On March 24, 2011, about a week before renowned artist Ai Weiwei was arrested at the Beijing International Airport, another Chinese artist by the name of Guo Gai was arrested, along with a handful of people, by the Chinese government at the Beijing Museum of Contemporary Art. Guo, who is also a musician, photographer, and journalist, had been attending an exhibition called Sensitive Zone Action Art, which featured 60 artists creating work based on Chinese political events and social problems. According to Guo, the Chinese police believed the show was related to the Arab Spring and the Chinese movement for democracy, known as the “Jasmine Revolution.” Because Guo had been reporting on the event, he was arrested, as were five others that were present — including three artists, and one critic. They were kept in jail for a month.
“One month later, the Chinese police had made no progress on connecting the event with the Jasmine Revolution, so they had to release the five people,” Guo told Hyperallergic, calling the charges “ridiculous” and “inconsistent.” Nonetheless, he was monitored at home by a Chinese special agent.
In August of that same year, Guo showed his work at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. I remember being completely awestruck by his provocative and gruesome photographs, complete with nudity, allusions to Christianity and traditional Chinese culture, and bondage. The work was featured in an extensive group exhibition, Three Artists: Guo Gai, Meng Tang, Slinko, curated by Thomas Rose from the University of Minnesota and the gallery’s then-curator, Ben Heywood.
Rose said he happened to meet Guo when he was visiting a village outside of Beijing — Guo was driving the car of the professor’s translator. They stopped by Guo’s studio, where Rose would see the photographs that would end up at the Soap Factory, and listened to a choral work — a lament for people who had died in various economic and natural disasters that had occurred in China over the 10 years prior to composing the piece — which was also included in the show. The photographs depicted Guo’s wife at the time, dressed as a Dan character (a female character often portrayed in the Peking Opera tradition) bound with ropes and gagged.
Guo was born in Beijing in 1957 and worked as a farm laborer after graduating from high school in 1976. A few years later, he was an apprentice in a Beijing sculpture factory, learning stone carving. “Besides the study in the sculpture factory, I have never had any other formal art education,” he said.
Guo doesn’t consider his work to be political. Instead, he sees what he’s doing as truth telling. Today, five years after the anniversary of his arrest, I reached out to him to find out the current direction he is taking as an artist, only to discover that he continues to pursue this truth-telling notion that underlies his various bodies of work, particularly his evocative photography.
Recently, Guo shared with me a different series of photographs he created in 2013 that depicts a man with bloodied bandages over his eyes and hands, holding onto a soiled and bloody doll. Like the bound and gagged Dan character in the Soap Factory exhibit, these photographs, called Who Raped My Daughter, go for the jugular, using caustic imagery to reveal horrific truths — in this case, a particular incident that happened at an elementary school of Wanning County, Hainan Province, in 2013. The photographs stop you in your tracks. Guo completely commits to the intense imagery through saturated color, violent metaphor, and harrowing content based on real-life events.
His recent sculptural images of Buddha, on the other hand, transcend political discourse, finding inspiration in the divine. Guo’s Buddha is gender-fluid, with slight breasts, a feminine face, and male anatomy, with an alert attention in prayer.
Guo strikes the right balance between the profane and the spiritual in another series of photographs called The Faces of China, which offers a nuanced exploration of discontent and sadness among people he met on Beijing’s streets. Like his more aggressive photographs featured in the Soap Factory show, the portraits in The Faces of China contain political messages, but reach a subtler understanding of the human condition.
Guo has been working on The Faces of China series, which contains over 3,000 photographs, for the last three years. The expressions of his subjects show malaise and restlessness. The photos were mainly taken in various free markets around Beijing.
“I took quick snapshots to get those photos,” Guo said. “People were walking around, it was very random. There were more people I would have liked to taken photos of, but because of the uncertainty, I couldn’t make it.” He didn’t interview his subjects, but rather lets their expressions tell the story. “Though my focus was that they are unhappy, it could be proved by a thousand faces,” he said.
Currently, Guo cannot show work in China, though he does still keep a studio that is open to visitors. “My artwork is not allowed to be shown because they think my artwork brings shame on China,” Guo said. He says his “truth-writing articles,” which range from critical essays to news writing, are forbidden as well as most of his artwork.
“In China, it is very hard for someone who tells the truth and truthfully describes what happened to the world,” Guo said. He attributes his strong conscience and psychological resilience to his ability to win over fear. “Until now, I don’t think I have made a wrong thing,” he said.
“Living in China is just like the elephant in the room,” said Meng Tang, a Chinese artist who showed along with Guo at the Soap Factory and teaches at the University of Minnesota. “There’s no way for you to avoid political issues. If you are a very sensitive person, you will feel really extremely angry.”
I have thought of Guo’s work often since I saw it five years ago. Partly because the shocking imagery has been seared into my memory, but also because I worried he might still be under watch, which only adds an urgency and meaning to his truth-telling art.
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