Kansas City

Gao Brothers

Whether touched directly by the Cultural Revolution or not, many Chinese artists work with that bloody, turbulent time as recent history. The Gao Brothers (Gao Qiang and Gao Zhen), driven by the memory of their father, who was arrested in 1968 as a counterrevolutionary and died in custody, rose to international fame in the 1990s as artistic provocateurs. In a practice that can be mocking and damning but also personal and meditative, they relentlessly challenge the legacy of Mao Zedong and explore its broader implications in the process, provoking, not surprisingly, the ire of the Chinese government.

Eighteen of the brothers’ sculptures, paintings, and photographs are on view in a survey at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art—their first museum show in the United States. It is a fitting site, just a few blocks away from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and its world-renowned collection of Chinese art. The Kemper’s expansive exhibition gallery comfortably handles the scale of the installation (some of the paintings are more than thirteen feet tall), and its open configuration allows the interrelated works to carry on a lively dialogue across the space. One of the duo’s largest and best-known pieces is outdoors. Standing about two stories high, the stainless steel sculpture titled Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head, 2009, satirically addresses China’s uneasy marriage of capitalism and communism.

There is nothing subtle about the brothers’ work. The intent behind the digitally manipulated photograph The Interview, 2009, for example, is simple, almost overly so. The work imagines a meeting among some of history’s most notorious leaders, including Stalin, Hitler, Bin Laden, and, of course, Mao. While that black-and-white piece is hardly small, it seems almost unassuming compared to other works on view, such as the four-panel, thirteen-by-thirty-nine-foot oil-on-canvas Standard Hairstyle—Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, 2009. Again, it’s not hard to discern the meaning of these four giant heads: Just as hairstyles of the Chinese leaders don’t change, neither do their modes of governance. These paintings have a billboardlike boldness that recalls the communist propaganda historically displayed everywhere in China—an ironic similarity that is clearly intended.

These assertive works generate an immediate visceral reaction, but their lingering impact is open to question. Offering more emotional and intellectual depth is a contemplative installation based around Mao’s Guilt, 2009, a roughly life-size sculpture of the leader kneeling, his head bent, his hand on his heart. There is a suggestion of contrition. The brothers have shown this piece in different ways, and here it is stationed before four photographs, including two vintage images of their parents and a pair of nearly identical family portraits from 1969 and 1999. Taken together, the ensemble suggests a kind of reconciliation shrine.

Like many contemporary artists, the Gaos function as designers or architects do, leaving their ideas to be mostly realized by studio assistants and fabricators. Rather than invent a visual language, the duo largely appropriates Western tropes and strategies, adapting them to the most ubiquitous Chinese symbols (Mao, Tiananmen Square), among other icons (Mother Teresa, Hitler), and typically without making any critical distinction between their stylistic sources. For example, photo-transfer paintings of Saddam Hussein and the Dalai Lama draw on Andy Warhol but also on Chuck Close, and it’s impossible to look at Miss Mao No. 3, 2007, a cartoonishly big-breasted caricature in gleaming stainless steel, without thinking of Jeff Koons. But perhaps the most direct and heavy-handed example of this is their reuse of a firing squad first seen in Goya’s Third of May 1808 and reconsidered in Manet’s Execution of Maximilian, where they have re-created the scene employing life-size bronze figures, with Jesus as victim and multiple Maos the executioners.

Through artworks ranging from the irreverent to the introspective, the Gao Brothers try to reconcile China’s past and agitate for a different future. However, with so many young Asian artists having entered the dialogue in the past decade, only to more deftly synthesize the aesthetic language of Western art with their own cultural concerns, perhaps the question is: Has that future already passed them by?

Kyle MacMillan