The Gao Brothers in their installation, Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis, on view through January 2, 2011, at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. photo: Bruce Mathews.

Installation view of Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis on view through January 2, 2011, at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. photo: Bruce Mathews.

The Gao Brothers, Installations at Odds with Official History in China

Gao Brothers, The Execution of Christ, 2009; bronze and stainless steel, 79-3/4 x 941/2 x 59"; Courtesy of the artists, photo: Bruce Mathews.

Installation view of Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis on view through January 2, 2011, at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. photo: Bruce Mathews.

Gao Brothers, Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin's Head, 2009; stainless steel, 256 x 236 1/4 x 165 1/2 inches; Courtesy of the artists, photo: Drew Bolton.

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
4420 Warwick Boulevard
816-753-5784
Kansas City
Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis
September 17, 2010-January 2, 2011

Chinese artists Gao Qiang and Gao Zhen, known as the Gao Brothers, have collaborated on their art since 1985. Much of the Gao Brothers’ work is inspired by their family’s experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Due to their subject matter, the Gaos’ works are frequently censored by authorities in China. Featuring large-scale sculpture, painting, and photography, the exhibition Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis is the artists’ first museum exhibition in the United States.

In 1968 the artists’ father was arrested as a counter revolutionary, and days later he died while in custody. Their father was among the estimated 1.5 million people who died during the Cultural Revolution, when much of China’s cultural heritage and family foundations were destroyed. The Gao Brothers’ works of art seek to understand China’s complicated history and government controlled by the Communist Party. The Gaos’ works range from politically charged to satirical and irreverent works, but in the end the brothers seek to understand the wrongs and shortcomings of China’s past. In many of their works, Mao Zedong (1893-1976), former leader of the People’s Republic of China, plays the lead, but in others, viewers will find a variety of portraits of famous and infamous public figures.

With many of their works of art being critical of the Chinese government and its leaders, the Gao Brothers find it difficult to express themselves freely as artists and generally show their works at secret art exhibitions to avoid seizure of their works by authorities. In 2006, an exhibition of their works in Beijing’s gallery district, called 798, had several works removed by the government. 

The brothers are not afraid to create contextually loaded, controversial works of art. In the sculpture Execution of Christ (2009), a half dozen life-sized bronze sculptures of Mao Zedong point bayonets at a life-sized sculpture of Jesus Christ. At the back of the group, one Mao appears to be turning away from the execution, perhaps regretting or rethinking his act. The positioning of the artwork’s figures mirror two well-known paintings, Francisco de Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (The Executions on Príncipe Pío Hill, 1814, and Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, 1867-69. In both works, a central figure stands before a firing squad.  When China became a communist state in the 1940s, its government adopted atheism and forced many religious followers, including Christians, to observe their faith in secret. 

Other works mock Mao and China’s evolving practice of Communism. In the outdoor sculpture Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head (2009), a relatively small Mao figure balances on the head of Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), leader of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution and first head of the USSR. After Mao’s forces defeated Chiang Kai-shek and his army in 1949, China emerged as the People’s Republic of China and private enterprises became state owned and farms became collectives. In this monumental sculpture, the artists satirize the careful balancing act that China practices today now that it has evolved into State Capitalist economy controlled by the Communist party.

Installation view of Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis on view through January 2, 2011, at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. photo: Bruce Mathews.

Installation view of Gao Brothers: Grandeur and Catharsis on view through January 2, 2011, at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. photo: Bruce Mathews.