In the United States, you can make a sculpture of former President George W. Bush’s head atop a phallus without fear of governmental reprisal, as was demonstrated recently at Western Exhibitions. In the recent Westboro Baptist Church judgment, the United States Supreme Court has ensured that even the most disgusting and worthless acts of free speech are protected. And if as an artist your freedom of speech and expression is stifled, the art world will not be silent about it, as the recent David Wojnarowicz debacle demonstrated, and you may be even be entitled to compensation if your rights are infringed upon. However provocative or critical of the government your artwork may be, in the U.S. you do not have to worry about government stooges coming after you personally. Nuts like Kathleen Folden, maybe.
This is not the case for artists in China, and that’s what gives the Gao Brothers' (artists Gao Zhan and Gao Qiang) show at Walsh Gallery a sense of risk. The Gao Brothers’ exhibitions have been shut down and censored by the Chinese government before. Coming from the Kemper Museum in Kansas City, this abbreviated, but smartly installed, presentation of “Grandeur & Catharsis” has as its centerpiece The Execution of Christ, 2009, a life-size grouping of eight bronze figures, with seven Mao Zedongs, most aiming rifles at a Christ figure.
At first I had the inevitable eye roll. It’s easy to get bored by the Mao imagery that attends much of Chinese art, but at the same time, a Western audience is very privileged to be bored by Mao, since for decades the “Great Leader” Chairman Mao terrified, threatened and killed his people. In contrast to other artists, the Gao Brothers deploy Mao imagery in a highly critical fashion. It is this critical edge that sets the work apart.
One could write-off this sculpture as simply cheesy, and it does have that aspect that sometimes accompanies pop art. It’s fairly obvious, blatantly provocative, mines art history for its form, and the liver of sulfur patina says “antique” or “sculpture” much too loudly. But simple dismissal is in many ways much more easy than actually looking at the piece and giving it some consideration.
The Execution of Christ may be obvious and provocative. It’s immediately noticeable that the arrangement quotes Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, which is in turn itself quoting Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Similarly, the provocative element is also based in history. Christianity is now officially tolerated in China, but during Mao’s era Christians were openly persecuted, lending the provocation an uneasy historical edge. Even if Christianity is now allowed, there are rules and prescriptions that govern it, which has led to a thriving underground Christianity scene that the authorities will sometimes crack down on. The persecution of Christians, or other religions, has not entirely ceased; there is no true freedom of religion.
The Gao Brothers. Family Memory of Gao Brothers 1969-1999, 1999. Photograph, diptych. Edition of 10. Image courtesy of Walsh Gallery and the artists.
The brown liver of sulfur patina of the sculpture I first interpreted as an attempt to make the sculpture appear older. But on further viewing that seemed incorrect. The bayonets of the rifles have a shining, chrome-like finish, which would be at odds with a desire to age the sculpture through a patina application. Instead the brown of the sculpture seems to nod towards the uniform of the worker that was prescribed by the government. This is reinforced by the work immediately across from the sculpture, Family Memory of Gao Brothers 1969-1999, 1999. This photographic diptych shows an early family portrait where everyone is wearing drab proletariat worker clothing, coupled with a later portrait where the family is outfitted in Western-style clothing. Ironically, in the later portrait two sitters wear identical shirts suggesting that one uniform has been traded in for another. Significantly these portraits are envisioned as hanging over Tiananmen Gate, instead of Mao’s portrait that has occupied that space. Therefore the brown of the sculpture seems more a referent rather than an artificial aging technique.
There are real risks being taken by these artists and they point to the real risks that people in China seeking freedom face daily, need I even mention the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo who is currently in prison for advocating human rights advances? I think if a Western audience saw more critical artwork from China, like that of the Gao Brothers, we would be more aware of the human rights struggle there and perhaps it would seem more urgent.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor ArtSlant: Chicago
A catalog for the Kemper Museum's "Grandeur & Catharsis" is available for purchase at the Walsh Gallery.