Body politic: Gao Brothers photographs are naked criticism of modern China

The artistic duo express their concern for the future of China's urban landscape in their first solo photographic exhibition in London

Nudity features heavily in work by Chinese artists the Gao Brothers. Whether covered with shattered glass, crammed into uncomfortable spaces or isolated in the urban landscape, the human body (both male and female) is put fully on show despite Chinese culture's often more conservative approach to nakedness.

The artists claim they do not intend to shock with their photographs of nudes. It is politics, not nudity, they say, which is the true taboo subject of modern China.

“Naturally, the general masses of China may still view nudity with certain traditional ideals, but we believe that [certain] political issues, and not nudity, are what should be viewed as unacceptable in society,” they say.

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Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, formally known as the Gao Brothers, have always explored strong socio-political themes in their work.

They first started creating art together in the 1980s, responding to their shared experiences as children of the Cultural Revolution, which saw the imprisonment and death of their father. They were told at the time that he committed suicide but believe he was killed by Chinese officials. 

Their use of nudity, they say, is a kind of freeing response to the oppressive forces placed over the body in Mao’s era. “During the Cultural Revolution, the control of thoughts was implemented through the control of the human body. At the time, men and women’s sexes could not be clearly distinguished and everyone wore the same clothing. We use the nude to celebrate the liberation of the body following the Cultural Revolution."

But their use of nudes is also a critique of modern China as much as a celebration of the post-Mao era.

In “The Forever Unfinished Building,” naked and clothed figures stand isolated against the concrete skeleton of an abandoned building. The photograph highlights the large number of uncompleted buildings that lie empty across China’s towns and cities, a phenomenon so common it has its own Mandarin phrase, lan wei.

“The abandoned building is a unique site in China,” explain the brothers. “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.”

Another photograph “Silent Space” shows one naked and one clothed figure standing in contrast within the shell of an unfinished building. But unlike much of the Gao Brothers’ work, its underlying message is less clear- simply that it should “stimulate the viewers’ imagination”.

Alongside their politics, the brothers emphasise that their art is also concerned with the aesthetic.

“Art does not always have a clear goal. Our works do not have a directed conclusion, but provide a free space of imagination for the viewers.”

Between Spiritual and Material Spaces: The Photographic World of the Gao Brothers, curated by Dagmar Carnevale Lavezzoli, is at the Hua Gallery until 18 September 2013

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