Union aims to expound and enforce a utopian morality…" and also that "Left wing movements have tended to be unisex and asexual in their imagery". ii It is a mark of the deep honesty of the Gao Brothers' work that they manage to unify the best and the worst of past realities. The childishness of Miss Mao reflects a yearning for goodness but also exposes as self-deception the present popular positive attitude to Mao; the ambiguous sexuality and potentially depraved charm of their sculptures simultaneously embraces and criticizes the propaganda techniques of the past iii while employing, in its Pop allusions, the mechanisms by which 1960s artists in America disempowered the powerful by refusing any debate on the terms set by the establishment. That art still has the power to dismay the powerful is evidenced by the fact that the Beijing authorities, after seeing a show hung by the Gao Brothers in their studio this very summer, demanded they take down works by Wu Wenjian,
jailed after June 1989, and cover up the Miss Mao sculptures. iv
In other works, traditional images of power, such as the Forbidden City, that reflect the dictator's love of the massive are captured, mastered and distorted by digital technology, while that small but telling symbol of human cruelty, the coin which families were charged for the bullet that killed their father, or mother, or sister or brother, floats in one or another part of the image, as symbolic for Chinese of a certain generation as symbols of Nazism might be to New Yorkers today.
However, in combining these layers of meaning, the Gao Brothers have by no means embraced the photographic equivalent of Cynical Realism. To the contrary, their work always remains human and optimistic. This attitude is equally visible in their action events and happenings, which are always designed to bring about positive actions and positive thinking on the part of real people in all parts of the world. For the Gao Brothers, the digital is not a means to make striking juxtapositions, and the internet not a means to market, but a means to unite the apparently divergent, to reconcile us to our history without denying its often sad truth.
By facing historical reality openly, and simultaneously expressing confidence in what is best in us, the Gao Brothers help ensure that we will not be doomed to repeat that history. Such is the power of innocence informed by experience.

i
Reminding us of how the film-maker Syberberg used child-images and talismans on the set of his "Hitler, a Film from Germany", a film that explored the relationship between Hitler and the German people, but also included references to Buddhist icons and even displayed the remains of a doll's house from Wagner's sponsor King Ludwig's Linderhof Castle.

ii
See "Fascinating Fascism" p.92, republished by Picador USA, 2002 in "Under the Sign of Saturn".

iii
Revolutionary art was meant to be 'Red, Bright and Shining' (in Chinese: hong, guang, liang), as are the Miss Mao sculptures, but scarcely in the way the authorities would have intended - another hidden and ironical subversion

iv
Gao Qiang, discussion with the author, July 2006

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GAO BROTHERS
Written by: Eleonora Battiston
Translated by: Claudia Albertini
(Published in the magazine "Zoom", 2005)

Born respectively in 1956 and 1962, the two brothers, Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, come from Jinan, Shandong province. Zhen studied fine arts at the Shandong Gongyi Arts Academy, while Qian graduated from the Qufu University with a specialization in literature. They have been working together under the pseudonym Gao Brothers since 1985. Whilst focusing on installations, performances, photos, they also completed analyses on Chinese contemporary life and society, such as One Day in Beijing, The State of China Avant-Garde and The Report of Art Environment. Currently, they live and work in Beijing, center of the major cultural activities in China. They opened their studio at the 798 Art Factory inside the Beijing New Art Projects Gallery. Their multifaceted activities include those of curators and promoters, yet photography seems to be where they mostly excel. Zhen and Qiang took part to solo and group exhibitions in China and, since 2001, also abroad where they gained popularity especially in big centers such as Paris, Rome, Los Angeles…

Through performances and computer modifying facilities they create photos, which focus on the individual and collective reactions in front of the sudden and fast changes taking place in their country. Among their most famous series, it’s worth to mention “Sense of Space” and “Utopia of Hugging for 20 Minutes”, in which they stress a particular emphasis on human relations and on the relation between man and the space around. In “Sense of Space” the figures portrayed are trapped in little shelves of a bookshelf while displaying their own unshared emotions. Every single character is enclosed in a tiny, restricted cellar, delimited by impenetrable barriers across which it’s not possible to move. A feeling of anxiety and impotence pervades the atmosphere while it turns men unable to communicate and cooperate. A sense of loneliness is accompanied by an external order, which disaggregates and divide so as to face the power of socializing. Everyone lives his own inner and personal drama, the one Gao Brothers are trying to get through with their utopist and symbolic play of collective hugs. The first experience goes back to the 10th of September 2000, when the two brothers invited 150 volunteers to take part to an event in which each of them had to chose a person to hug for 15 minutes. Since then, groups of strangers met up in public spaces in order to experiment this mass hug whose various facets have been afterwards recorded into photos. A very close and straight physical contact can be felt as a destabilizing gesture for any culture, especially for the Asiatic ones, not very used to such an explicit and invading approach. Hug can generate thus a sort of trauma, a disturbance, yet soon transmuted into a meditative moment or an individual rebirth thanks to the romanticism and symbolism hidden by the gesture itself. Since we were kids, the warmth and affection displayed by hugs have been essential, but sometimes because of social barriers and cultural peculiarities we find ourselves forced to forget about this primary need. The Gao Brothers demystify this awkwardness, which is reason of alienation and anonymity, and offer people the opportunity to revise and overturn the isolationism of their lives. One of the most significant scenery in which they set their photos is an abandoned construction located in their native village, Jinan. This building, covering an area of 10000 m2, was started ten years ago and its construction had to be interrupted because of shortage of money. This “ghost” edifice documents the situation of numerous Chinese constructions, which end to lay as piles of bricks and sand. Through the usage of computer facilities, they create a labyrinth of stairs and layers, which intersect one with the other, reminding those drawings of Escher. In these spaces, individuals appear, as in the shape of hallucinations, and act, through common gestures, episodes of daily life. These flashes seem to represent metaphors of events lost in the paths of our memories. Our brains record images, news, information, which are left as with no location. Our unconscious mix up and confuse them together with other data in order to generate an impressive RAM of chaos and order, of amnesia and memory. Everything then come back to life, no matter if we are in a deserted land or in a decadent building, but a hug can delimit a space, wake it up, give it energy and avoid abandonment.

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Photography as an Allegory of Human Emotion
By Bérénice Angremy
(Published in the catalogue of Gao Brothers' exhibition New York, 2006)

Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang have been on the artistic scene of contemporary art in China for the past twenty years, and together they have created a body of work under the name of the Gao brothers which can unequivocably be seen as an allegory of human emotion.

The two brothers are originally from Jinan in the northeast of China where they patiently went about creating installations and videos, doing performances and photography, often off the beaten track. They were also interested in setting down their ideas and published various essays on society and contemporary art. In addition, they became known as independent curators, promoting the work of young artists and film makers. However, in the past ten years or so, they have resolutely turned towards photography: photography with a conventional camera and then with a digital camera, which they were one of the first to use in China. A visitor to their studio-gallery in Dashanzi in Beijing, where they have been for the past two years, cannot fail to see them, always together, sitting in front of their computer, working with evident pleasure and amusement on their latest works.

The work of the Gao brothers has slowly evolved and in this exhibition in Paris, we can see the different phases and concerns, which nonetheless form a coherent work. In the large size photographs, simply and directly photographed and meticulously re-worked on the computer, we are first struck by their perception of the world governed by the imaginary, but filled with men and women who visibly belong to our ordinary world, accessible to everybody; by a constant concern for what is human or rather human emotions; and finally, by their use of theatrical staging close to mystical or religious paintings.

This view of photography in the service of the imaginary can readily be seen as a part of the history of photography in China. In the early beginnings of contemporary art in China at the end of the 70’s, a whole generation of artists declared their artistic independence by distancing themselves from a documentary and sentimentally realistic view of photography in conformity with the dictates of Communist propaganda.
The Gao brothers as well as Wang Qingsong, Liu Wei, Rongrong, Miao Xiaochun or Yan Fudong, to name just a few photographers taken at random who work in different styles – professional photographers or artists turned photographers – share a certain belief that photography allows them to over-develop their imagination, to enrich their imagination nearly to excess, to play in an exaggerated way on the confusion inherent to photography: the tangible gap between reality and imagination which exists only in photo or video.

Some artists work on the themes of collective and individual memory, others sublimate or ironize on daily life; still others transcend their personal relation to the world. All, however, like theater directors putting on a play, focus their attention on the subject and the plastic effect desired. This kind of more instinctive photography and a photography called “realistic” are two genres which have only recently come to the fore.

The photos of the Gao brothers are staged situations which seem to explore the purest recesses of our soul rather than the most obscure. The subjects can have their beginnings in a performance, which is the case of the first photo in the series Embrace (2000) where a hundred or so strangers came together in a deserted place – a beach in Jinan – to hug each other for fifteen minutes. Emotion on the faces of the people embarrassed to “meet” each other in public, a possible abandonment of the body which which slowly relaxes during the filming. The series which develops over the course of several years takes on a more theatrical form, becoming in the end living tableaus. In the series Sense of Space, the Gao brothers explore our most intimate feelings through the attitudes which separate us from each other: suffering, anxiety, prayer or expectations. The encounters between men and women (The girl and the labourer, Confrontation, Hug) are distant, never completely shown, always difficult but not completely impossible either.

During the period from the end of the 90’s to the beginning of the years 2000, the artistic expression of the Gao brothers can be found not only in their finished photos and their successful staging, but also in the event created during the filming. For example, the Homeless Dinner establishes a relationship between these people excluded from society
during the time however short of a dinner; hugging in the series Embrace, means exchanging what seems to be a natural human gesture but which stops being so when it is done between strangers. While all of these performances have their social elements, they are nonetheless an artistic statement, full of generous and fraternal feelings.

In this work, we can feel a kind of fervor – like a pure and indestructible faith – but which can also seem somewhat naïve. Is there a quest for a purity of feeling or for brotherhood? Is there a desire to decode the feelings of alienation which surround us in order to help us be more human? In any case, it is clear that the Gao brothers avoid any attitude of cynicism or sarcasm.

There is also something bordering on the religious in their work. The character of their work is accentuated by a composition and an interplay of iconographic elements found in the aesthetic of the mystical tableau. The personnages often have their eyes half closed as if they were praying. Their attitude is one of self-abandonment, sometimes a bodily lassitude, rather than anything heroic. Here there is resignation or humility rather than triumph. In numerous photos, candlelight (a favorite element of Western religious iconography) or the rays of a flashlight (a contemporary candle) unite the protagonists and reinforce their state of fervor (Illusion of Dawn, Prayer 3…)

To give impetus to their imagination, the Gao brothers have a predilection for “non-places” or “semi-places” which seem to condemn people to their destiny: existing streets and squares which become deserted at the onset of evening; unfinished buildings or abandonned terraces laced with cracks; or spaces they create similar to stage props, such as the wardrobes in Sense of Space or the table in 20 people hired to hug 3. People are put into these spaces which are too tight for them, forcing them to hide their feelings or personal stories. The new constructions which the Gao brothers have created on their computers in the last two years (High Place), while visionary and sublime, remain as always inaccessible to others.

In the last two or three years, their work has taken another turning with the assiduous montage done on the computer. In The forever unfinished building 3, the floors of the structure multiply into infinity, making us think of a palace with concrete walls and bars of metal. In this labyrinth glides a various set of people seen in the corners, appearing here and there, all of equal physical or social importance. The Gao brothers plunge us into a society seen with a magnifying glass: we see the fantasies of some and the dreams of others; we take part in the multitude of individual daily tragedies with their share of good and bad fortune - the homeless, couples with unfinished love stories or those who have found happiness, or those suffering from solitude. Their work is both a minute and gigantic description of daily life, less mystical than in the past but also more playful. There is no doubt that the Gao brothers take a real delight in working with their computer but in the last series as in the previous ones, while the multiplicity of spaces gives rise to a multiplicity of stories, the life of each individual remains an isolated point unless we make an effort to cross the barriers which separate us. Can we not say therefore that their photography is simply an allegory of human emotion?

Bérénice Angremy, independent art critic and curator based in Beijing

Translated by Shirley Sharoff

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A Pair of Disciples on the Margins: On the Art of the Gao Brothers
Written by: Zhu Qi
Translated by Robin Visser

(Published in “Gao Brothers 1985-2005”, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2006)

A pair of disciples on the margins – this is the best description I can think of to describe the Gao Brothers. They are always together, are actually brothers, and also seem to be contemporary believers traveling on the margins of their times and trends. The Gao Brothers seem to be continuously traveling on the margins of both the artistic and social mainstream. They appear together under the name of “brothers” like a pair of disciples. I say that they are like disciples because of their utopian ideas, their intellectualism, and their artistic subjects, which take the form of salvation.

I. Departing from the cross: The cost of saving art and self

In the past two decades since engaging in the modern art new wave of the mid 1980s, the Gao Brothers have never truly entered the Chinese avant-garde art mainstream.
During the mid 1980s when Chinese modern art was just beginning to germinate, the young Gao Brother were first starting experimenting with modern art in Shandong, for example, combining expressionism with Chinese traditional paper cut forms. Their first formal emergence in modern art was during the 1989 modern art exhibition, where they blew up condoms to symbolize genitalia, an “inflatable installation.” They used sexuality to symbolize a resistance to the stifling sexual ideology of the time. At that time such a work was rather daring, and demonstrated an early instance of installation art.
But, in comparison with the direct political confrontation and rational judgment of mainstream art forms of that time, this youthful colorful work of sexual symbolism seemed rather modest. Those stimulating and progressive art works that were fashionable for a moment are already passé today, while the humanism and youth emphasized by the Gao Brothers in their “inflatable installation” still appears fresh today.
Actually, the symbolism of youth and libido in “Inflatable Installation” was only apparent at the formal level. If one looks at the titles within this series, such as “Spreading Midnight,” one recognizes that the Gao Brothers provided within this form a spiritual subject of “saving self and others.” During the subsequent artistic movements of the entire decade of the 1990s, the subject of the “other” and “salvation” defined the central pursuit and artistic soul of the Gao Brothers.
In 1989 with the failure of the final elite resistance by Chinese intellectuals, the Gao Brothers spirituality suffered a lapse for a while, and the ideological background to that movement became their guidepost for the next decade. This was especially reflected in their early 1990s series “Facing Beijing’s Window.” The series focused on the subject of Beijing and modern ideology, where the former sees the appearance of consumer society and mass culture, and the later the influence of postmodernism on early 1990s Chinese art. Influenced by Benjamin’s idea of “reproduction” during an era of mass culture and Marcuse’s notion of a society of one-dimensional men, the Gao Brothers began to use the methodology of texts and reproduction to make photographic copies and pastiche works. Works such as “Researching Truth” and “New Concept” were part of the deeply expressive series “China: Marcuse’s Criticism (Text).” This experimental visual text possessed a formal avant-gardism for its time.
After 1994, apparently dissatisfied with merely the ideological criticism of social realistic expression, they tried to delve even deeper into the subject of saving the self that formed the backdrop to this type of expression. Series such as “Large Cross Installation” (1994), “Landscape Installation” (1994-1996) and “UFO Whizzing Past the Square” (1995) demonstrate their inquisitive and intensely ritualistic sensibility during this era. The subject of the “Large Cross Installation” series is the salvation of self and other. While exhibiting their sense of a spiritual quest, the series is especially interesting for their experimentation with large scale installation forms despite being mired in a spiritual quandary. The crosses were made out of various types of red structures, their forms emanating a definite ceremonial atmosphere. These crosses were placed in the middle of a very simple empty space, expressing the sense of loneliness and spiritual void of the times. The main themes of the cross series, “angst” and “marginalization,” reflected the spiritual attitude of feeling the self to be crumbling in the liminal spaces of salvation.
In the “Landscape” series self-sacrifice was even more directly expressed. It was performed on a desolate site in winter on the edge of the Yellow River. The work was full of the lyricism of the wounded and afflicted, and was, of all the Gao Brothers’ works, the one that most demonstrated their poetic talents. It used performance art and landscape art to write human history, communicate desires, an elegy on salvation, and express disappointment about the political reality. They used a red cloth to cover a fissure on the bank of the Yellow River, and then lay naked on the red cloth covering the white snow. On a discarded wooden train rail they wrote the numbers for various years in red. Visually this work possessed a strong sense of ceremonial self-sacrifice and lyricism. The symbolic ceremony of the self in the “Landscape” series gradually started to possess a colorful sense of self allegorization. This type of individual characteristic also began to appear in their intellectual speech and writings, for example, “Historical Chapter,” “Premonition of Melting,” “Poetic Stanza on Melting,” “The Sacrifice of the Yellow River,” “Narrate,” etc. These types of titles demonstrate the Gao Brother’s inspirational sources during a period of spiritual difficulty. This source was, in fact, the collective injury done to intellectuals in the late 1980s, and this intense wound to the soul was expressed in its most lively form in the work “UFO Whizzing Past the Square.”
The series “UFO Whizzing Past the Square” expressed a kind of political nightmare, an irrepressible political memory. The simulated performance endowed Tiananmen Square with an absurdly surrealistic sense, that one might have while sleep walking.
“Other,” “Injury,” and “Sleep Walking” comprised the primary spiritual subjects of the Gao Brother’s mid 1990s works. At its creative center resided intellectual disappointment, repressed nightmares, and anxiety about self expression. Their art resembled that of many other intellectuals, namely, a search for an allegorical space on the margins, a method of enacting the symbolic meeting of the self with the “other” and “the sublime” by using desolate landscapes, vast interior spaces, the cross, the political square, and the color red. While in reality they were not very effective, their central idea was saving the self. This caused the art of their time to possess a type of postmodernism which, at its root, reflected the pressured relationship between ideology and art.
During the mid 1990s the Gao Brothers also gradually began to form their individual aesthetic characteristics, for example, intellectuality, political symbolism, ceremonialism, marginal spaces, etc.

II. Group Hugs: Re-entering Society

With the Gao Brother’s 1995 performance “Mass on the Square” they bid adieu to the ceremonies they had performed since that first major art exhibition in 1989. Their works in the mid 1990s had been, for the most part, marked by a separation from social and collective space. Instead they performed on the deserted banks of the Yellow River, in empty rooms, and on abandoned railroad tracks, and like a pair of disciples they continued to carry with them the ideological memory of the late 1980s, the return of the repressed Square.
In the year 2000 their series “Hug” and “Feel Space” marked a turning point for the Gao Brothers. They ceased the lonely wandering of a disciple, and started hugging the crowds and feeling the new changes in mainstream social space. By the mid 1990s it was clear that the consumer society emerging in China was already a fact of life, and the superficial splendor and materialism of the cities along with the rise of mass culture and hegemonic discourse had created a postmodern social structure. Thus the symbols of consumer society and cultural forms such as reminbi, Mao’s pop culture images, commercial packaging, etc., appeared in the art of the Gao Brothers in the late 1990s.
The “Hugging” series marked the start of the Gao Brothers allegorizing contemporary society. They bid farewell to the loneliness and disappointed individualism of the 1990s, and started to enter social space, even appearing with different crowds, expressing the absurd modern realities of new capitalist desires. In their later “Feeling Space” performance video series, they discovered a spatial narrative and visual form which comprised their even more colorful allegorical form: the “half finished building.”
The Gao Brothers used newspaper announcements and close friends in order to influence people and recruit youth willing to participate in this “hugging” art performance. Some of the “huggers” had some familiarity with others in the crowd, but most were complete strangers to each other. Because of various restrictions, “Hugging” was first performed in desolate spaces, such as on a bridge next to the Yellow River, underneath a traffic overpass, at the intersection of suburban roads, etc. The fundamental change in the “Hugging” series was that it signified an overcoming of the ideological affliction in the artistic subjects of the Gao Brothers, by adopting the common humanist perspective of the relationship between humanity and society. Of course in doing so they risked making artistic thought too common, and losing some of their interior strength.
On the other hand, The Gao Brother’s “Feeling Space” series (2000) contained even stronger spiritual potential, mainly because of its allegorical form. The titles in this series, “Prayer,” “Injury,” “Waiting,” “Restlessness,” also reflected the Gao Brothers’ attitude toward their age. In facing China’s changes they were no longer bound by ideological wounds, rather, they maintained a certain distance and extremely complicated sentiment toward this age. “Hugging” in fact reflects an attempt by the Gao Brothers to reestablish a kind of relationship with the outside world, and “Feeling Spaces” reflects their contradictions, pain, and the fact that they haven’t yet fully extracted themselves from their inner world.
The “Hugging” series continued into the year 2001, but its background began to change. The allegorical backdrop to “Feeling Space” started to combine with the formal aspects of “Hugging.” Therefore the hugging performances began to change, first in terms of space, for example, hugging within a church, on a stage set, underneath a light rail train station, a bus stop, a half built building, the roof of a building, and other urban spots. Later these hugs were described by the Gao Brothers as “Urban Theater.” This in fact turned actual group actions and locations into allegorical performances. In “Urban Theater” “Hugging” is no longer an open invitation to participate in a large scale crowd game, but rather is a select group of people in a select location symbolic performing a prescribed action. It was more akin to a “stage” for theatrical drama, and although this kind of “hugging” obviously expressed more symbolism and hidden desires than the former types, but was no longer a truly meaningful performance art.
The Gao Brothers started to video their performances with “Feeling Space” and “City Theater,” which defined the trend of their performance video works since 2001, including “A Lesson in Performance Art,” “City Stage: Evening News,” “The Answer,” “Description of the Last Days,” etc.
In 2000 the “Hugging” series relied on the simple motivation of interacting with society. In the end this work returned to an intellectual allegory, and used performance video to express the emergence of a consumer society’s new social collectivism and the new situation of the individual. Although these works were rather crude in places, they marked a turning point for the Gao Brothers. They eventually managed to discard their artistic sense of ideological woundedness, and began to assess the collectivism of modern society as well as deliver a symbolic judgment on the cultural situation.

III. A Utopian Work in Progress: Attending to the Soul

The Gao Brother’s art possesses an intellectual and spiritual attention to the soul. This tendency caused them to travel a rather lonely and unique road during the 1990s. Their art expanded throughout the 1990s to express avant-garde art in many forms, including installation art, performance art, conceptual art, and various forms of experimentation with video and media art. Their emergence on the public stage occurred at the major art exhibition of 1989 where they inflated many symbols of libido to resist the mainstream ideology of the time. From the late 1980s to today, they seem to have been traveling on the margins of their era. Yet a basic thread remains unchanged, namely, their focus on the other, their intellectual criticism, their attention to the soul, and their artistic experimentation.
“Skyscraper Perpetually under Construction” (2001-2005) and “Black Space” (2005) express this thread. In “Skyscraper Perpetually under Construction” they use the “half finished building” as a spatial text which expresses the manic collective utopian sensibility of the era. Whether expressing a social collective or a specific social class, each work expresses contradictions and paradoxes. Collectively this work expresses the idea that this era’s economic progress is full of competitive spirit from capitalism, and full of nationalist lyricism, and full of material desire; at the same time it also expresses a collective spiritual vacuum.
“Skyscraper Perpetually under Construction” is a nearly perfect form for expressing the individual’s existential situation within society’s collectivism, especially by using the motif of the “half finished building.” The “half finished building” refers to the fact that since the 1990s as the increasingly liberalized economy became monopolized by real estate developers this kind of building began to appear in nearly every city in China. The “half finished building” actually symbolizes the imminent collapse of China’s modern utopianism and superficial national capitalist strength. This is not only due to insufficient capital or an economic bubble, but because of the increasing gaps between rich and poor, all of which indicates the spiritual ruin enacted on the human spirit by such economic development.
You see the isolated individual situated in the middle of a huge “half finished building” the people seemingly unable to leave this symbolic destruction of this huge edifice, this utopian building perpetually under construction. In addition expressing anxiety, injury, disappointment, and a sense of meaninglessness, each individual nonetheless remains at a loss about how to rebuild a home for him or herself. “Skyscraper Perpetually under Construction” is truly desolate and depressing; not one detail in the work provides hope.
In this series the Gao Brother has many young people lingering expressionless at each level of the unfinished building, their postures somewhat erect, but seemingly without harboring any hopes for the future. China’s modern history is like a perpetually unfinished utopian structure, it is continually in the process of constructing, but no one can really use or appreciate the building. In some later “Skyscraper” series, the Brothers include some social narratives and concrete details from the press. This series reflects the sense of futility behind the apparent progress of China’s construction of modern history.
This skyscraper series was originally inspired from video trends in live theatre. The Gao Brothers evolution to using photography of performances resembled the evolution of other artists at the time, first using photography to record performance and concept art, later using the photographic documents as independent concepts and images, eventually evolving into an allegorical performance photograph. This marks the difference between the Gao Brothers’ avant-garde photography and the characteristics of news documentary and city photography.
“Black Space” is one of their most recent series. This series uses the color black to indicate the underside of nearly every aspect of social space, which reflects another attitude of the human soul, the kind one finds in a church confessional. “Black Space” takes the symbols of the “Unfinished skyscraper” series to a more interior layer. This series seems to also recover the Gao Brother’s sense of lyric expression, but in a more sophisticated fashion than their earlier “Landscape Installation.”
The images in the “Black Space” series first emerged in “The Last Supper” (2002), where black expresses fundamental emotions for the Gao Brothers, an aesthetic of the sublime, suffering, and the soul’s despair. Interestingly, “The Last Supper” motif was used by many Chinese artists during the 1990s as a form for postmodern expression, perhaps because “judgment” and “salvation” are actually deeply repressed yet common questions probing the existence of materialism and spiritual regression in culture. The Gao Brother’s work also delves deeply into this struggle with the self, facing the question of truth and conscience in considering the “traitor” and “salvation” during the 1990s.
The Gao Brothers obviously experienced the artistic intellectual’s need to save the self, and conveyed resistance in the midst of this struggle with self. They seem like a pair of disciples, walking on the margins of their era, returning once again to the city and crowds to observe the decline of this era, and the possibility of salvation. But in this forever unfinished utopia, they can only execute symbolic salvation through their art.

Beijing, 23 July 2005

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The Gao Brothers’ “Hug” Project – Art as Life
Written by C. M. Voskuil, Ph.D.

(Published in “Gao Brothers 1985-2005”, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2006)

A wise man has said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Clearly, this is not the message of most of what we see in contemporary, postmodern culture. Even in the world of postmodern art, where many look to escape the mundane and traditional myths of the past, we are often encouraged to revel in the trivial, the mindless, and the cynical. Not so, in the case of the Beijing based art duo the Gao Brothers. Their works, like their name, invite contemplation, and encourage viewers to shun the hyper-individualistic and alienated attitudes so encouraged by popular culture today.
I do not mean to say that this is the brothers’ intent. It may be, but my purpose here is not to make that claim. Intent is, as any critic knows, somewhat irrelevant. Cultural critics may consider authorial intent, but content and the resultant effect on the culture at large is what makes a work of art either ‘bad’ or ‘good’, that is to say, ‘pedantic’ or ‘important’. Original artistic intent can be disrupted by the response of the masses. So here I will consider primarily my own critical response, and explain why I judge the work of the Gao Brothers to be not only ‘good’, but visionary and, at the very least, worthy of a look by anyone interested in contemporary art.
The Gao Brothers hail from Jinan, and have been collaborating artistically since the mid 1980’s. Their works include painting, sculpture, installations, mixed-media photography, and what some have called ‘performance’ art. The label placed on this last category has been contested by the brothers themselves, and while their other works are also worthy of consideration, I will in this article focus on an example of their ‘performance’ art entitled ‘Hug’, to clarify the content of their work and make evident its importance in the world of art today.
When I first saw photographs of the project entitled ‘Hug’ in a Beijing Art Gallery, I was struck by the raw emotionality and honesty of the project. After having staged several public hugging projects with volunteers, the brothers decided to pay workers to hug. The setting was the roof of an abandoned building built during the Cultural Revolution, and workers were hired at 50 rmb each to work as nude models. Those who were uncomfortable posing in the nude were paid 20 rmb each to participate in the project, and hug either clothed or partially clothed. The twenty workers hugged for ten minutes on the stark, abandoned rooftop. The photos of the project, as well as the narrative of the day provided to me by one of the Gao Brothers, reveal not merely a unique photographic undertaking, but some fundamental truths about our postmodern lives.
Metaphorically speaking, living in the world today feels to many like balancing atop the abandoned roof of a structure that once seemed strong, secure, and permeated with promises of future greatness. Yet today many of those promises that have gone unfulfilled; old beliefs when expressed today seem like the empty shells of dead giants, and the world appears dilapidated and rife with danger. We are afraid that even one wrong step will lead to total annihilation. Ours is a world in which many feel exposed to the elements, unprotected by the crumbling structures of the past, of our cultures and our traditions.
The hug, too, is an apt choice for an artistic commentary on contemporary life and human relationships. A hug is perhaps one of the most universal symbols of human emotion and psychological interdependence, yet it is an act with which many in both China and in my home country, America, seem genuinely uncomfortable. What does this say of the evolution of humanity, and of the definition of ‘progress’ in the postmodern world? The workers asked for additional money to hug in the nude, but in a world where everything is quickly becoming a commodity, this came as no surprise. Artistically, is a relevant and important revelation that people today will, for a bit of money, do things that they would otherwise not feel comfortable doing. This project makes us stop to consider that financial considerations today often override one’s sense of propriety, comfort, and self-respect. Perhaps even more profound is the revelation of this project that human beings in contemporary society must be paid to touch one another, to hug, either clothed or in the nude. Nudity is an important element of the project, for in the nude, we see each individual as they truly are, with the external trappings of wealth and social status stripped away. Only nude are we fully human, exposed, and vulnerable. What does it say of us that we are least comfortable with ourselves, and with those around us, when we are forced to see them as humans, like ourselves, and to consider them and ourselves as partners in a hug – recipients of empathy, emotion, and trust? Is not the ability to interact with others of our species in this way what it means to be truly evolved as human beings? We must reconsider whether we, in the postmodern world, are truly evolved individuals, and how we can become so. The discomfort one experiences while viewing the photographs of the project ‘hug’ – the shock, the awe, the confusion – are what make us ask these important questions, and are thus what make a project like ‘Hug’ worthy to be called ‘great’ art.
The modern poet, Wallace Stevens, claimed that the purpose of his poetry was to help people live their lives. This is also the purpose of art. It is in art such as ‘Hug’ that we see this purpose fulfilled. This commingling of life and art is stressed by the Gao Brothers themselves, who stated in a recent interview with Chen Yuxia “It doesn't matter whether there is an audience; we are more interested in people's involvement and participation, the occurrence of the event and its relationship to a broader social and cultural sphere.” In rejecting the necessity of the audience and the label ‘performance’, the Gao Brothers emphasize the fact that art is not something separate from life, art is life itself, a power in individual lives that, with or without an audience, has the power to change reality through experience.

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Disillusioned Urban Art: On Gao Brothers’ Photography
Written by Feng Boyi
(Published in the magazine MATADOR Nov 2005)

An artist’s creative drive is stimulated by both external reality and his own internal conflicts. And the reality that Chinese artists face today is an economy developing at immense speed, challenging and overthrowing traditional models of life and thought. The pure placid ideal of living nurtured for many generations and expressed in a simple uncomplicated way of life is further and further from reality. Conflicts and tensions abound: on the one hand, people aspire to a better standard of living and modernisation, and want to enjoy the facilities and services offered by cities, yet, on the other, this modernisation process has brought numerous, hitherto unforeseen problems. Cultural diversity is in danger of being lost, and the patterns that governed life in the city and the countryside are changing. Many spiritual things, including beliefs, have silently been destroyed. The simple gestures that touch people, such as cupping water in the palm of the hand, are disappearing, sometimes quickly and other times slowly; the number of cracks opening on the borders of morality is truly terrifying, and nobody can remain safely on the sidelines.
For this reason, artists within China’s cultural context increasingly focus on urban themes. Modernisation, in a certain sense, is also a process of urbanisation. And urbanisation generates a new kind of society and a new value system. However, modern cities are home to a multitude of traps and contradictions, and may produce complex feelings in people that alternate between pain and pleasure. All cities today, without exception, are filled with disorder, evil and ugliness, and are considered alien, colossal and oppressive for humankind. This is particularly true in China where city residents live in confusion and anxiety. Many artists perceive, reflect on and criticise this situation, adding this urban dimension to their works as a conceptual premise.
The work of the Gao Brothers can be categorically classified as a type of urban art framed within the context and value system of today’s Chinese cities. Through their actions and photography, the Gao Brothers aim to explore the gigantic changes that their country’s largest cities are undergoing, as well as the numerous problems that are being created. Far from emphasising the abundant material advantages offered by the modern city, the Gaos address the grave problems caused over the last 15 years by China’s runaway process of urbanisation, and do so from a clearly critical perspective. In other words, the figures participating in their performances and photographs, made from copies, collages and montages, are conditioned by the peculiar historical context of modern China.
In their work Sense of Space, the Gao Brothers turned a contemporary wall unit in a normal Chinese home into a living space. The nude people stuffed inside it represent city inhabitants trapped in a cramped, mean existence, as if they were in boxes, imprisoned in lives where there is no possibility of any spiritual, moral or ethical development. The man the Gaos are portraying with their surrealist language is a modern being who has abandoned the garden of the spirit to accommodate himself to the strange circumstances of a city that is more materialistic every day.
In contrast, in The Forever Unfinished Building they have built their particular image of the city on the real base of a dense cement jungle – a huge building abandoned before completion – and founded on a digitised way of life. In it, the artists present a virtual portrait of the contemporary Chinese citizen’s memories and emotions, as if he were a mirror reflecting the urban landscape of today’s China. In this group of images, where photographs taken arbitrarily are mixed with planned and prepared compositions, the Gao Brothers show situations, street scenes and events from daily life (real or virtual) with the idea of using a pop aesthetic to reflect the consumer society emerging in contemporary China. The situations, though exaggerated, are a faithful reflection of reality, where material goods are adored to excess.
In comparison with the preceding works, the Chinese Gays in Woman’s Clothing series has a much more real-life, documentary nature. Homosexuals have gradually acquired more of a presence in China’s modernisation process. The lens of the Gao Brothers reveals a whole universe of people, feelings and emotions that exist in a world parallel to the official world, a by-product of modernisation. In the images they seem to be floating with no departure or arrival point, just as in real life. The Gaos depict the desires rooted inside these people and the complexities of minds filled with contradictions, while interpreting the fantasies of those who have spent their whole lives in a state of alienation.
Works by the Gao Brothers include portraits of their own life journey, of how they are today and how they used to be; in their own way, they also reflect the reality surrounding them, starting from reality itself and adding prepared or fictitious images to reach the world they want to show. Their works describe the other reality they have created. They transform portraits of people into a purely visual sensation and give free rein to this formal sensation until leaving the spectator in a dizzy and disturbed state.
Although these figures go through an intense virtual manipulation, they manage to accurately depict the absurd conditions of existence in China’s cities. The authors’ aim is to create effective images that enclose a complex symbolic meaning and serve to denounce the consumerism that is steadily taking grip in today’s society. Therefore, the images before us move from an unreal into a real state, expressing the scrutiny to which the Gao Brothers are subjecting the circumstances of existence itself. Furthermore, through their images, they are trying to show human suffering and the numerous threats that face the real China.
Their objective is not only to depict in their own way the environment in which they live, but also to try to reflect people’s spirit and feelings. Through their use of reality and fiction, the Gaos produce a totally new appearance and new sensations based on a simple realist aesthetic. The fact is that the dehumanised cities of today do not make themselves, but are produced by those very citizens who wander lonely and silent through their streets. The growth of the cities is influencing our old value systems and even humankind itself. Why can’t we view the urbanisation process through the eyes of historical rationalism? Perhaps we could change the way we confront this process, or suddenly discover that Chinese cities are completely new, different and surprising.

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A Deconstructed Reflexion:
Simulation and Substitution in the Gao Brothers' Art
By Huang Du
(Foreword of the exhibition catalogue “Gao Brothers”, CourtYard Gallery, Beijing, 2001)

"We are entering a world where there won't be one, but two realities: the actual and the virtual. There is no simulation, but substitution."
-- Paul Virilio

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard emphasizes "simulation" constructed on the basis of cultural values, and Paul Virilio propounds the novel and innovative concept of "substitution" in the context of cultural theory. These profound postmodern philosophical discourses vividly depict the cultural issues of our times. Simulation and reality make little difference and overlap each other in television, fashion, advertising, film and visual art, where visual images and symbols are manipulated, duplicated and reproduced. Accordingly, the society of a consumer culture comes to be permeated with such phenomena as signs simulating for and exchanged against other signs, and forms simulating and substituting for other forms.

Any contemporary Chinese artist will find himself/herself in a position of otherness in his/her dialogues with the Western art world, with the balance of power invariably in the hands of the West. Ostensibly, this could be rationalized by the "fact" of the West's non-stop creation of new cultures and artistic trends, albeit as a result of widespread dissemination of Western phenomenon and their interpretations. However, the truer explanation lies in the West's readiness to channel its vast resources in to maintaining its visible and unsurpassable political frontiers. Hence, it comes as no surprise that in the field of "art" the otherness of China is inevitably regarded as folkloric and exotic. Therein, there arises an interesting question: What connects this phenomenon and the use of the human body as a medium of artistic _expression? In any event, the Chinese artist can not avoid his role as representative of this "otherness".

However, the Chinese artist also strives to create a new cultural space. In performance-based works, an artist's body will be unavoidably defined and regulated within the domain of other relationships, that is to say, it acts in a context. At the same time, it is also the focal point of the viewers' subjective desires. In other words, use of the body in artistic _expression is intrinsically associated with a social or cultural context. The body's inherent intersubjectivity and performativity reflect a uniquely economic mode of _expression. Intersubjectivity and dependence on context preclude the direct and exclusive existence of the human body in body art and performance-based art works and instead accentuate an interactive body. The result is the conceptualization of the body. Body art does not guarantee truth. This mode of artistic _expression essentially exists within a hierarchy of realties and, like a type of open-ended structure, it promotes the development of truth.

Body art/ performance-based work has often been the focus of contemporary Chinese artists. Since the human body is characterized both by corporeality and temporality, the tractability of the human body as both material and concept make the human body as artistic medium not only an effective mode of participating in social, cultural and daily life but also an effective means of establishing dialogues and communication with the general public.

The Gao Brothers (Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang) work in the arena of body art / performance-based works. Originally, from Shandong, their naturally forthright disposition bolsters their diligence and commitment to art. The work of the Gao Brothers is regarded as particularly representative of Chinese performance-based work. It would be more accurate to say that they simulate and substitute their ideas of life into symbols or forms than to say that their performances, with their bodies as media, simulate real forms of life.

Since the 1980's, the Gao Brothers have uncompromisingly committed themselves to avant-garde art experimentation. Their large installation Inflationism attracted much attention in the China Avant-Garde Exhibition of 1989 at the China National Art Gallery. This gargantuan work, which sat just inside the entrance of the National Art Gallery, was perceived by many as a symbol of sexuality.

Actually, it was more closely akin to an abstract _expression of new found freedom, enjoyed by many artists of the time, after having broken free of the shackles and stereotypes of prior artistic theories. During this period Chinese contemporary artists enthusiastically applied modernist techniques as tools to break down the constraints of the Cultural Revolution. Contemporary Chinese artists today continue in this spirit of heroism and collectivism as reflected in grandiose - and often idealistic - visual narratives. The Gao Brothers continue to employ such visual narratives often with religious themes, which reflect an artistic pursuit of moral ideals after the experience of loss of spirituality. An example of this orientation can be seen in their installation work Cross Series.

The Gao Brothers rationale for choosing photography as a tool of artistic creation is a result of the special affinity they feel for it. In the view of Helmut Gernsheim, "Photography is the only 'language' understood in all parts of the world, and bridging all nations and cultures, it links the family of man. Independent of political influence-where people are free-it reflects truthfully life and events, allows us to share in the hopes and despair of others, and illuminates political and social conditions. We become the eye-witnesses of the humanity and inhumanity of mankind..."

Their recent work Utopia of Embrace of 20 Minutes may be regarded as performance-based photography. Taking "Embrace" as the subject matter, they invited some 150 young volunteers, who were previously strangers to each other, to participate. The Gao Brothers asked the participants to choose a person at random for a hug of 15 minutes duration at diverse venues and settings including the banks along the Yellow River, the old railway bridge across it, and high-rises under construction. At the end of the 15 minutes, all the participants huddled together for an additional 5 minutes, in an enmasse hug in order to experience a collective sense of physical contact. This action of hugging is analogous to the art of "living sculpture".

"Embrace" is the opposite of separation and the act of hugging here expresses a sense of utopia. As a symbol of spiritual and physical renewal after separation, "Embrace" points to complex social, ideological, cultural and religious issues. The act of embracing easily conjures up many scenes in the international arena; such as the emotional reunion of parted families of the North and South Koreas; the hope for harmonious coexistence between Whites and Blacks after the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa; the ecstatic embraces of Palestinians after their return to their homeland; and, the embrace of athletes after their triumph on the sports field. The act of embracing can overcome diverse boundaries and convey numerous messages of love.

Interestingly, we have observed from the Gao Brothers works that the invited participants in this performance all chose persons of the same sex for the hug. Presumably, this does not mean that they have an inclination towards homosexuality. More accurately, this apparent phenomenon reflects a Chinese social context where traditional morality remains a powerful constraint upon public displays of physical affection. In this sense, the Gao Brothers have created a metaphor for the dislocation between the behavior and psyche of the performers. Through their performance, the Gao Brothers cast doubt upon the causal and logical relationships defined by instinct and experience, including, the dualistic concepts of truth and falsehood, inside and outside, trust and doubt, existence and nihilison, and content and form. Here, the Gao Brothers not only negate absolutism, but also demonstrate that symbol, model and illusion dominate and determine our every day lives. In other words, we are living in a world comprised of preconceptions and symbols.

Ludwig Wittgenstein points out that " to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life ". Obviously there exists a necessary connection between language and a form of life. When we are imagining the works of the Gao Brothers, we are also imagining a form of life. Art plays a distinctive role in determining a form of life. The essence of daily life lies in its unembellished natural state, whereas art functions as a unique aesthetic paradigm.

"Sense of Space" created by the Gao Brothers in June 2000 is a work combining installation, performance and photography. It consists of four sections; "Awaiting", "Anxiety", "Pain", and "Prayer". For the performance, the artists assembled a set of book case cabinets that lend a sense of architectural space to the work. Apparently, this is only a simulated space. The Gao Brothers and 12 participants all climbed nude into the partitioned sections of the book shelf. The narrative for the performance proceeds as follows: In "Awaiting", the participants quietly rest, sleeping or contemplative.

"In "Anxiety", they slowly begin to squirm as represented by the touching of each other's arms. Pain" simulates acts of self-mutilation with awl, hammer or pistol. "Prayer", uses candles as religious symbol. Together, the four create a nostalgic sense of Renaissance painting, bringing to mind the portraits of Dürer. The titles of the four tableaux create vividly dramatic elements, which form an intriguing language of commencement, development, climax and finale. The literary narrative hinges on the overall visual imagery of the work; the titles play only a minor role, and do not refer to anything beyond the form of the performance. Each title delineates a specific tableau and concept, but will constitute a more significant whole when all four sections are viewed together.

Photography featuring a prearranged scene or tableau and performance-based works have become obiquitous modes of _expression in contemporary art, and theoretical simulation and substitution are frequently relied upon in these endeavors. Examples are numerous. Cindy Sherman clothed as celebrity and archetype, successfully assuming others' persona in her photography. Jeff Wall juxtaposing images from famous paintings in art history or daily life via digital computer montage. Sam Taylor-Wood simulating Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece The Last Supper in her photography work Wrecked. Clearly, photograph-based work and photo-montage do not employ symbols or images merely for the sake of employing them. Instead, the artists attempt to establish a spiritual link between the historical image and their actual reality. Consequently, "The simulation principle dominates the reality principle as well as the pleasure principle", and thus new forms, with no illusions are created.

In The Chinese Noah's Ark No. 2 , the Gao Brothers use digital computer montage to rearrange the Sense of Space series, and therein, create a new connotation. They transform this work to a motif reminiscent of murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where religious icons are simulated and "substituted" by self-portraits of the artists and other secular images. The images undergo a rapid transformation from reality to simulation to deconstruction. In the eyes of the Gao Brothers, "Sense" is a demonstration of the subjective personality, and even the instinctive desires of the human body, whereas "Space" is an abstract visual concept. "Space" in the new work now connotes existence, freedom and the infinite, with references to Christian icons of "heaven", clouds floating over head, and the unearthliness of the universe. Therein, transforming religious imagery to poetic language.

The Chinese Noah's Ark No. 2 immediately brings to my mind the photography work Symbolic Weapon by Zofia Kulik . I find a surprising similarity between the works of Kulik and the Gao Brothers'. Kulik devoted ten years to this project. She adeptly employed photography to portray the intricate ups and downs in Poland's political history and investigated the transformation of individuality and collectivity. As a result, the historical and cultural iconography of Communism and Catholicism (banners, weapons, socialist monuments, and human figures) are incorporated into a broad spectrum of expressionism set off by Catholic church windows, carpets from the east, and political insignia. In this way, she raises a rather pointed question, i.e., the dichotomous nature of power both as an oppressor and as a supporter of liberty. If we say Kulik's collage photography directly engages with social reality by anatomizing and reflecting the political discourse of Poland, the Gao Brothers' approach is the opposite. Their works are better characterized by postmodern art-simulation, duplication, anti-narrative, fragmentation, segments and convergence.

Another work by the Gao Brothers, Missing Our Mother, was created by an elaborate process of photo montage, using family photos of their late mother taken when she was still alive although already seriously ill with cancer. The photos are permeated with a general sense of sadness. Missing Our Mother is both homage to ancestors and an album of family photos. Clouds created by digital montage serve as metaphor for the unpredictability of life. The ambiguity and archetypal imagery lying in the Gao Brothers' images of "Mother" transcend the language of individual discourse. Although "Mother" is a symbol of the perpetuation of the Gao Brother family bloodline, she also conveys universally understood images of kindness and benevolence.

In a complex and ever-changing world, today's era of simulation requires us to begin recognizing the volume and capacity of symbols. Symbolic exchange is everywhere. As Jean Baudrillard puts it, the era of simulation features a "commutability of the beautiful and the ugly in fashion, of the left and the right in politics, of the true and the false in every media message, the useful and the useless at the level of objects, and nature and culture at every level of signification". Simulation and substitution imply a gap with reality, but also reflect the discomfiture we feel as a result of our inability to control our own personal life and fate. At the same time, this media-driven force in every day life inspires one to take a more proactive role in life in order to gain more control over one's life.

Huang Du is an independent curator and art critic based in Beijing, China

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Zai Beijing Yi Tian Neng Zou Duoyuan
Written by Olek Borelli
(Published in NY ARTS magazine, Vol.10 no 3/4, 2005)

We are going through a decisive phase of transformation, where all basic and absolute concepts, systems and models are gradually losing their value and are no longer appropriate to understand and represent reality: new solutions and new ways are thus required in order to substitute a pattern unable to meet the system needs with an administration more suitable and closer to the people.

This kind of transformation is everything but a simple and linear process: it faces and sometimes clashes with a society that is not always permeable and flexible towards change, colliding with a complex and tortuous bureaucracy, whose original role degenerates and looses effectiveness.

November 4th, 2003: "One day in Beijing", is a book "performed" by artists Gao Brothers (Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang) from dawn to sunset. It is a project about return the citizen to the city, about living cells reacting to any modification occurring in the system or sparked off by it, which are otherwise unable to respond effectively and adequately to the repeated transformations of the society. Making use of snapshot photography as a par exellence tool, the artists record Beijing’s perpetual evolution through its faces, shadows and buildings, vital organs of a living colossus "…whose skeleton is made of steel, concrete, electric wires and pipelines".

Black and white and color pictures witness social events, city planning challenges and new ways of thinking setting the tone for an epochal analysis of a Chinese experience disclosed by the memories of a regular day and the physical persistent marks scattered about the city.

Besides the final exquisite result, the atypical approach is most impressive: without any ornamental comments or fanciful aesthetic ambitions, Beijing reveals itself through its daily existence, while words and images’ mutual support (as in a symbiotic relation where the one wouldn’t be but with the other), creates a living piece of work which speaks and yet leaves the pleasure of going over the multifaceted shapes of this new society up to the reader.

The one and only answer to the impact with global society is the reclamation of the role of the individual: following the renovation of the two concepts of "space" and "territory", individuals are called to perform a decisive role, leading to a consideration of these newly created, non-territorial spaces while keeping touch with reality.

("One Day in Beijing" (A Performing Book) by Gao Brothers, Beijing Broadcasting Institute ed. / Beijing Guangbo Xueyuan Chubanshe, May 2004)

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We are not Performance Artists
An Interview with the Gao Brothers
Interviewer: Chen Yuxia
Interviewees: the Gao Brothers


Chen A recent article on the internet criticizes your performance piece Hug as "making fun of the poor in the name of art". How do you respond to such criticism?
Gao Apparently, this is a misunderstanding. Those who know us understand that "making fun of the poor in the name of art" contradicts our consistent logic and principles both as people and artists. Besides, in order to stage this performance, we spent over 2,000 yuan including the cost of employing migrant workers, renting the studio, photographing and videotaping. We are not millionaires, and it is too luxurious for us to spend 2,000 yuan just for fun.
Chen As experimental artists, it is not rare to be misread.
Gao Of course. For example, the work Homeless Dinner was criticized. Working with a so-called "weaker" section of society can be easily misread. There are several reasons. First, experimental art itself may have some problems. Second, people may be unfamiliar with experimental art, or lack the necessary knowledge of it. Third, because of so much hypocrisy and dishonesty in our daily lives, people are inclined to suspect the motives behind other people's behaviors. When the motive of a behavior is gratuitously questioned, people will tend to judge and respond negatively before they have had a chance to carefully consider their response.
Chen Do you think that people should not doubt the motives of performance artists?
Gao We don't like the label of "performance artist," and we don't consider ourselves performance artists. People have the right to question anything, but motives cannot be proved. Therefore, it becomes useless to discuss the motives behind our work.
Chen Maybe all performance artists consider themselves more independent and unconventional in mind and action than others.
Gao Typically speaking, performance art usually belongs to the performing arts. We seldom are the ones to do the actual performance in public. Instead, we curate and organize performances extraordinary to daily life, such as Hug and Homeless Dinner. Such activities differ from previous performances in that they are not the "eccentric" performances of an individual artist; they have nothing to do with being "cool" or being watched. It doesn't matter whether there is an audience; we are more interested in people's involvement and participation, the occurrence of the event and its relationship to a broader social and cultural sphere.
Chen When you chose a secluded auditorium as the site of Hug, did you have the intention of avoiding onlookers?
Gao The piece was staged inside and on the roof of an abandoned auditorium built during the Cultural Revolution. We did not invite an audience. On one hand, we wanted to minimize the psychological hesitation of the hired workers. We also intended to make this performance extraordinary and surreal in concept while allowing it to resemble daily life in its state of existence. In the real world, most activities between employers and employees have no onlookers, for people are so used to such activities that they no longer pay attention to them. Such things occur and proceed normally. The artists we sympathize with also inject the surreal into daily life. As in a dream, one picks up a piece of candy and tosses it into the sea; at the same time, salt is refined from this sea. This salt is placed in the center of the town square or could just as easily be placed into the eyes of an idol
Chen Homeless Dinner was staged in an open restaurant. How did you managed to avoid onlookers?
Gao The whole piece was carried out in public space, from the distribution of invitation cards to beggars or passers-by, to people of all classes dining together at the same table in the restaurant. But there were no onlookers. Distributing invitations is easily mistaken for handing out leaflets. The two are so similar that the former will not draw surprised onlookers. In addition, a viewer who sees people of all classes dining at the same table would not necessarily suspect anything conspicuously different from any other normal dinner party. Therefore, it did not attract many people's attention. Homeless Dinner does not need audience. As a performance activity, a somewhat unusual event, it occurred, it existed, and that is enough.
Chen Why do you reject the audience? Do you regret the absence of an audience?
Gao Art is not a monkey show; it is not making a show or acting. For such a performance, the important thing is involvement and participation. In other words, to sit and enjoy a meal with others in Homeless Dinner, to communicate with homeless people--this is most important. An audience is unnecessary. In fact, the presence of an audience may even have been detrimental to the core meaning of Homeless Dinner.
Chen As far as I know, in English, the original meaning of the word "performance" is performing. In other words, performance art does not reject performing; performing can even be said to be an important element in performance art.
Gao That's true. That's why we do not consider ourselves "performance artists". Some of the activities we planned and organized do not fit the definition of performance art.
Chen What are you working on at present?
Gao At present we are preparing works for the China Art Triennial. We have not finished yet, so we will not go into too many details.

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Starving Artist: Bending the Truth
The Gao Brothers' photographs warp reality to convey the abstract
Written by: Lee Ambrozy
(Published in “that's Beijing” magazine, June 07, 2005)


The Gao Brothers are a fraternal tag team of artists and social commentators. Already among China’s most established and internationally famous artists, their portfolio includes the performance piece The Utopia of the Twenty-Minute Hug (2003) and One Day in Beijing (2004), a book made from their photographic and ethnographic journey through the city. They have since been invited to stage ‘public hugging’ performances around the world, including one for the opening ceremony of Pan Shiyi’s Jianwai Soho complex on Beijing’s East Third Ring Road. Their latest works are a series of digitally altered photographs featuring an abandoned construction site in their hometown of Jinan, Shandong Province as a backdrop. Older brother Gao Zhen was born in 1956 and studied fine arts at the Shandong Gongyi Arts Academy; Gao Qiang was born in 1962 and graduated from Qufu University with a major in literature.

that’s: How long have you been creating as a team?
Gao Brothers: Since 1985, when Gao Qiang graduated from university.

that’s: How many different mediums have you worked in?
GB: Our earliest mediums were ink and wash and oil paintings, and we also worked in sculpture, photography, performance and video.

that’s: Photography seems to be your preferred medium of the last few years, why?
GB: Photography is simply more suited to express our ideas.

that’s: A lot of people don’t see digitally altered or digital photography as ‘fine art.’ How would you respond to those critics?
GB: Many people think that just because anyone can pick up a camera, it is not fine art; but likewise, anyone can pick up a brush and paint a picture. We start with a space, and conceptualize a situation within it – our photographs are that moment. That is what makes them special, your average person cannot do that. It doesn’t matter what is ‘art’ and what isn’t. We are only interested in explaining our ideas, we want to realize certain situations, give them a reason to exist; it doesn’t matter if there is an audience or not.

that’s: Can you give an example?
GB: Homeless Dinner was one such piece – we printed and distributed hundreds of cards inviting people to dinner at an anonymous family-style restaurant. We personally handed them out to all classes of people; beggars, white-collars, writers, farmers and even the local government. About 20 people came, but how many came wasn’t the point.

that’s: What was it about the abandoned building and construction project that attracted you?
GB: The building was started some ten years ago, a multi-story concrete frame larger than 10,000 square meters was completed, and it then was abandoned for lack of funding. It is a symbol unique to China, which is also like a forever-unfinished construction site.

that’s: Is there a favorite memory you have of the performances staged in the building?
GB: The first time we entered was with over 20 people after the Twenty- Minute Hug performance. Everyone was a little hesitant and it seemed cold and foreboding. But after we embraced for another 20 minutes it seemed that the space had become ours: a creative workshop to realize our visions.

that’s: Is Beijing a work of art?
GB: Yes. It’s a system with many creators, forever changing and with no finite boundaries.

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The Strength and Significance of “Embrace”
- An interview with the Gao Brothers

Interviewer: Guan Yuda
Interviewee: the Gao Brothers
Translated by Erica Fusaro

(Published in Art China magazine, no.1 2003)

GYD: As experimental and avant-garde artists, you have been continuously engaged with cutting-edge art events from the 1980s through the last decade. In doing so you proved an admirable strength: the piece “Inflationism” you presented during the “China Avant-garde” exhibition in 1989 and the “Great Cross” series installation you made in the middle of the 1990s express your spiritual position and your strong rejection of any compromise in art, strongly influencing the development of Chinese Contemporary art.
Your performance “Embrace”, which began last year, has particularly made an impact on recent events. It has positively influenced art events during the last few years, throughout which, performance art tended to be extremely violent. This is a shared opinion that, through talking with friends, I felt I could confirm. This is why I ask you what is behind the concept of your “Embrace” performance piece.

GB: The first time “Embrace” was specifically considered a performance piece was actually during another performance. In the spring of 2000 in Beijing we took part in the exhibition “Man and Animal” presenting our performance “Cultural Tattoo”, a metaphor of the cultural violence in present society. In this work we washed our hands with sheep’s blood, then, using wet hands we held a brush which we dipped into the sheep’s blood and we started to write some words in English and Chinese on each other’s face and body. Then we filled two water guns with sheep’s blood and started to squirt each other as if we were doing a duel until we both were completely covered with bloodstains. At the end, we both threw the toy guns away and we embraced each other. That time it was an impromptu hug and the first one of our lives as well. Afterwards, all the people participating in the performance “Sense of Space” assumed the embrace was an attitude within our art. Although “Embrace” only played a small part in these two performances, the immediate action enlightened the later concept and significance of “Embrace”. The first time we realized the full concept of the piece was in the autumn of 2000 in the city of Jinan and we called it “The Utopia Of Hugging For Twenty Minutes”. It was from this point we began to consider it a performance.

GYD: I know you often assume an opposite approach to art when compared to artistic trends of the times. For example, during the 1990s, when a lot of artists adopted the language of cynical boredom dealing with reality and culture, your installation series “Crisis: Great Cross”, revealed some characteristics more typical of the idealism of the 80s “Grand Narrative”. In the last two years when Chinese and international performance art was dealing with violence, by presenting “Embrace” you again defied the ‘vogue’. Is your dissidence a strategy in your art?

GB: Our art often flows up stream. Since our installation “Inflationism” presented at the end of the 1980s, we have been constantly going against stereotypes. At that time the ”Cultural mania” led artists to pursue themes like idealism and solemnity. Our “Mass at Midnight” was an absurd, mockery of a visual joke. During the 90s “Crisis: Great Cross” has been considered even more of a risky piece. In 2000 “Embrace”, differing from the recent performances inspired by violence, was seen as a distinctive work; it is difficult to say if we did this consciously, or if we had planned a strategy to subvert the main trend, we are definitely not strategists. Our perception of reality and the process of individualization in society are our main influences.
If it had all been a strategy, we would have been slapped in the face by the leading trends at the time, because so-called fashionable styles have led people to work with the specific goal of public appraisal. Apart from the extreme pretentiousness and artificial nature of this attitude, what is necessary is to thaw out this kind of violence in art. We are not saying that violence cannot be a topic in art, this is of course up to the artists.
We often appreciate some of the shocking works of artists like Gunther Von Hagens, Damien Hirst, the Chapman Brothers and so on. But there are only a few Chinese artists whose works, denied or advocated by the public, that we regard as creative and impressive. What we truly condemn is the approval of violence and the transformation of it simply for the sake of fashion. Our art rejects violence because we are upset and disgusted by every form of it. Today we live in a world which is consumed by violence. Moreover, to a certain extent, all of us are already victims of violence and at the same time producers of it. One of our past works was a digital piece stating the sentence: “Violence is Man’s creation”.
Violence in human beings is an inborn attribute, it is a widespread phenomenon, not only in the West, but also in traditional Chinese culture there is plenty of violence, for example “A thousand knives, ten thousand cuts”, a Chinese saying that indicates the action of dismembering a body by cutting it into pieces; it was a form of capital punishment in ancient times. The use of repetitive symbolism generated a collective, unconscious worship of violence. In the climate of cultural capital punishment, violence has turned into art’s founding methodology.

In a time when methodology advocates the main issues, it seems that we should investigate and prove the essential value that art itself should carry with it, otherwise every kind of extremism would be judged as a brilliant work.
Of course, violence is not only cruel or bloodthirsty, but it can also manifest itself in other ways. Violence can also be sickeningly sweet, hypocritical, even bright like “In the Heat of the Sun”, but every kind of violence is coercive, simple, repetitive, directive, investigative, tricky and centralized.
Comparatively speaking, some recent performances aimed at shocking the public cannot achieve the same level and the intensity of real violence, further more, if this kind of performance has not reached a formal language and conceptual support, what is left is only what the rest of the world welcomes.

GYD: You have a deeper understanding of violence than other people because of your father’s relatives and your personal experiences which have led you to be against it. It is true: there is a direct connection between violence in art, actually one of my articles analyzes this issue. Besides what you have just said; that violence in performance art embodies, from every perspective, the collective unconscious of the process of mortality in our entire society. I disagree with the views of some critics, summing up violence in performance art as the simple contamination of Western concepts. In fact, since the beginning of the 90s, Chinese contemporary art has been faced with the problem of public perceptions. With the 1990s marking the beginning of real consumerism in China, avant-garde art changed a great deal and started to deal with new styles such as Political Pop and Cynical Realism. The most important mark of this transformation has been the switch from idealism to more realistic and materialistic trends, art identifying itself through powerless and awkward attitudes. But your art maintained distance with these new styles adapting such visual narratives often with religious themes, which were typical during the 80s. Yours is an artistic pursuit of moral ideals after the experience of spiritual loss.
At the end of the 90s your art went through big changes but you kept your ideals and concern for contemporary themes, creating works of disdain and mockery of television culture and political affairs. Your realizing “Embrace” in a public space has an enlightened meaning, it expresses the legitimacy of contemporary art to be engaged in public territory, this work made headway, it is a turning point for yourself and for contemporary art.
Honestly, the first time I saw the photo of your “Embrace” from the banks along the Yellow river, I felt happy and moved. Chinese contemporary art really needed this kind of positive, healthy and conceptually clever work. How did you manage to secure such a lot of people?

GB: A public performance that involves so many people needs prior site selection and investigation, it is also needs previous calculations of the budget required and preparations which are necessary in order to carry out the work. For example, how to attract volunteers, how to transport them to the location, how to teach the significance of the work, and how to reach a good understanding with them. More specifically, “The Utopia Of Hugging For Twenty Minutes”, the first time we called the volunteers together, we didn’t even have to use the internet, we just spoke about our project with some friends. Our friends spoke with other people about this and very quickly, we had many volunteers.
On 10th September 2000 we brought more than 150 volunteers, mostly strangers, to the suburbs of Jinan. Getting them to embrace was really difficult; in China, hugging is not a common habit, it is generally considered as a western custom or an intimate action between lovers.
So we had to explain the meaning of “Embrace”, to do a demonstration of it, we embrace each other as well as other male and female friends.
We tried to remove any kind of embarrassing feeling between different genres of people involved in the action of the embrace, as a matter of fact, since all of us have the desire of love and of being loved, every one of us had the desire of being embraced by somebody in particular. Gradually everybody got into this state of mind and according to our principle of freedom composition of couple, everybody selected their own performance-partner. Contrary to what we were hoping, eventually, due to the cultural restrictions, many people chose a partner of the same sex. So, just in the name of art, about 150 people embrace each other spread on the streets, along the banks of Yellow River, pairs of people steadily and orderly kept embracing for 15 minutes and after that everybody gathered and embraced together for 5 minutes. During the 20 minutes performance the participants closed their eyes and listen attentively to the other’s palpitate going beyond the everyday life feeling.

GYD: This 20 minutes performance has been a timeless and exceptional experience…..

GB: Yes, an embrace longer than 20 minutes for a couple of lovers is normal, but the synchronism of so many people’s hug in this performance has been a distinctive feature. After the first official experience of “Embrace”, we decided to repeat it a few times, but we shortened it and we realized the first “embrace”, because of its longer duration, was more intense.

GYD: I can imagine. Is there any particular reason why you wanted the banks of Yellow River as a location for this performance?

GB: Actually that day we have also performed “Embrace” in an unfinished big building in the city. The Yellow River is only one of the many locations we have chosen, the place for a performance is really important, even if the Yellow River can be seen as a symbol that embodies many cultural meanings, however we wanted to perform there only because we were looking for a natural site in order to stress the relationship between people and between man and nature, in order for us to create a reciprocation of cross-culture with the “Embrace” in other site.
The branch of Yellow River situated in the outskirts of the city of Jinan was a suitable location for the result we wanted to achieve, we were looking for a convenient, wide natural scenery. The significance of Embrace is universal, so the symbolic meaning of the Yellow River, determined by cultural and historical reasons, is not connected with any elements of “Embrace”.

GYD: During the performance, how did the volunteers respond to the situation?

GB: The hug is only a form of physical contact, in an intimate space or in a private sphere, lovers, close relatives, even people and animal can have many kind of physical contacts and nobody would consider an embrace as a bad act. In the public situations, the prescribed social taboos and all the different types of discrimination, conflicts and mistrusts limited the physical contact, thus absurdly setting the physical distant between each other.
Besides, the desire and the fear for the other’s physical contact is in everybody, when we explained to the volunteers our interpretation of the embrace and when we showed them the performance they started to laugh, and it is hard to explain why. Only a few people wanted to embrace the opposite sex, some of them suggested us to choose the people forming the couple, but we did not want it because we wanted to get an authentic feeling, and we was hoping that Embrace could have a connotation of social investigation.
We playfully told them the distribution principle was the “Planned Economy”, not the “Market Economy”, and eventually the absolute majority of people wanted to hug people of the same sex. This attitude is both real and false, social norms and education nearly transformed our nature and let us to lose the capability of choosing without restraint, to give up the desire of love and continuously losing and renouncing to the free space that is becoming more and more shrink and narrow. The relationship between people became consequently more and more unconcerned, anomalous, unconfident so that this resulted in some clashes and detestations normally worth to be avoided. During the performance, even if these restrictions played an essential role in forming couples, the final result has been anyway authentic and poignant.

GYD: Realizing a synchronic “Embrace” in a close space should be also really touching and pretty complicated as an experience for you, it surely should not be easy to describe it.

GB: Yes, afterwards something went beyond our perceptions and expectations.

GYD: Your earlier period works were unequivocally explicit, you used a lot of ways to represent your ideas; the result was works plenty of serious elements you ponder on to. The feeling I had since the first time I saw the pictures of your “Embrace” was relax and natural, thinking about the modern era that lead people to feel extraneous and the lonely to such an extent as to become antagonists, “Embrace” can be seen as a kind of cure and mitigation of this feeling. There are many kinds of physical contact, sexual intimate or public engaged, and even if we live in a modern society we cannot avoid it, the physical distance people intentionally or not preserve from the others is the result of the modernity. The desire of physical contact between people has to go through excuses or reasons in order to get rid of the psychological and social barriers.
It really seems that “Embrace” enabled all these kinds of obstacles to disappear, and the utopian connotation of this performance is evident at the first sight of the photo that afterwards recorded it. So many people in the bed of the Yellow River, beside the big iron bridge crossing the Yellow River, in an unfinished building that silently and simultaneously embrace each other dispensing with any kind of distance or barriers is an utopia. A simple performance managed to draw close the distance between people and at the same time it originally responded to the lack of positive movement of contemporary society and art; consecutively realizing “Embrace” in every kind of public space in the city, gave proof of your extreme flexibility and experimentation.

GB: We think more and more that performance art, close in its small circle, struggling for the coolest pattern, is decaying in a manipulated style and it is losing the true meaning of experimentation. Performance art has to explore in a wider way other possibilities of development, the use of the public spaces is a topic that deserves more attention; if performance art does not create a real relationship with the public, it will disclose only a self-consolation narcissism. Our aim with “Embrace” was to move forward to a wider, more solid social space, beyond the extemporaneous performance in the city you saw, we are all along promoting through the network our idea of the “World Hug Day”, we hope there will be a day in which everybody will freely hug each other. The “World Hug Day” has become an interactive international campaign via the internet, we've got enormous feedback and support from around the world and we wish in the future the international day of Embrace would be an official chance to celebrate an utopian day.
Some international foundations have already contacted us expressing their support, for example “Cross Path Culture”, an art foundation based in New York city and in Johannesburg, invited us to go to South Africa at the end of the year to organise one thousand people for a performance of “Embrace”.
GYD: Your art style has always had an utopian connotation, in a materialistic era there are many enigmas, but your Embrace has smashed the utopia and the overshoot the bounds of reality, you gave an optimistic breath to the idea of utopia.

GB: Actually we hope the significance of “Embrace” could not only evoke pureness, unadulterated feelings, but also a lot of other images; it surely have destabilised some current taboos and conventions, but at the same time it gave rise to some misunderstandings. For example the magazines “South Weekend”, “Art World” and some network reports, stated our performance reminded them of homosexuality, Falugong, a few of them called us “body-builders”, some other people with more authority considered us not well-intentioned and boring, hindering us somehow. But we believe in the spiritual strength of art and we wish more and more people will comprehend the whole and the true meaning of our performance.

GYD: I have heard that the last time you did “Embrace” the police came, what was going on?

GB: The performance you have just mentioned is “Urban Theatre”, it completely seems an experimental game or a drama transforming the city in a background. This performance was quite long, about 7-8 hours, it started at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We invited five or six friends to come to the outskirts of the city, it was quite cold but our friends had already taken part to our performance, they knew quite well our intent, so we successfully realized a performance naked on the Yellow River’s bank. After we went back to the city by bus and we chose a bridge as a venue for another performance and a curious young couple joined us as well. Successively we moved to the fountain square and the funny thing was that more and more people got involved with our performance for sometime and then went away and then other people again joined. At midnight in the square some policemen started to suspect us and came over to investigate, but we explained what we were doing and we invited them to get involved and eventually they took part in it. Fortunately they understood us clearly, in Beijing this would be unimaginable. It seems that regardless of one’s profession everybody can communicate each other, as long as one does not consider himself a machine or a tool, art is open to people.

GYD: Nowadays, in art circles a lot of performances do not carry any unintentional elements, there are more and more performances taking place only for the sake of making pictures and for the most part they do not present any new ideas of violence, sexual distinctions, identity, Chinese symbols, and so on. Basically they mostly do not establish a relationship with the public. Your performances are public, experimental, all of them are unpredictable, there are many unplanned elements, they directly deal with the public and at the same time they take place in a huge venue, you are able transform a city into a background. I would point a question mark on some standardized performances where at the end the experience does not play a big role. We have to aim to a radical rethink of these works, in order to solve some crucial problems. I think topical, canvassing, collectivist and pictures-purposed performances are not so interesting, their repetitive outcome cannot lead art to become public, moreover they do not have not a say in the development of art. Have you ever run into trouble in realizing your performance?

GB: Yes, one time, in the fountain square of Jinan we were collaborating with Kerin, a French girl friend of ours, and some labourers that were relaxing around there joined us for a while, subsequently a plain clothes policeman got involved as well, but at a certain point the policeman got drunk and he started to make unwelcome advances on our French friend, so eventually we quarrelled. So he called other policemen to check out our documents, they wanted to take us away, but luckily we managed to argue our way out of it by explaining the lewd behaviour of the policeman.

GYD: This is really interesting, I think this performance experience is more exciting than a large scale one because it is more experimental and it stresses your wisdom in doing art. Even if sometimes your works have been misunderstood and criticized, the development of the performance
has always been positively healthy; in short, I think “Embrace” can be continuously developed because the different venues and different people will always generate new feelings and relationships.

GB: In one of our performance venues, something completely unexpected happened once. It was a winter day and we decided to go with about forty or fifty people in a hillside near the city of Jinan, the one thousand Buddha mountain. Our aim was to experience the feeling of the dusk in a place which was a kind of borderline between the city and nature, so we let people hold a small lit candle standing in the middle of a grove. Suddenly a middle age dance teacher asked to join us naked, we accepted, but due to her attendance we changed the plan we made before. We firstly asked everyone to close their eyes holding the candles, then we let the lady dance with the wind through them, in the light of only the tiny candles.
As it was getting dark, hillside was dim and the lights of the candles with the lights from city from far away produced a spectacular effect. About ten minutes later, a young guy embraced the naked dancer, making an extremely touching feeling. Unfortunately our video camera was not working at the time so we could not record it, but luckily our camera did not have any problems and we were able to take pictures of the scene. Soon after this happened, they fell in love and subsequently they married. What could make them get together? They definitely overcame the prescribed customs: the lady is twenty years older than the guy and she has been married before, her son is ten years old. "Love" can bring people beyond the place which commonly we think is suppose to be.

GYD: Interesting, this is a fascinating side-story to your performance. You have for quite some time been receiving feedback from around the world regarding your plan to establish “World Hug Day”, and maybe in the near future officially or semi-officially it will be possible establish it, even to the point that your work will attain more and more commercial connotations. When you started to think about it, did you foresee that this could have happened?

GB: Of course, conceptually speaking, this could result in the natural death of “Embrace”, accordingly to the general definition of art, once the experimentation will be universally accepted by public and at the service of everyday life, it will die. Nevertheless we disagree with the decadent idea of art as a completely useless process, this way of thinking is excessively associated with modernism. No matter which kind of art, if it engenders a concrete enhancement in the world and in people’s desires, if it plays a positive role in our everyday life, why should we not accept it?

GYD: Yes, in saying this you have already surpass the antagonist thought of centralization, the main feeling from your art is a more and more tolerating and elevated strength.


GB: For our "21st Century Gao’s worldwide embrace project", which will involve about a thousand people, we have chosen two main sites to perform; one is the area of conflict between Palestine and Israel, the other is the site of the ruins of the Berlin wall. Once we had discussion with some friends from East and West Germany about the Berlin wall, and it turned out that they have the same opinion about the collapse of the wall. All of them stated that even though the wall has been destroyed the precise image will be always in their minds. There are many different kinds of walls blocking people’s awareness that need to be smashed. An American sent us an e-mail to express his appreciation for the concept of our “Word Hug Day”, but he also stated that a Palestinian and an Israeli will never embrace each other deeply in their soul. We think that no matter what the difference is between Palestinian and Israelis, if in the name of art we could go beyond the boundaries of every kind of nationalism, this would really mean something. The symbolic power of “Embrace” could inevitably demonstrate the tangible role of art.

GYD: Yes, it is true, if a Palestinian and an Israeli would embrace each other inspired by your art, it would signify that through art it is possible to reconcile people with different beliefs, from different nations, and with different interests. Many artists nowadays opt for complicated forms of art, but I think at the moment art should really go back to the origins. "Embrace" attracted many participants and a lot of attention because it imparted a genuine, sincere feeling arising from your personal way of doing art. Furthermore, many accidental elements clearly differentiated your art from other kinds of well arranged and artificial works. That is why it could be easy for people think about “Embrace” in a commercial way. The popularized symbolic meaning of it could lead people to reach an extremely contemporary psychological materialism, which could identify the significance of “Embrace” as a universal sign or a money-oriented performance.

GB: You are right, this is something we have to be aware of, but we should also be aware of our limitations. Whether in ability or in conception, it is basically not necessary for us to deal with theoretic problems; we are artists, not politicians.

GYD: I agree, certainly the connection between reality and art is complicated, even artists cannot explain it, and this is surely not their task. Yet we have to admit the realistic connotations of deeply valuable artworks. They allow people to think about social issues and this is basically the strength of contemporary art.

GB: Hugging is an everyday experience and nobody would think it could be turned into an extraordinarily unusual performance, but this is actually what we did. Comparing it with the trend in art of pursuing a powerful ‘violent art’, “Embrace” could be considered a weaker expression, with origins from love and happiness. The reason why people glowingly praise Jesus Christ’s vulnerability and at the same time worship his strong power, is because they do not really understand the enlightenment of Jesus during his suffering.

GYD: Yes, "Embrace" is commonly considered delicately powerful, something that Cui Jian once called “Power without strength”. I agree with you in saying that nowadays, performance artists compete to find the strongest expression of ‘violent art’, they try to be as provocative and in doing so they transform art into an Olympic sport. I am not against elements like competition or violence in art, a few works are quite clever, but art has now reached a narrow path. The fact is that too many artists using the same patterns is a serious problem, inevitably this will hinder the rise of art. Even if I really appreciate your performance, nevertheless I cannot fully grasp it. Do you think that summing up “Embrace” in concept like friendship or love could be the natural death of it?

GB: Yes, we have been always on guard against it, for example one time we wanted to experiment a different feeling from the one we had along the banks of the Yellow River. Our project was to perform “Embrace” in a tight space where people with closed eyes freely walking have to use their arms to find somebody to hug; like a children’s game. We intended to underline the elements, self-challenge and complexity, in order to avoid misunderstandings and ordinary similes. When we received an email from the American, we realized that our work was too complicated even to be self-contradictory. He defined “Embrace” as a collective socialist image, but we are not supposed to analyze this aspect.

GYD: Formally speaking, "Embrace" could recall the socialist collectivist period in which we spent our childhood; an image of a group of people gathered together in certain place celebrating or criticizing something. From a conceptual point of view it is completely different; first it explores the corporeal contact problems between people in the contemporary society, and it secondly asks if loneliness can be mitigated through performance. You just used a socialistic language expressing a contemporary issue.

GB: We fully realized the weak point of civilization, as well as our own weakness and limitations. Even trying to propose something positive to the world does not seem to be right. The aim of “Embrace” is mainly letting people experience a deep exchange beyond everyday life boundaries. The relationship of two closed bodies ends up in the absence of a reciprocal understanding between the two different entities. Is “Embrace” pointing out the rapport between ourselves and other people? Apart from our rejection of violence in art, what we hope to express is actually the existence of unlimited possibilities in performance art.

GYD: We need a healthy art to prompt hopes and possibilities. Even if most of the people in the world used to look forward to the end of the Cold War Era, in order to see the conclusion of the divergences between cultures, nations, races and ideologies, nevertheless in the contemporary society we are witnesses every day, through the television, of the flames of the wars and controversies all around the world. Any kind of conflict is benefit-oriented.

GB: It is usually necessary to hide some kind of interests and politicians are frequently adept in high-sounding excuses in order to conceal the real situation. Of course every situation is different and I cannot generalize.

GYD: Yes, it reminds me of the accident between an American army airplane and a Chinese one several years ago. Students from Beijing University, Tsinghua University and many other people filled with a strong sense of nationalism were very upset about this. Obviously every Chinese could have felt a moral indignation after it happened, but this feeling should be individual, not collectivist, I think it is really important to be on guard against the influences from a circle.

GB: Many times individualism is the prerequisite for the independent way of thinking.

GYD: During the Eighties, art in China received a strong collectivistic influence through Idealism. I think Idealism is something strongly connected with individuals, that is why Idealism should be more individualistic than collectivistic. Your last project for “Embrace” with closed eyes and with the use of everyone’s arms in the research of somebody to hug is really interesting and it leave people to deeply experiment their own feeling.

GB: We hope “Embrace” could become a starting point for different discussions and themes.

GYD: I am still confused by the internal conflict between different minorities in Kosovo: it began only with a divergence between two people, then it became a conflict between two different ethnic groups. Can it be so simple?

GB: The situations we are mentioning come mostly from the lack of individualism. Once somebody takes part of a certain group he completely abandons his own sense of individualism because the merits and the faults of the whole group are based on the single’s sacrifice. Many historical mistakes depended by the strength of a group of people believing in an Utopia.

GYD: Although "Embrace" is regarded as a form of Utopia, it is not a collectivistic event, it is just an individual’s idea and it let people freely choosing their own way.

GB: We are aware that “Embrace” cannot go through a systematic process, otherwise it would die, but our “Utopia of Hugging for Twenty Minutes” is a symbolic negation of the established reality. Since the very first beginning we thought about all these elements and we found out in life we need embracing, having sex, laughing, all this kind of things are not essential, but they make life happier. Hugging for twenty minutes is just the right medicine and the right time for explore one self’s sense of Utopia.

Guan Yuda, art critic, curator