In the predawn, the Great Wall seems almost insubstantial, a ghost of its daytime presence. Gao Minglu, a young student, walks alone along the wall’s notched ridge, his fingers brushing the cool stones, his mind adrift in history.
This is Gao’s first visit to the wall. This section has been rebuilt, salvaged from the centuries. Gao thinks of the great expanses of space and time inside and outside the wall. He has stopped here on his way to Beijing, 30-odd miles to the south, where he will study art history at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts. Far to the north, beyond the Yan Mountains, lies the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, where years earlier Gao began his education in more ways than one. He gazes out into the expiring darkness and feels time washing over him like the waves of an invisible ocean. He sees the slumbering peaks of the mountains, like camel humps, and his mind drifts back to a terrible time more than a decade ago.
The frozen ground knocked the breath out of Gao’s body. Ice crystals scoured his cheeks as he curled up, gasping. By the time his friend helped him regain his feet, Gao’s camel had vanished into the snowstorm. Something had frightened the beast; it reared up, slinging Gao to the ground. He futilely brushed the snow from his coat. Beyond 30 feet, the world was a white, howling blur. He and his friend were lost. There was no food, no water; only a single camel remained, and night was falling.
In a way, Gao had been lost for more than a month. China’s Cultural Revolution was sweeping the nation, millions caught up in the chaos. Urged on by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and armed with cult-like fervor and small red books of Mao’s sayings, groups of Red Guards were rising up, abusing, torturing, jailing, and killing intellectuals and moderates—anyone lacking “revolutionary spirit.”
Among the victims was Gao’s family—his father arrested as a supposed dissident and 12-year-old Gao taken from his parents in the busy port city of Tianjin and shipped to Inner Mongolia for “reeducation.” Within days, the boy was working as a cattle herder who woke one morning to find his 100 head of cattle missing, driven into the grasslands by a fierce blizzard. Unwisely, he and his companion set out to find their charges, only to lose the tracks and their way in the thickening snow.
They huddled against the camel’s side as the cold set deeper and deeper into their bodies. Hunger tugged at Gao’s belly like a begging dog. He hoped with waning energy to survive the night.
Now nearly 24 years old, Gao walks the Great Wall as morning light begins to pour over the mountains, rising along the wall like floodwater. He remembers the sun rising after that harrowing night in Inner Mongolia, how he and his friend wandered on and would have died had they not come across a Mongolian family who took them in. How the boys were so frozen that the family used snow to slowly warm their skin. How the following five years brought no more adventures but instead staggering boredom, gazing across endless grasslands, the only sounds the wind and the crunching of grass between cow teeth. Every day at noontime, the sun seemed eternally frozen at its apex.
Something about the experience was like meditation, becoming deeply aware of meaning and of meaninglessness.
Yet, Gao feels hope rising with the light against the renewed wall. It is 1977, and the Cultural Revolution is over. China is shaking off the centuries like dust, casting its full weight into the future. Its doors are creaking open; the West awaits eagerly.
Gao will soon follow a course that will carry him through the tumultuous rebirth of a nation, place him as chief witness to the evolution of the Chinese contemporary art world, and eventually lead him a hemisphere away to the University of Pittsburgh.
He squints, grinning, as the mountains around him erupt in a red dawn. The written Chinese character for “red” can also mean “empty.” Meaning and meaninglessness. The struggle at the very heart of artistic creation.
On the eve of the Chinese New Year in February 1989, China’s first officially sanctioned exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, China/Avant-Garde, debuts to great public fanfare. For the crowds of fascinated Chinese gathering at the National Art Museum in Beijing, it is a chance to witness an unprecedented moment of free expression, to see art that breaks with Chinese tradition as well as with conservative Communist artistic dogma. For Gao, the exhibition is the culmination of three years of labor—he nearly single-handedly organized the entire show.
In one busy gallery, an artist stands beside her work: two phone booths a few feet apart, between them a mirror backed with a layer of Teflon, the material used in bulletproof vests. The work is titled Dialogue. The artist steps into one of the phone booths, facing the mirror. Gazing steadily at her reflection, she slips a gun from her shirt. An instant later, two deafening shots shatter the mirror, splintering her reflection.
In that moment, a cultural movement years in the making shatters, too.
The 1980s were a watershed decade for Chinese artistic expression, and Gao had his ear to the wall, listening to the signs of a cultural revolution different than the one that uprooted his life years before. After attending school in Inner Mongolia, Gao graduated from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1984 and became editor of China’s only art publication, Meishu (Art Monthly), positioning him as a person of great influence among Chinese artists.
“Art Monthly was the only publication to represent the public art world in China,” says Gao, who today is an associate professor in Pitt’s Department of History of Art and Architecture. “Every artist who wanted fame and exposure had to get published in this magazine.”
In late 1984, the Sixth National Art Exhibition opened in Beijing. It was a highly conservative show, the result of a government crackdown on “spiritual pollution.” Rebelling against this creative damper, young artists formed collectives and took their work beyond the studios and museums directly to the public. Exhibitions appeared in parks, plazas, the streets. The edgy nature of the art kept most of it out of the pages of the government-owned Art Monthly, but Gao organized lectures on the movement and conferences in which the art, with no space or financial support for official exhibitions, was displayed through slide shows. He found himself the caretaker of what he came to call the ’85 Movement.
“I had to do almost everything,” says Gao. “Organize conferences, write as a critic and art historian, curatorial work. That period was very intensive. I don’t know where my energy came from. Maybe it came from the years of silence in Inner Mongolia and school, where I never talked, only read and studied.”
The ’85 Movement culminated in the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition. Gao had spent three years breaking down the walls in the government that had prevented such a large display of cutting-edge conceptual art. The exhibition’s thin catalogue featured a “No U-Turn” traffic symbol on the cover. For Gao, and for the country, the exhibition’s logo was appropriate: There was no going back.
Police stormed the room and arrested the gun-wielding artist. Gao saw the glass strewn across the floor and realized that salvaging the exhibition’s future would be about as easy as piecing the mirror back together.
In permitting the show, the government insisted on three rules: nothing political, nothing pornographic, and no performance art. But at about 3 p.m. on February 5, 1989, the young artist with a gun turned the world of Chinese art on its head. Her act of artistic “suicide” flagrantly broke the rules.
“When the exhibition opened, it was a celebration for the artists,” says Gao. “They were so excited, yet so ambitious, and their desire had been suppressed for a long time. The gallery was an official space, and they wanted to do whatever they could to insult that space.”
The artist’s violent performance in the art gallery ultimately led officials to shut down the exhibition for three days. The show re-opened and was shut down again because of a bomb threat. As usual, the art world presaged things to come. In mere months, Chinese students and workers filled Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square, challenging the government’s political and economic policies. The uprising was brutally put down. Estimates range from 400 to more than 2,500 people killed, with thousands of others injured or imprisoned.
Later, Gao would hear people call the shots fired in the National Art Museum the first of the Tiananmen Square protests.
When Gao steps into the apartment, paper crackles underfoot. The room, belonging to husband-and-wife artists Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, is tiny—hardly 30 square feet. It is strewn with art. On the bed, on the refrigerator, hanging off the television, scattered over the floor, are hundreds of “culture noodles”—books and newspapers cut into strips. Pages and pages of meticulously drawn plans for complex art installations also adorn the room. This, Gao thinks, is something new.
Gao, like many artists and intellectuals, did not escape the repercussions of the Tiananmen protests. He was confined to his home and forced to study Marxism. After a year, with the help of another scholar of Chinese art at The Ohio State University, Gao was able to secure permission to leave China for the United States in 1991. He then enrolled at Harvard to pursue his doctorate. At the same time, during the mid-1990s, he began organizing another breakthrough in his field: Inside/Out: New Chinese Art, the first large exhibition of Chinese contemporary art in the United States. The four-year effort to put the show together took Gao back to China, seeking the artists whose visions would reveal the soul of a nation immersed in rampant change.
It was on these trips that Gao discovered in the homes of artists like Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen another Chinese art phenomenon: Apartment Art.
“Apartment Art is art that responded to the moment, the condition of making art in the early 1990s in China,” says Gao. In the post-Tiananmen atmosphere, contemporary artists faced harsh censorship and could not secure the funding or space to produce and exhibit their artwork. So they turned to the only space and materials available to them: their homes and personal possessions.
“What caught my attention was that the art all related to the artists’ personal environments, their families, their lives,” says Gao. “The materials all came from their apartments, their surroundings.” In one apartment, Gao found a pool of inky water, a perfectly still black surface broken only by intermittent drops from a pipe above. In another, he saw a deep hole dug in the floor, containing a television playing a looping video. He found artwork made from clothes, beds, food.
Whatever projects the artists could not carry out were planned and sketched out in great detail, what Gao terms Proposal Art. Artists would invite other artists to attend exhibitions in their homes and meetings to exchange ideas. They sent postcards of their art to each other.
“It was a silent movement, an exchange through paper,” says Gao. “There was a limitation about communication, about publication and displaying the art. All of these difficulties forced these artists to make their art at home.”
In one of his performance artworks, Song Dong wrote diaries in water on a stone: art that vanished almost as soon as it was made, in a country where changes were and still are occurring so quickly it is nearly impossible to read and understand them. The Apartment Art phenomenon lasted only about four years, beginning in 1993. If not for Gao, who coined the term “Apartment Art” and publicized it through writings and exhibitions, the efforts of these artists may have gone largely undocumented, silent, hidden behind the mazelike walls of China’s urban landscapes.
In a vast room in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., Gao watches as the wall rises into the rafters. Workers crouched on beams high overhead slowly draw six rice-paper banners skyward. Imprinted on the banners and on giant hangings on either side is a spectral image of the Great Wall, crafted over many hours through an arduous rubbing technique. The massive work is part of Gao’s latest curatorial effort, The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art. The exhibition is the largest Chinese contemporary art show ever displayed in both China and the United States, a true collaboration orchestrated by Gao between the Millennium Art Museum in Beijing and the Albright-Knox and University at Buffalo art galleries.
Gao conceived The Wall in 1996, while organizing the Inside/Out exhibition. In 2001, as a new professor at the University at Buffalo, he began work on the groundbreaking show. “The wall is not just an architectural component, but an abstract idea,” says Gao. “The concept of a wall includes boundaries, identity, differences in gender, culture, and artistic creation.”
In many ways, the exhibition, which ran from October 2005 through January 2006, proved among the most challenging for Gao. Issues of budgeting, logistics, political sensitivity, and censorship all had to be addressed. Then there were the differences in culture.
“In China, contemporary art serves only a small circle,” says Gao. “Many do not know what defines contemporary art. We wanted to show what contemporary Chinese art is and how, over the last 20 years, Chinese artists have dealt with the changing Chinese society. In the United States, the challenge is how to provide a clear interpretation and a better understanding of Chinese art. Not only art, but the entirety of Chinese society.”
The results of the exhibition were spectacular, attracting substantial crowds in both countries and cementing Gao as the leading voice in his field.
“Gao straddles both worlds: contemporary art and Chinese art. He makes them so accessible on all levels,” says Holly Hughes, associate curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. She adds that Gao’s new history of Chinese contemporary art, which shares the exhibition’s name and served as its catalogue, will be a seminal work for years to come.
Having completed his latest project, Gao looked for more fertile ground to continue his work. He was already impressed by Pitt’s faculty, particularly Terry Smith, a Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory with whom Gao collaborated on a 1997 exhibition, and Katheryn M. Linduff, professor of art history and anthropology, whose expertise in ancient Chinese art Gao learned of as a student in China.
Add Pitt’s East Asian Library—which Gao ranks among the top 10 nationwide—and his choice was simple. He joined Pitt in fall 2005 and intends to make the University a center of Chinese contemporary art scholarship.
“I want to build a strong Chinese contemporary art program at Pitt,” he says. “These programs are very rare.”
He couldn’t have chosen a better time. “Chinese contemporary art is a hot area right now,” says Hughes. “Gao will only become more important as the field gathers more attention.”
The program Gao envisions could prove increasingly important as China’s clout grows. The ’85 Movement, Apartment Art, Proposal Art: Gao is constructing a language for critically understanding China’s contemporary art. In so doing, he also is creating a way to understand Chinese society through its art. He is concerned with art’s usefulness, in China and abroad.
“Art never served the people in Mao’s era,” he says. “It only served the state, the ideology. Now, art serves the market, not the people. How can art serve the people? That’s the challenge.”
The answer to this question and others lays hidden behind some wall yet scaled. Gao gazes at the rice-paper wall as the workers finish securing it. He can hear voices echoing on the other side.