1 Zola and Retail Marketing
2 Playing the Waiting Game
3 Beware the Ides of March
4 The county not on a map
5 Chinese Chess in Beijing
6 Build it and They'll Come
7 Riding the Water Dragon
8 The Best of Both Worlds
9 Storming the Great Wall
10 Welcome to the Wangba
11 The Catcher in the Rice
12 The Marriage Business
13 The Crouching Dragon
14 Counting the Numbers
15 A Century of Migration
16 Shooting for the Stars
17 Rise of Yorkshire Puds
18 Harry Potter in Beijing
19 Standing Out in China
20 Self-pandactualisation
21 Strolling on the Moon
22 Tea with the Brothers
23 Animated Guangzhou
24 Trouble on the Farms
25 Christmas in Haerbin
26 Dave pops into Tesco
27 A Breath of Fresh Air
28 The Boys from Brazil
29 Rolls-Royce on a roll
30 The Great Exhibition
31 Spreading the Word
32 On Top of the World
33 Moonlight Madness
34 Beijing's Wild West
35 Avatar vs Confucius
36 Brand Ambassadors
37 Inspiring Adventure
38 China's Sweet Spot
39 Spinning the Wheel
40 Winter Wonderland
41 The End of the Sky
42 Ticket to Ride High
43 Turning the Corner
44 Trouble in Toytown
45 Watch with Mother
46 Red-crowned Alert
47 In a Barbie World
48 Domestic Arrivals
49 Tale of Two Taxis
50 Land of Extremes
51 Of 'Mice' and Men
52 Tour of the South
53 Brooding Clouds?
54 The Nabang Test
55 Guanxi Building
56 Apple Blossoms
57 New Romantics
58 The Rose Seller
59 Rural Shanghai
60 Forbidden Fruit
61 Exotic Flavours
62 Picking up Pace
63 New Year, 2008
64 Shedding Tiers
65 Olympic Prince
66 London Calling
67 A Soulful Song
68 Paradise Lost?
69 Brandopolises
70 Red, red wine
71 Finding Nemo
72 Rogue Dealer
73 Juicy Carrots
74 Bad Air Days
75 Golden Week
76 Master Class
77 Noodle Wars
78 Yes We Can!
79 Mr Blue Sky
80 Keep Riding
81 Wise Words
82 Hair Today
83 Easy Rider
84 Aftershock
85 Bread vans
86 Pick a card
87 The 60th
88 Ox Tales
2001 to 2007

Tea with the Brothers

Miss Mao - Still under wraps

“Great to see you again!” exclaimed Xiao Gao.  I was amazed that he remembered me. 
  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 me.    

  “Would you like some tea?” he asked. 

  His didi, or younger brother, joined us a few minutes later and we settled down for a thirty-or-so minute tea-fuelled chat.

  “Have you 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 own iPhones?)     

  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.