Full frontal: Gao brothers expose Chinese state corruption – picture feast



The Gao Brothers’ photography exhibit at Hua Gallery, London, re-imagines China in the wake of Cultural Revolution.

From 5 June to 18 September 2013, London’s Hua Gallery of contemporary Chinese art is showing the photographs of Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, which overtly politicise nakedness and pose a full frontal challenge to the corruption which followed China’s Cultural Revolution. 

Gao Brothers, 'Sense of Space - Wake', 2000, Photograph, 180 x 230 cm, in Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers at Hua Gallery, Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, ‘Sense of Space – Wake’, 2000, photograph, 180 x 230 cm. Image courtesy the Hua Gallery. 

Hua Gallery, London, is hosting an exhibit by the Gao Brothers, Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, titled “Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers“, which will remain on view until 18 September 2013. According to the Gao Brothers’ website, the Hua Gallery show “features a series of artworks created from 2000 to 2008, which focuses on the relationships between the individual and the spiritual and material spaces we live in.

Gao Brothers, 'Black Space No.1', 2004, Photograph, 120 x 120 cm, in Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers at Hua Gallery, Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, ‘Black Space No.1′, 2004, photograph, 120 x 120 cm. Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, 'Lonely Summer', 2002, Photograph, 80 x 120 cm, in Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers at Hua Gallery, Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, ‘Lonely Summer’, 2002, photograph, 80 x 120 cm. Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

The politics of nakedness

Essential to the Gao Brothers’ political vision is the portrayal of embodiment. The individual expressiveness of naked human figures is often set in relief against a ruined, urban backdrop of unfinished architectural designs, structures which were abandoned due to a lack of funding, poor financial planning, or political corruption. For the Gao Brothers, the nude form acts as a counterpoint to the stark logic of administrative control, as they say in an interview with The Independent,

The abandoned building is a unique site in China… There are many reasons as to why the buildings remain unfinished. Some are the result of limited funds, funds that were moved for other use, or even because a corrupt official took the funds illegally… We use the building as a symbol on a larger scale to represent China’s uncompleted national urban development.

Gao Brothers, 'The Forever Unfinished Building No.1', 2000, Photograph, 80 x 280 cm, in Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers at Hua Gallery, Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, ‘The Forever Unfinished Building No.1′, 2000, photograph, 80 x 280 cm. Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, 'Silent Space', 2000, Photograph, 120 x 289 cm, in Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers at Hua Gallery, Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, ‘Silent Space’, 2000, Photograph, 120 x 289 cm. Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, 'The Forever Unfinished Building No.2', 2005, Photograph, 120 x 398 cm, in Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers at Hua Gallery, Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, ‘The Forever Unfinished Building No.2′, 2005, photograph, 120 x 398 cm. Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Re-thinking place and time

Photography, as the Gao Brothers use it, is equally an instrument of documentary realism and of lyrical imagination. A New World of Nuclear Cloud Shape (2008) foregrounds militaristic ideology, showcasing entrapment, isolation, and loneliness. However, there is also a register of hope signaled through the hybridisation of the image’s subject-matter: people adorning a nuclear mushroom cloud in the form of a tree. As described in the Londonist:

The tree is populated with religious iconography and couples embracing. It’s an attempt to convert something destructive into a message for peace and tolerance.

Gao Brothers, 'A New World of Nuclear Cloud Shape', 2008, Photograph, 247 x 180 cm, in Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers at Hua Gallery, Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, ‘A New World of Nuclear Cloud Shape’, 2008, photograph, 247 x 180 cm. Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, 'Outer Space Project - Map of China', 2008, Photograph,220 x 180 cm, in Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers at Hua Gallery, Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, ‘Outer Space Project – Map of China’, 2008, photograph,220 x 180 cm. Image courtesy the Hua Gallery. 

China’s art critical legacy

Working with a variety of media, the Gao brothers’ have been making art together since the early 1980s; the exhibit at Hua Gallery continues their critical examinations of China’s political landscape. As the press release states, “their art […] questions the role of the individual within society.” Social issues such as urban development and China’s population problem are explored in Sense of Space – Wake (2000), in which naked bodies are placed on display in such a way that they overtly contrast with conventional notions of utility and design. As noted in the Londonist:

the people in this photograph are separated from their neighbours by partitions, leaving them with no opportunity to connect, despite physical proximity.

Set against surrounding structures that symbolise corruption and immobility, nude bodies counter the urban environment. In the words of the press release, the Gao brothers’ use nakedness to evoke

pure and uncontaminated states of mind, leading the viewer to penetrate the vulnerability of human beings and to explore between spiritual and material spaces.

Gao Brothers, 'Echo', 2002, Photograph, 125 x 150 cm,  in Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: the Photographic World of the Gao Brothers at Hua Gallery, Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

Gao Brothers, ‘Echo’, 2002, Photograph, 125 x 150 cm. Image courtesy the Hua Gallery.

 Jeffrey Grunthaner

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, photography, picture feasts, the human body, the cultural revolution, art and corruption

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