Curated by Ai Weiwei and Achille Bonito Oliva, the new show of works by the Gao Brothers exhibited at Ai Weiwei’s Gallery, China Art and Archives Warehouse, is yet another challenging series of works by the chameleon-like brothers.
In contrast to their past work of towering size filled with minute details of daily life in Beijing, whether in unfinished buildings or beehives, these works are far simpler: each gargantuan canvas is dedicated to a single image- a portrait. What is more, these are portraits of both infamous and famous people, and they are shown as a compelling diptych comprising a portrait from childhood and another from manhood. What is most compelling is the fact that many of the subjects are war criminals: Hitler, Saddam Hussain, Lenin, Osama bin laden, Kim Jong-il; or other maleficent personages such as Mao’s Wife Jiang Qing.
The Brothers scanned the internet for the their images. But these are not photos, they are paintings of the photos made colossal, then covered with a graphic pattern of stripes that make the works slightly blurred. It is as if we are viewing the portraits though Venetian blinds. One of the pair of portraits is in black and white; its companion is in color. There is no apparent pattern to the selection of which is monochrome or polychrome.
Viewing the paired portraits forces one to consider if the evil manifested by these men was part of their DNA or the result of some tortured experience that transformed them into monsters. Looking at the childhood pictures similarities in their physiognomies are apparent, but it is not at all clear if the child is inherently evil. Simply put, the question that is posed here is nothing less that the origin of evil. Another subject a young folklore hero named Yang Jia who was unjustly imprisoned by the police; after several days in the holding cell, he was released and then planned a complicated scenario for revenge. He somehow secretly entered the Shanghai police headquarters and stabbed a dozen cops to death. In examples such as this, the pressures exerted on individuals by a corrupt and unfeeling state are suggested to be at least in part responsible for criminal reprisals. There are other examples of people who have had a positive impact on society, a Taiwanese singer who died in the 70’s but whose popular music still dominates the Chinese radio waves; it is said the emotional nature of her love songs had a great impact on her more staid comrades of the mainland.
Heroes of the world include, among others, Bill Gates, Sister Teresa, and Martin Luther King. There is a curious image of Barack Obama, but as it is a single portrait, perhaps his destiny as an historical figure of good or evil is as yet undetermined. This is a highly political show as it considers the role of the individual, the usurping and manipulation of power, and the clear reference to societies tortured with unspeakable crimes. It raises important questions about the impact of morality and technology on the growth of global societies.
(Images from top to bottom: Jiang Qing, Oil on Canvas , 2010; Marx, Oil on Canvas, 2010, Mother Theresa, Oil on Canvas, 2010. All images courtesy of gallery and artists.)