Magazine article Artforum International

GAO Brothers

Magazine article Artforum International

GAO Brothers

Article excerpt

Whether touched directly by the Cultural Revolution or not, many Chinese artists work with that bloody, turbulent time as recent history. The Gao Brothers (Gao Qiang and Gao Zhen), driven by the memory of their father, who was arrested in 1968 as a counterrevolutionary and died in custody, rose to international fame in the 1990s as artistic provocateurs. In a practice that can be mocking and damning but also personal and meditative, they relentlessly challenge the legacy of Mao Zedong and explore its broader implications in the process, provoking, not surprisingly, the ire of the Chinese government.

Eighteen of the brothers' sculptures, paintings, and photographs are on view in a survey at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art--their first museum show in the United States. It is a fitting site, just a few blocks away from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and its world-renowned collection of Chinese art. The Kemper's expansive exhibition gallery comfortably handles the scale of the installation (some of the paintings are more than thirteen feet tall), and its open configuration allows the interrelated works to carry on a lively dialogue across the space. One of the duo's largest and best-known pieces is outdoors. Standing about two stories high, the stainless steel sculpture titled Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin's Head, 2009, satirically addresses China's uneasy marriage of capitalism and communism.

There is nothing subtle about the brothers' work. The intent behind the digitally manipulated photograph The Interview, 2009, for example, is simple, almost overly so. The work imagines a meeting among some of history's most notorious leaders, including Stalin, Hitler, Bin Laden, and, of course, Mao. While that black-and-white piece is hardly small, it seems almost unassuming compared to other works on view,

such as the four-panel, thirteen-by-thirty-nine-foot oil-on-canvas Standard Hairstyle--Mao Zedong., Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, 2009. Again, it's not hard to discern the meaning of these four giant heads: just as hairstyles of the Chinese leaders don't change, neither do their modes of governance. These paintings have a billboardlike boldness that recalls the communist propaganda historically displayed everywhere in China--an ironic similarity that is clearly intended. …

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