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In China, a Headless Mao Is a Game of Cat and Mouse

匿名  发表于 2009-10-23 22:24:36 |阅读模式


BEIJING — It’s not the kind of sculpture of Chairman Mao you typically see in China. He’s on his knees as a supplicant, confessing; his body language and facial expression indicate deep remorse. What’s more, the head of this life-size bronze statue, titled “Mao’s Guilt” and created by the artist brothers Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, separates from the body — by design.

Exhibitions by the Gao brothers, whose work the authorities find politically challenging, have been shut down in the past, and their studio has been raided. So they keep the head of Mao hidden in a separate location — reuniting it with its body only on special occasions to show friends and colleagues. Normally, the body of the statue remains headless, unidentifiable and nonthreatening.

“It’s something I hope all Chinese people will one day be able to accept and understand,” Gao Zhen, 53, said of the work. “We wanted to portray him as a human being, a regular person confessing for the wrongs he’s committed.”

On Sept. 3 the head came out for a Gao brothers “party” — the code name for one of the invitation-only private exhibitions they hold several times a year. The location of the exhibition was not disclosed until several hours beforehand and spread via word of mouth and coded text message. Outside the closed doors of their private home studio, a staff member kept watch for unwelcome visitors.

Removable heads and underground exhibitions are just two of the guerrilla tactics the Gao brothers have employed, often with the help of Melanie Ouyang, their broker, to enable fans and friends to view their work. The Gaos are part of a generation of avant-garde Chinese artists who are pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. In the increasingly open Chinese art world, nudity is commonplace where it used to be forbidden, and art parodying the Cultural Revolution has become so ubiquitous that it is passé. Still, the Gaos are a reminder that, especially as China celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Communist revolution, limits to expression remain:

although artists are increasingly free to deal with social and political topics, works that explicitly criticize Chinese leaders or symbols of China are still out of bounds.

“Ash Red,” a 2006 exhibition the Gao brothers openly advertised and held in their studio in the 798 Art District here, was suppressed by authorities. Several men representing the government walked into the gallery and presented a list of works that “needed to be removed,” said Gao Qiang, 47. Posters and catalogs for the show were banned, and interviews the brothers had lined up with local news media were canceled. For several weeks after “Ash Red” was shut down, two guards stood outside the doors of the Gao brothers’ home studio, discouraging people from coming inside.

The 798 Arts District has a local management office that, among other things, keeps an eye on art it deems unacceptable and detrimental to the district. “They receive pressure from above,” said Gao Yuewen, 29, a staff member at the Gao studio, who noted that the Gao brothers were “classified differently” from other artists by the authorities, meaning that they were suspect.

In March another sculpture by the Gaos, “To Catch a Lady,” a reproduction of a photograph of the police hauling away a prostitute during a raid on a brothel, was whisked away during the night. Only after the brothers filed a complaint to the police did the authorities admit to removing the piece.

The Gao brothers’ most extensive work is both explicit and critical, seeking to recast Chairman Mao — a figure in China who is simultaneously capable of arousing deep emotions of pain and despair, as well as admiration, love, and pride — as a flawed figure. In television movies here Mao’s wartime triumph in resisting Japanese invaders is continually on replay, while the Great Leap Forward, the dark side of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s failed policies are played down.

For many older Chinese, Mao remains sacrosanct. But for a younger generation of Chinese, Mao, who died in 1976, feels increasingly irrelevant, and there is little shock value in the Gaos’ portrayals of him. In China’s larger, more cosmopolitan cities, remnants of Mao’s personality cult are less prevalent. Reciting phrases from Mao’s “Red Book” has long since been replaced by shopping for laptop computers, Mini Coopers and other “ming pai,” or famous brand-name consumer items.

For the Gao brothers, Mao holds a more personal meaning. During the Cultural Revolution their father was labeled a class enemy and dragged off to a place that was “not a prison, not a police station, but something else,” Gao Zhen said. After 25 days had passed, the family members were told he had committed suicide.

They think otherwise: “If someone didn’t like you at that time, they arbitrarily labeled you a class enemy,” Mr. Gao added. “We came to Beijing to petition our father’s death.” Eventually the family was given the equivalent of about $290 in compensation. “That was a very painful period of our life,” Mr. Gao continued. “We were six brothers and a single mother; we didn’t have a penny.”

That defining event in their childhood has been both the basis and motivation for much of the brothers’ work, which often seeks to put a spotlight on people, places and events in Chinese society that are taboo. The mural-size painting “Forever Unfinished Building” shows a smorgasbord of characters representative of many different sectors of society sprawling across a construction site. Front and center is a Chinese woman refusing to be displaced from her home by rich developers.

Still, many Chinese who are critical of the Gaos’ work say it lacks subtlety. “I understand what they’re trying to say, but I think their pieces are sensationalist — they’re too direct and gaudy,” says Feng Ling, 23, an art student who recently came to the Gao brothers’ home studio and saw “The Execution of Christ,” in which a firing squad of Chairman Maos take aim at Jesus.

Many artists in China have learned to work political meaning and criticism into their art without being as obvious as the Gao brothers. Liu Wei, for example, in his recent work “A Lifestyle,” placed various pieces of Chinese exercise equipment, found in parks all over the country, in a giant iron cage that looks like a jail, suggesting the extent to which daily activity and freedom are circumscribed by state power.

“Most artists nowadays have learned to make political commentary without being overtly political, so these kinds of ‘underground showings’ are happening less than they did in the 1990s,” said Phil Tinari, 30, founding editor of Artforum’s Chinese-language Web site, artforum.com.cn.

The Gaos, in their latest underground show, sought both to disarm their critics and give a sendoff to the Mao theme; they say “Mao’s Guilt” will be their last work based on the Chinese leader “for a while,” partly because of the prevalence of art parodying the Cultural Revolution, and also because his image has been recycled over and over in popular art and film.

“The Gao brothers’ work on Mao is provocative for many mainland Chinese,” said Kai Heinze, 33, director of the Faurschou Gallery in the 798 district. “Their work sets off a trigger, challenging people here to understand and tolerate a view of modern Chinese history that admits shortcoming,”
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