Artist Places Global Art Dialogue in a Chinese Context

Article excerpt

In comparison to major art centers like New York City or Berlin, Pittsburgh's art world is rather small. But in it, Gao Minglu is a giant, even though most don't even know that he is here.

In October 2006, the research professor of contemporary Chinese art in the history of art and architecture department at the University of Pittsburgh, received a phone call from an artist in Beijing telling him there was a person who wanted to meet him.

The person was Pearl Lam, daughter of a Hong Kong business tycoon and owner of Contrasts Gallery, the most influential contemporary art gallery in Shanghai.

"I thought we would meet in Beijing, but then she called me and said she was coming to Pittsburgh," Gao says. Lam, who lived in London at the time, came to Pittsburgh the very next week, flying in one day and out the next.

"We had two hours talking. She said she was interested in founding a China Art Foundation based in England," Gao says. "She had read my articles, which are very long and sometimes difficult to understand. ... And even though I didn't know her at all, she mentioned that maybe we could work together. She needed my support scholarly."

Over the next several years, Lam and Gao would put together two global conferences on Chinese contemporary art which were attended by nearly every curator of Chinese contemporary art from around the world.

Connections pay off

Gao came to Pittsburgh in 2005, again because of a phone call; this time from Xu Bing, a longtime darling of the Chinese contemporary art world.

Xu told him that Terry Smith, Pitt's Andrew W. Mellon professor of contemporary art, and Katheryn Linduff, research professor of ancient Chinese and Eurasian art and archaeology at Pitt's University Center for International Studies, were looking for someone to teach contemporary art.

"I had already heard of Katheryn Linduff for many years," Gao says. And Gao had worked with Smith in 1999 on the exhibit "Conceptualist Art: Points of Origin" at Queens Museum of Art, New York.

For the University of Pittsburgh, bringing Gao here was a coup. He is recognized the world over as one of the leading scholars in contemporary Chinese art. A major editor in Meishu (Art Monthly) in the 1980s, he single-handedly pushed for the first official show of advanced Chinese art at the National Art Museum in Beijing. The show was mounted just months before the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and he paid dearly for it, spending a year under house arrest, forced to study Marxist theory.

That was a breeze for a man who spent five years being "re- educated" in the middle of Mongolia in the 1970s.

'Re-education'

Gao was born in Tianjin, a port city nearly 120 miles south of Beijing, one month before the founding of the People's Republic of China in October 1949.

In 1968, two years after the Cultural Revolution began, Gao was sent to Inner Mongolia for re-education. It was an event that interrupted a budding art career.

"Before I was sent to Inner Mongolia, I was very interested in art, literature and novels," he says. "Even during the five years, sometimes I made drawings and sketches. I liked art very much."

In Mongolia, he was given the task of herding cattle. "I had about 100 cattle that I had to herd," he says. "Just like Mongolian people: riding horses in the summer, and camels in the winter."

In 1973, while still in Mongolia, Gao entered Wumeng Teaching College. From 1973 to '78, he taught literature, humanities and art history there, then he went to Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts to study art history.

In 1980, he moved to Beijing University for graduate school in art history at the China Academy of Arts. "This was kind of a research institute in fine arts under the cultural ministry," he says. "It was only theory and history. There were no studio arts.

"My field then, actually, was ancient Chinese art," he says. …