He had been the only person looking after his uncles’ studio in Beijing’s 798 art district
on that cold, dark day in December 2007 when I wandered in. Beijing had been one of the stop-offs on my 10,000 mile train
ride around China and his uncles, the two Gao Brothers, had been high on my wish list of people to meet. It
had been a long shot. I hadn’t an appointment; I didn’t even have an address.
The 798 district was (and still is) a maze of alleyways, lined with numerous studios and shops, so it was only by some stroke
of good fortune that I managed to stumble on their private studio. But that’s where my luck ended, because the
famous Gao Brothers were out of town.
Their nephew, sensing my disappointment, went out of his way to make me feel welcome. He allowed me to look around the
studio and even dashed out to “the gallery” to get a copy of a book on one of the Gaos’ European exhibitions
I wanted to buy for a friend (leaving me alone among exhibits worth many millions of yuan).
The Gao Brothers had sprung to fame a few years earlier
on the back of their Miss Mao series of sculptures. The much-larger than life-size busts, depicting The Great Helmsman
with pronounced womanly characteristics was applauded by international art critics and adored by news reporters.
Gao Qiang, 47, the younger of the
two, told Reuters: “During the Cultural Revolution, we used to say Mao was like the mother of China. So
we decided to give mother breasts.”
The work was less warmly received by the authorities here; and the Gao Brothers were ordered to remove
Miss Mao from public display shortly before the Communist Party conference in October 2007. 20 months later, the statues
are still under wraps.
Xiao Gao and I chatted for a while, before he stopped in mid-sentence, as if he’d just remembered
something important: “They’re here today!” he gushed. “I’ll go and tell them you
are here!” With that he rushed upstairs, and in a moment was back again, offering a cheery “Please
go on up!”
Needing no further encouragement, I almost ran up the stairs that leads to a private area of the gallery. As I did,
I was thinking about what I would ask them. The elder of the Gao Brothers, Gao Zhen, 53, extended his hand to greet
“Would you like some tea?” he asked.
didi, or younger brother, joined us a few minutes later and we settled down for a thirty-or-so minute tea-fuelled
seen our latest work?” Gao Zhen asked. At that he took out an eye-catching brushed metal iPhone and showed me
photographs of a huge stainless steel head of Lenin (with a small Miss Mao on top of the head for reasons I wasn’t able
to translate) that “took six months to create”. My friend, who was visiting from England, asked them whether
they had worked on it together. The response, “We always work together on every project”, was said in a
way which suggested that solo work would be unthinkable.
As if to signify their close bond, the younger brother took out an iPhone
that was identical to his brother’s, and showed more pictures of their latest work while grumbling “These [iPhones]
are 4,000 RMB in China [they are not available through official channels here]". "Yes..," the elder Gao
continued from where his brother had left off, "...That’s far more than they cost in the US”. Intriguingly,
I didn’t recognise the model of phone. (Could it be that the Gaos are using their metalwork skills to customise their
I asked them how things are in their art world. If the dramatic fall in the prices of Chinese
contemporary art was worrying them in any way, they certainly didn’t show it. “Things are really good,”
said the younger brother, “…we’re exhibiting in Paris later this year”.
“What about the hugging,” I asked, “Any
plans for more exhibitions?” At this point it’s worth noting that the brothers work in many mediums.
As well as exhibiting sculptures, paintings, and photography in London, New York, Rome, San Francisco, Moscow, and many other
cities, they’ve also performed what has been described as “social sculpture” at the Brandenburg Gate in
Berlin, on London’s South Bank and even at the arboretum in Nottingham.
The success of what they call “The Utopia of the 20 minutes embrace”
relies on the Gao Brothers’ ability to persuade complete strangers to hug each other. London had been thought
to be a tough nut to crack – and Nottingham an even tougher one – but much to many commentators’ surprise,
the stereotype of “English reserve” was blown apart. People simply loved the idea; and the vast majority
of those approached actually embraced the chance to hug a stranger.
Not surprisingly, the sight of Chinese people (stereotypically even more reserved)
teaching English people how to hug a complete stranger made the main UK news. The Gao Brothers were even invited to
appear on the BBC's flagship news and current affairs radio programme, Today on Radio 4. Much to the surprise and amusement
of regular listeners, the programme’s normally straight-laced presenter, John Humphrys, was also persuaded to perform
a live hug.
“Yes indeed,” said the younger brother excitedly, “…We have big plans for our hugging project.
This year we will go to Israel and get Palestinians and Israelis to give each other a hug.”
How wonderful that would be.