Gao Brothers

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The Gao Brothers, Zhen and Qiang, are two Chinese artists born in 1956 and 1962,[1] in Jinan, in the province of Shandong located in the north east of China.

Nowadays,[when?] they work in the artists district called 798 Art Zone in the Dashanzi Art District.

Committed and socially engaged artists, they approach arts as a mean of political expression. The image of Mao is a recurring image of their iconography. It takes its source in their experience of a childhood trauma. Gao Zhen, the elder brother, explained through an interpreter that "1968 was a crucial moment in the Cultural revolution, where many political "cleanings" took place. Our father, a simple laborer was thrown into jail. We still don’t know if he actually committed suicide as the authorities told us or if he was killed during his incarceration".[2] At that time, Gao Zhen was 12 years old and Gao Qiang was 6.

Today,[when?] the Gao Brothers have reached international acclaim. A retrospective of their work, "Gao Brothers : Grandeur and Catharsis", was organized by the Kemper Museum from September 17, 2010, to 2011, January 2.[3] A brief presentation of their work shows the multifaceted nature of their art: the brothers combine diverse mediums such as painting, sculpture, performance, and photography.


Both brothers were initiated in their youth to Chinese traditional art before they began their college studies. The older brother graduated from Shandong Academy of Fine Arts and the younger brother from Qufu Normal University (Qufu is the hometown of the thinker, educator and politician Confucius).

The two brothers’ artistic and intellectual influences merge through their creations where Beauty seems generated by pertinent messages spoken through a language of harmonious form. The notion of "brotherhood", inspired by their own relationship, becomes a message for all humanity. Very quickly, they became coauthors of their work and became involved in political causes. In 2002, the Gao Brothers left Shandong to settle in Beijing.

Their art is protean, they refuse to be limited to only one medium, what is most important is the message at hand they are attempting to convey through their work.[citation needed]


 Photography of the Gao Brothers performance, The Utopia Of the 20 Minute Embrace, 2000


Midnight Mass[edit]

The Gao Brothers entered the artistic sphere in 1989 by way of a collective exhibition organized at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) [4] where they exhibited their piece Midnight Mass, an inflatable installation representing a hermaphrodite sexual organ measuring 4 meters high. Midnight Mass borrows from surrealism the technique of the body's fragmentation and the notion of the "Anatomy of desire" from Hans Bellmer.[5] However, both the material used (inflatable plastic) and the dimensions of the work bring it into the realm of contemporary art. As does Claes Oldenburg in his work, the Gao enlarge and transform their model, creating an object at once grotesque and spiritual.

Miss Mao[edit]

With her large breasts and her long nose, Miss Mao, Mao Zedong's monumental icon,[4] appears as a hybridization of Minnie and Pinocchio. She is a grotesque image of a monstrous mother figure and a liar. As Claude Hudelot and Guy Gallice, show in their book, The Mao,[6] the abundant iconography of Mao spans 60 years of Chinese folk art, depicting tirelessly the images of worship of the Great Helmsman. Given the escalation of propaganda and the power of the image used in advertising, artists are left with a natural choice to divert and distort theses images, often in an exaggerated and grotesque manner.

The Execution of Christ[edit]

In 2009, the Gao Brothers abandoned the modernity of resin, turning towards the austerity of bronze. The execution of Christ represents seven soldiers shooting Christ. The picture of Mao with a gun was taken in 1964, April 28.[6] This parable refers to the concept developed by Nicolas Bourriaud known as "altermodernity" Bourriaud,[7] which begins with the idea that today's artists live in a globalized culture which should be used not to deny their individuality but to create a new modernity, one made of openness and intercultural exchange. The execution of Christ illustrates this concept very well because it combines two fundamentally different cultures while clearly preserving one another. Christianity never really caught on in China, and Mao was never really feared by Christianity. On the other hand, as seen from an Asian point of view, the work retains a strong political sense when one understands China's history and the repression of various religions under Mao's reign.[citation needed] Viewed from the western world, the work can change its signification completely: that is, if we only see it as the voluntary sacrifice of Christ. The title is clear: it is not a sacrifice but an execution, and given that the fees to pay for the ball which was used to execute a man in China were charged to his parents, does this suggest that God himself should be the one to pay the bill?[citation needed]


If time reversed, Memory – 1989[edit]

It is impossible[according to whom?] to understand the Gao Brothers' art without correlating it to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The firing of Hu Yaobang and his disappearance encouraged the students’ protest at Tiananmen on April 21, 1989. The demonstrations lasted until the beginning of June, when authorities decided to repress the revolt. The Chinese army repression on June 4, 1989, made an impression on both Chinese people and the international opinion. Numerous arrests occurred after repression. The Gao Brothers painted a sort of memorial in honor of the victims. An open hand, a hole at its center representing a bloody wound, now stands in front of Tiananmen Square. It looks like a Christian iconography representative of crucifixion. Victims of the 1989 repression have been depicted like martyrs sacrificed for the cause of democracy. In the sky one can make out human forms which fly above the square like ghosts which haunt awaiting peace. Across the hand's palm a red Forbidden City appears on a yellow background, the color of the emperor.

Photography and international reputation[edit]

Sense of Space series[edit]

Their series Sense of Space [4] depicts the brothers and other anonymous models, naked, locked in boxes labeled among titles such as Prayer, Waiting, Anxiety and Pain. Contorted bodies attempt to enter into boxes too small for them. Parables of the Chinese "social straitjacket", their work can take on a universal significance. Any social organization forces the individual to comply with rules which, taken individually, become bothersome. In terms of this, the messages conveyed by the art of the Gao Brothers crosses boundaries borders and can be understood to some degree in the Eastern and Western worlds. Some pictures show the bodies of naked men of the same size, causing each model to appear even more anonymous. The final images give the impression that the same individual has been duplicated, finding himself throughout the entire composition.


From 2000: The Hug[edit]

For about ten years, the Gao Brothers have organized performances around the idea of hugging,[8] a 15-minute couple embrace and then a collective embrace of 5 minutes occurs. Some models are dressed, others are naked. Since 2000, nearly 150 people, meeting each other for the first time through this experience, have embraced each other through organized meetings of this sort.


  1. ^ Catalogue The Gao Brothers, Grandeur & catharsis, Kemper museum, 2010, p. 75.
  2. ^ Sylvia Maria Gross, Interview of The Gao Brothers, exhibition at the Kemper museum in, September 2010.
  3. ^ "Current Exhibitions - Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art". Retrieved 9 July 2016. 
  4. ^ a b c "Un autre monde, Les Frères Gao", (Janette Danel Helleu), Les Rencontres d'Arles, 2007.
  5. ^ "Hans Bellmer". Retrieved 9 July 2016. 
  6. ^ a b Claude Hudelot, Guy Gallice, "The Mao", 2009.
  7. ^ Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Presses du réel, 2002.
  8. ^ "The Gao brothers", Duncan Miller Gallery

Further reading[edit]

  • Gao Brothers, Portraits, China Art archives and Warehouse, 2010.
  • GROSS, Sylvia Maria, Interview of The Gao Brothers, KCUR-FM, exhibition at the Kemper museum in September 2010,
  • The Gao Brothers, Duncan Miller Gallery, 2010.
  • The Gao brothers, Grandeur & catharsis, Kemper museum of contemporary art, 2010.
  • "In China, a Headless Mao Is a Game of Cat and Mouse", in The New York Times, October 5, 2009
  • Gao brothers, Benamou Gallery, Paris, 2007.
  • Un autre monde, les frères Gao, Les rencontres d’Arles, 2007
  • GOLD, "Artist brothers test Chinese boundaries", in Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2005.
  • Florent Villard, Critique de la vie quotidienne en Chine à l'aube du XXIe siècle avec les Gao Brothers, Paris, L'Harmattan, 2015.

External links[edit]