The Gao Brothers: Sense of Space
Text by Katie Apsey
… [While we were growing up], the cultural revolution started by Chairman Mao had successfully turned China into a really crazy country. Education was a lie and lies were truth… -Gao Brothers
The career of the Gao Brothers, an internationally recognized duo who burst onto the arts scene in the late eighties, crosses multiple genres and styles – from emotional performances and romantic photography to bombastic installations and Pop Art sculptures. The Brothers often offer a more subtle take on post-Mao China than their Chinese contemporaries. They address both a painful cultural legacy (their father was jailed and then murdered during the Cultural Revolution) and the side effects of the program of industrialization/urbanization/modernization propelled by the Chinese state – with unusual hope and vulnerability.
Architecture and man-made spaces figure largely as metaphors for the human condition within a society frantically rebuilding itself and re-entering the international scene through capitalism and consumerism. In the Sense of Space series, naked, awkward humans are shoved and/or placed into a type of wall storage unit found in many urban apartments. Like a living Louise Nevelson sculpture, the unit becomes a visual translation of the cramped and isolated living situation within a chaotic city where people often have no contact with their neighbors. The men and women in the wall unit are physically close but psychologically distanced – unable or unwilling to communicate with each other outside the walls of their miniature worlds.
Similar ideas are reflected in recent series, such as The Utopia of Construction and The Outer Space Project. In these digital renditions, miniature figures inserted into countless cells recall bee hives, industrial storage units, ant farms or high-rise apartments. Through such stark utopias (literally no(t)-place), the Gao Brothers bring overlooked everyday activities into sharp focus. De-contextualized and compartmentalized within these “forever unfinished constructions” (a symbol unique to Contemporary China), the people initially appear to reflect sadness and a deep, spiritual poverty. Closer examination, however, reveals that some “residents” of these Bosch-like worlds are smiling – even embracing; the Brothers leave room for redemption.
In 2006, the Brothers’ repertoire began to shift with their Miss Mao series. Each Miss Mao represents the quintessential twentieth-century Chinese political icon with his trademark mole and haircut, yet disturbingly modified. Here Mao appears caricaturized, taking on the chubby cheeks of Mickey Mouse and Pinocchio’s phallic nose, but also large silicon breasts. With the candy-coated look of a Murakami sculpture, Mao is no longer threatening, but only a grotesque parody of the ideology, “Communism is the Mother of Us All.” Signifiers get crossed – maternal warmth is made lurid by Western consumerism, Communism made shiny and infantile with absurd sweetness. One example, Miss Mao in Confinement, includes the entire body of a gold-painted James Bond model. She is enigmatic; she could be giving birth or masturbating. Does the red dragon (red symbolizing prosperity and good luck but also the State and the Communist party) give her pleasure or pain? Can the monstrosity that Mao has become give birth to a new China grounded in her long cultural history? Or can she only find momentary masturbatory pleasure by shielding her face from the lies? The Gao Brothers leave us to ponder and hope.