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Hugs in Hong Kong by mainland artists formerly branded national criminals – interview Gao Brothers

Posted by artradar on September 3, 2009


Take a walk down a public Hong Kong street these days and you might find yourself bumping into some portable – and surprisingly intimate – art.

While Hong Kong artist Tim Li’s private bed has been erected all over Hong Kong from Pedestrian Street in Mong Kok to the center of Times Square, last month the Gao Brothers from the mainland brought their special brand of peace-promoting intimate performance art into the hustle and bustle of the city. Bring on the hugging! 

Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, a pair of prominent artists born in Jinan and based in the Beijing 798 Art Zone were invited by Para/Site Art Space to spread an hour of love and hugs outside the Hong Kong Arts Centre on July 29 2009. The Gao Brothers share with Wendy Ma how their ideals are reflected in their installation, performance, sculpture, photography works and writing, and how these beliefs were shaped by their unusual experiences.

Q: What inspired you to create artwork such as Miss Mao, etc.? Did it create any controversy in China at the time?

Miss Mao by Gao Brothers. Painted fiberglass. 85 x 55 x 59 in.

Miss Mao by Gao Brothers. Painted fiberglass. 85 x 55 x 59 in.

Miss Mao is mainly inspired by Chinese people’s “mao” bing (毛病*), ignorance, and immaturity. The artwork is only permitted to be displayed in overseas galleries and museums, it still forbidden in mainland China.  We can only find information regarding the exhibition of this artwork on the internet. The reactions from the audience are a mix of praises and criticism.

*Note: Mao bing means “problem” or “syndrome”. In Chinese it is the same “mao” in “Mao Zedong”. 

Q: What inspired you to initiate the World Hug Day*?

Utopia of Embrace. Performance by Gao Brothers.

Utopia of Hugging for 20 minutes. Performance by Gao Brothers in 2000..

There are too many conflicts in this world. The hatred and blood-shedding tensions among humans, among ethnicities, among nations have never ceased. In 2000 we believed that the human civilization should enter a millennium of compromises. So we began to promote the act of hugging among strangers.

At that time we were forbidden to leave China, which left us unable to promote hugging overseas. By proposing the “World Hugging Day” on the internet, we earned corresponding support from various parts of the world. Among the advocates there were non-artists, artists, as well as the organizer of the Venice Biennale, Harald Szeemann.

*Note: “Gao Brothers carried out their first group hug performance, “The Utopia Of Hugging For Twenty Minutes” on September 10, 2000 by inviting one hundred and fifty volunteers, who were previously strangers to each other, to take part in the event. They asked all participants to choose a person at random for a hug of fifteen minutes duration. Afterwards, all participants huddled together for an additional five minutes.

Since 2000, Gao Brothers have hugged hundreds of strangers and organised group hugging performances with strangers at many public locations in different ways and have taken a lot of interesting photographs.

The Gao Brothers are proposing an ongoing series of World Hug Day events around the globe via the internet, and so far have got enormous feedback and support.”

Q: In your view what is the most meaningful artwork you’ve created? Why?



Point of View Chair by Gao Brothers (2007). Mixed Media.

Point of View Chair by Gao Brothers (2007). Mixed Media








In our eyes, our artworks are all different and irreplaceable. It’s difficult to decide which one carries the most meaning.

Q: How long have you been involved in art and how has your art evolved over time?

We have been working for 20 years. Regarding the transformation of our artwork, there’s a lot of articles written by art critics, but it’s hard for us to say.

Q: Were your parents supportive of your decision to pursue art as a career? Would you encourage your children (if you have any) to pursue art? Did you think you would become this successful?

My father passed away a long time ago during the Cultural Revolution. My mother was skillful at paper-cutting but she became ill and died in 1999. She gave us plenty of support for creating art. Our children are interested in art, too, so we definitely support their decision to pursue their interests. Initially we became involved in art purely from the heart and never considered whether or not we would succeed. Even now we don’t consider ourselves too successful.

Q: Any obstacles in your art career?

IMG_9799Too many unforgettable obstacles. The most memorable took place in 1989 during which we participated in the Contemporary Chinese Art Exposition in Beijing. By coincidence we took part in the “Pub Petition Incident” in which the intellectual circle demanded that the government release the political criminal Wei Jing Sheng*.

After Wei Jing Sheng was released from the prison and before his second imprisonment, we paid him a visit. As matter of a fact, we weren’t acquainted with Wei Jing Sheng. He simply wanted to invite us to participate in the China-Japan-Korea Contemporary Art Show organized by him and Huang Rui. However, due to the petition and the correspondence with Wei, we were placed on the government’s infamous black list as “national criminals”. For ten years we couldn’t obtain our visa, which had a profound impact on our participation in international art activities.

In 2001,  the organizer of the 49th Venice Biennale, Harald Szeemann invited us to the  Opening Ceremony to demonstrate our “hugging”. Unfortunately we failed to obtain a visa. We were even prepared to smuggle ourselves out but eventually we decided not to go. It wasn’t until 2003 when we were invited to attend the Second Rome International Photography Festival that we were taken off the black list and given the visa.

*Note: Wei Jing Sheng was “an activist in the Chinese democracy movement, most prominent for authoring the document Fifth Modernization on the “Democracy Wall” in Beijing in 1978.”

Q: What message do you want to convey through your art?

Liberty, peace and compromises, human love, and many more related yet ineffable messages.

Q: What are the characteristics of your artwork?

This is rather difficult for us to discuss too…

 Q: You’ve done so many “world hugging” events in various cities (which ones?). Which have made the biggest impression on you and why? What did you think of the one in Hong Kong?


Final round of embrace on a hot July day in Hong Kong.

Final round of embrace on a hot July day in Hong Kong.

Gao (in black) giving a participant an enthusiastic hug.

Gao (in black) giving a participant an enthusiastic hug.

Ever since 2000, we have been “hugging” in Jinan, Beijing, London, Nottingham, Marseilles, Arles, Berlin, Tokyo, and many more cities. Each “hugging” left a deep impression on us. Despite the fact that the fewest number of people showed up for “hugging” in Hong Kong, it was still memorable. The number of attendees at the hugging event carries more or less some sort of implications. Actually, we don’t really think it’s that Hong Kong doesn’t embrace hugging. It was so scorching hot that having some hugging enthusiasts was enough to move us deeply.

Q: You just went to Macau today. Was it for the “world hugging” event again? What are the differences between their attitudes and Hong Kong people’s?

Gao Brothers' demonstration of hugging outside the Hong Kong Arts Center, late-July 2009.

Gao Brothers' demonstration of hugging outside the Hong Kong Arts Center, late-July 2009.

We were invited by Para/Site to do the hugging in Hong Kong. Macau didn’t invite us. We only went as tourists and didn’t make any hugging plan.

Q: Your next stop is Israel. What do you expect?

Last year we already received the “hugging” invitation from Israel. It would be nice to have an Israeli and a Palestinian hug each other.

Q: Have there been any changes in mainland contemporary art? How is the freedom of expression? Have you encountered any difficulties or objections?

Every artist is different. We’ve always been busy with our own work, so we haven’t paid sufficient attention to other artists. With a lack of comprehensive understanding, it’s difficult to say about the changes in mainland Chinese contemporary art. To us, it’s not bad, even though the art examination regulations in China do not permit public exhibition of certain pieces of our artwork.

Q: Can you perceive any differences between Hong Kong and mainland contemporary art?

We don’t have an adequate understanding of contemporary Hong Kong art to discuss it. 

Q: Which other artists inspire you?

Are there not enough ridiculous, not enough stimulating events happening in the world every day? Why would we need to excavate inspiration from the salt of other artists?

Q: Among photography, sculptures, and performance art, which one do you prefer?

About the same. A bit bored with all of them.

Q: What would you like to do next artistically?

Film. We’re in the process of revising a script to make a film.

Spice up with Perspectives

                                     – on the Hugging Scene in Hong Kong


Gao (in white) hugging a participant outside the Hong Kong Arts Center in late July, 2009.

Gao (in white) hugging a participant outside the Hong Kong Arts Center in late July, 2009.

As the Gao Brothers observed, the number of  participants who turned up for the hugging event organised by Para/Site in Hong Kong  was scanty and many of those who did participate were not even from Hong Kong. So what did the organizers and the spectators think about their World Hug Performance in Hong Kong? Art Radar explores behind the scene:

Alvaro Rodriguez Fominaya, Curator of Para/Site Art Space:

Q: Why did you invite the Gao Brothers to do this performance (hugging)? 

I wanted to test the use of public space in Hong Kong. The Gao Brothers performance is very much connected to the Chinese physique, but also the public dimension of it is quite fundamental to this work of art. In practice, the project has proved how many burdens and restrictions exist in preparing this type of event that engages the public sphere in Hong Kong.

Q: What did you think of the performance?  

The performance has a degree of improvisation that I love. As it adapts to each new situation, it is quite fluid and dynamic, and it blends and connects with the social, cultural and political framework of the location in which it takes place. This time it was specifically connected to Hong Kong. With the greater involvement of the artists in the performance, this probably highlighted some relational issues, as it took a turn more towards the sculptural and the theatrical.

Q: How is it similar or different from other artists’ performance or exhibitions? 

Every time they stage this performance it has a different meaning and a different result. I find this work meaningful in relation to the other works, but on a superficial level it might seem unrelated to their work, specifically their sculpture, painting and photography. However the notion of the outer boundaries of the body and its political inferences are  themes that run through their art practice.

Beth Smits, an art collector and a professional in the banking sector:

I only wish more people in Hong Kong had participated in the hug day. I was watching from the side at the start, and people came up to me to ask “what is going on?” They were genuinely curious and when I explained it to them, they were very interested and supportive. Later, I did actually get involved and hugged the two artists and others there. While I admittedly felt awkward at first, I appreciate the powerful symbolism of this act amongst strangers. I am now a huge fan of their work – beyond the world hug days, too, and look forward to seeing what they do next.

Contributed by Wendy Ma

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One Response to “Hugs in Hong Kong by mainland artists formerly branded national criminals – interview Gao Brothers”

  1. What is the DSL collection?

    The dsl Collection was created in 2005 and focuses on contemporary Chinese art. It is a private collection currently representing 90 of the leading Chinese avant-garde artists, most of whom have a major influence on the development of contemporary art in China today. Even though it focuses on the contemporary production of works of art of all media of a specific culture, the collection is not guided by the search for an ‘otherness’. It admits basic cultural similarities and dispositions and goes beyond the simplistic approach of looking for typical cultural signs and symbols.

    The collection is not only significant on a personal level, but also on a larger scale. We start from a museum approach, which means that we are collecting a wide range of media including painting, sculpture, installation, video, and photography. Furthermore, the choice of works is not oriented on the trends of the market. To choose this kind of approach implies making the collection accessible for the public, as well as documenting the featured works.

    The major tools to achieve these goals is the use of new technologies, such as the internet and interactive programs and supports, like for example electronic books. These tools provide the means to share the experience of contemporary culture and to make it more accessible and meaningful for a broader public.

    How did we become interested in Chinese art?

    Art is the mirror of a Society.
    When my wife and I came to Shanghai for the first time in 2005, I felt that there was another logic existing here; something that speaks of a very schizophrenic attitude towards economic development. The city embodies a ceaseless pursuit of the “superhuman” that redefines traditional definitions of humanity, sustainability, scale, and speed. Somehow these feelings were very inspiring and we wanted to find art and artists that express the relationships between contemporary art production and society. We are also interested by the Chinese artists who are living outside mainland China, in Taiwan, for instance, and mainly in the Chinese Diaspora in Europe and the United States. These artists have played a decisive role in defining Chinese contemporary art to audience outside China.
    One should also not forget that apart from having a 6000 (5,000?) year-old cultural history, China is the biggest cultural space in the world.

    How is our collection different than other collections?

    We never compare our collection with others because every collection is by nature unique. However, we follow strict personal guide lines in building our collection.

    About Collecting, how do you approach it?
    “Collecting,” is not “accumulating.” and it is not “investing.” It is acquiring objects that have some relation to each other and putting those objects into the kind of order that reflects the collector’s response to them. Each true collection achieves a personality beyond and apart from the sum of the objects. I feel also that diversity is one of the main strengths of a collection.
    What role does the Collector play?

    The Collector should not take centre stage himself and should let the art itself be at the centre of the collection. Artists should be given the maximum spotlight. My role, my real power is to make that happened (My role and my aim is to make this happen. Its what the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist calls “the fundamental invisibility.”
    What is the the dsl Collection viewpoints?
    – A museum approach
    At first we looked at Chinese art according to our personal tastes, but we very soon realized that very few people were systematically collecting Chinese contemporary art, either in China or outside — neither institutions, nor individuals had a museum approach and even less so a university museum approach.
    And why this kind of approach?
    University museums are unlike other museums. They are not intended to have a powerhouse of masterworks on display, though some have their share of these. They are, before all else, teaching instruments intended for students and scholars to use in a hands-on way. As such, they often house objects that are considered of second- and third-tier value at auction but that fill out a deep and detailed account of cultural history. Intellectual adventure is privileged over box-office appeal.
    – Education and entertainment
    Entertainment and education have quite different intents, but they can be integrated to achieve both aims. Certainly the demand from younger people has shifted strongly to only paying attention if content is truly entertaining. Beyond that, Art is fundamentally about providing experiences. People today seek engaging and powerful experiences.
    In such a large country, how do you choose your artists?
    We try at the same time to acquire new works from emerging artists and maintaining interest in the works of China’s more established big names. We are always keen to find individuals who are interested to see where the prevailing boundaries lie, either in terms of content, of materials, of disciplines and how they can push these open; I respond most to art that has powerful links to both the times and the context in which it was created.
    We think also that chinese contemporary art at the moment is in the process of breaking away from the Western art canon, which has sort of hit a dead end.

    What is our focus?

    In this New Age, a private collection is also about inspiring people.
    Dsl collection would like to become a platform that is accessible to everybody from everywhere. A place where people can have exciting experiences, build their knowledge and actively participate. With the help of curators and critics we try to get the audience engaged and, consequently, move ideas forward and extend interest in Chinese contemporary art. We see the dsl collection as a place that provides experiences with content and also enables participatory experiences–with other people, both visitors and experts.
    Consequently, apart from building the collection, dsl is carrying two strategies aimed at increasing and deepening participation and developing education.

    Why is the internet platform interesting in our collection?

    Having chosen a museum approach, we felt an obligation to make the works available to the public. The challenge of attracting audiences is hardly new.
    We have to admit that many brick and mortar museums for the most part are kind of hidden jewels .They do not have great foot traffic and often they are unable to exhibit many of their important works at the same time.
    That is why, as for showing the works we have decided upon, to primarily use technology by creating a website: Nevertheless, nothing will ever replace a direct contact between the audience and an artwork.
    dsl collection has also adopted many of the internet tools to increase the audience. This is done by creating interactive and participatory forms of engagement and altering the traditional relationship between art and its audience. The online technology allows this flexibility. Our daughter Karen is more and more involved in the collection is focussing in particular on social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook and Second Life.
    These latest online services are creating new, more interactive and participatory forms of engagement and altering the traditional relationship between art and its audience.

    Does the internet platform play a larger role in China than in the West , and why?

    The internet is important because It renders possible an ” EVERYBODY, EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME” experience!
    This choice is even more important in the case of China where you currently have 300 million people connected and 100 million personal blogs.

    Will there be a space to eventually view the collection?

    We are working on the concept of a nomad collection that could go from China to Europe and the United States. Meanwhile many works are on loan to museums or biennales. We are of the principle that whenever an artist wants to have his work exhibited, it should always be made available. We would like to have the first exhibition of the collection in a museum in the United States

    How will the collection evolve?

    The collection is limited to a specific number of art works – about 150 pieces – that, as an entity, is open to constant redefinition. Openness, movement and communication are basic qualities we want to promote. Another important point: When we collect a work of art, you are essentially acquiring not just one work of art but a part in the artist’s entire body of work which is known as an oeuvre. It means that if this oeuvre evolves in a direction that is not the good one for us we decease the work.
    We shall focus more and more on education by being ever more present in China in particular. In 2010 dsl collection will be in charge of an Art Management course at the Shanghai University.

    Why is art important? What inspires us?

    Art is a way to make our life better. It is not about inanimate objects, but about connecting to people. Thanks to this collection we discovered a great country with great people and a great culture

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