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The Gao Brothers

Old Haunts and New Visions

The Limn Gallery presents the Beijing-based art duo The Gao Brothers’ first solo exhibition in San Francisco in a small, but conceptually dense collection that samples their oeuvre from the past decade. The brothers, Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, began their collaboration in the 80s as Chinese artists were producing more socially engaged and avant-garde inspired works and achieved international acclaim by the mid-90s.

Together, they have created powerful works in performance art, photography, sculpture and digital art that offer socially charged mediations on the legacy of China’s Cultural Revolution and a very contemporary perspective on its relationship to Western culture. Reticent themes address, often allegorically, subjective and collective memory, social codes, youth and knowledge, spiritual crisis, public space, and the impact of the West on popular culture.

The show is comprised mostly of large format color c-prints covering a range of topics and aptly displaying their ability to move from classic tableau-styled photography to digitally conceived works. In the c-print "TV #1" from 2000, a naked young girl with hair cut to make her look like a boy is seated on top of a television with a blue yet startlingly blank screen. She is reading the iconic Little Red Book that contained Mao’s infamous "Quotations", a sort of guide for socialist living. The image is a source of questioning about the dynamics between youth, population, media and knowledge, with iconic elements that tie the past to the present.

In the installation "Ruins", economic promise is called into question in a symbolic and surreal print. Three c-prints arranged vertically offer a sequential view of an old building with a giant Mao portrait collapsing under the impact of a large renminbi coin falling from the sky.

The show also demonstrates their fascination with popular iconography and penchant towards the manipulation of the Mao image. A favorite figure of theirs is "Miss Mao", a character they created based on the Mao doll of the times, resonates from Mao’s cult of personality. Like its predecessor, their doll highlights Mao’s familiar facial features such as his trademark mole, baldhead and tufted hair -- and is meant to make the leader look friendly and harmless to children. However, its elongated nose, a clear ode to Pinocchio, casts a sinister element with its sly reference to the lies of Chairman Mao and evokes the Disneyfication of Chinese culture. "Miss Mao" appears twice -- a large format c-print gives a garishly colored close-up view the face and in a sculpture. Formed out of sparkly gold fiberglass and made to resemble the classical Western bust to be viewed in the round, "Miss Mao’s" cartoonish breasts are left fully exposed.

The Gao Brothers are perhaps best known for their ongoing performance piece “The Hugging Project”, where they get strangers to hug for extended periods of time, both clothed and unclothed. In a looped video male participants in various states of undress (these men, mostly day laborers received pay based on whether or not they wore clothing) stand atop an abandoned building embracing for ten minutes with their eyes closed. The social code in China associates the hug with an intimate act shared between lovers or for close family and is not appropriate for public display. Even for viewers who may not be familiar with Chinese social practice, the hesitance towards such close body contact between strangers, let alone another man, is apparent.

In "Morning Exercise" (c-print, 2004) a large group of school children line up in several roles of single file lines, a common practice in Chinese schools before the academic day begins. Instead of calisthenics instructors, two adult individuals stand on a desk hugging in front of the group. The pieces seem to possess an instructive note, a call to action for universal social harmony through a simple gesture that can be part of a daily public ritual.

For The Gao Brothers treading controversial waters within a society comprised of adults for whom the Cultural Revolution is a very real -- and not-so-distant -- memory has been a constant means of inquest, expression and discovery from early on. Within these areas they are kept under the watchful eye of a government that retains a firm grip upon media and the dissemination of information and a disdain of dissenting voices, but nonetheless they have achieved international acclaim. The Gao Brothers show is a unique opportunity to see contemporary Chinese artists react and respond to history and engage in the present.

The Gao Brothers
at Limn Gallery
exhibit runs through Nov 3
Gallery hours: Tues-Sat 11am - 5:30pm