I first met Chinese artist He Gong in May 2019, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, when I visited his studio in the Lushan Art Village on the southern fringes of the city. The studio was located in a Mediterranean-style complex complete with narrow lanes, ochre-coloured walls and lush unruly bougainvillea. Gong had two dogs one of which was a ferocious monster. Its growl made my hair stand on end while its own hair was a carefully orchestrated mass of Bob Marley dreadlocks that swept the floor. Its companion dog was Chopin, a huge white bear of a thing and as gentle, benign, and friendly as one could imagine. Chopin was long into its dotage and its favourite activity was to lay curled up at a visitor’s feet. Sad to say, Gong told me in a recent telephone call from California where he is a Covid exile, that Chopin had passed on. He was devastated. ‘I dream about him and I chase him in the dream, but I cannot find him. He runs so fast. He was just like my son,’ he recalled sadly.
The Chengdu Studio
Gong has managed to keep his Chengdu studio functioning through various lockdowns and absences and has a student friend living there for good measure. It is spread over several large rooms with high gable ceilings where walls, floors and almost every conceivable surface is covered in stacks of sombre paintings plus bits and pieces from the monolithic installations that he constructs. The overall effect creates a giant visual palimpsest of arcane symbolism. Many of his installations, which are often crafted from multiple sheets of paper that somehow cling together beneath thick layers of paint, are on the verge of separating. Gentle curlicues of errant paper droop their corners toward the dystopic mess on the floor. Perched high at the top of a vertiginous staircase is a tiny eyrie of a room that serves as a bedroom. It is packed with life mementos, books and a computer.
Gong was born in 1955, in Chongqing, and his formative years paralleled those of communism under Chairman Mao. When Gong was two years old, his father (an outspoken intellectual and teacher in Chongqing) began to question the tenets of the communist party. In 1957, he was hauled off to ‘a concentration camp’ as an ‘anti-revolutionary’, where he spent the next 22 years of his life before eventually being released in 1979.
Re-education on a Farm
When he was sixteen, Gong was sent to the countryside for seven years’ re-education with communist farmers. ‘In the countryside, many young students like me would listen to Taiwan’s Free China Voice (Voice of Free China 1949-1998) on the radio. It was illegal to do this and if you were found out you might go to jail. Taiwan used to encourage young people to escape and leave China. The radio stated we could swim from the mainland across to Hong Kong and get a boat from there to Taiwan. We thought, yes! We can try that. I arranged to take a cargo train to Wuhan and then go to Guangzhou to meet up with my friend and take a boat. I waited in Guangzhou for him, but he did not come. I went back to the farm and six months later, I heard that he had been captured whilst trying to escape. He was sentenced to 15 years in jail. It was then that trains started to be something in my life. When I eventually went to university, I was able to take trains everywhere. In 1994-95, I spent eight months in Europe studying and travelling by train, it was like an escape,’ Gong remembered.
Trains were to became a formative component of Gong’s art practice that reaches across four decades and deals with the global concerns of personal freedom, authoritarian control, and how dissidents were often banished by train to prisons in far flung places. During his time travelling through Europe, he became fascinated with railway stations, too. “They made me feel I was encountering the generation of American artists and writers who were exiles in Europe, or soldiers from two world wars, or Jews and dissidents who had been transported by train to concentration camps,’ he said. This idea of enforced diaspora and the resulting incarceration triggered Gong’s imagination. ‘Now I always look back at world history to find narratives for my art. So, lots of images in my paintings are from WW2, and post war and Eastern Europe for example,’ he explained.
Gong pulls no punches in his paintings. They are always densely packed with imagery and are predominantly monochrome. Equally his installations are gargantuan and often portray gloomy heavily shadowed spaces alluding to social transgressions in a world where the structures that define humanity have unravelled and where compassion has become as rare as hen’s teeth.
Surface Texture Important to He Gong
Surface texture plays a critical element in Gong’s art and his paint is often multi-layered that is built into a thick visceral impasto creating in the process a visual sense of a ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, where narrative and subject oscillate between figuration and abstraction. One feels driven to scrape away the craggy surface paint to discover what is concealed beneath. Some paintings are straight forward in their iconographic framing, others less so – and the former often deliver their messages in a formal stripped clean visual language. Ultimatum (2019-20) is one such painting where surface texture and narrative share a simple, and direct – some might even say naïve – sentiment. In an ink-black indeterminate space – a cave perhaps – a shaft of white light enters and folds around a giant loud speaker – loud speakers are one of Gong’s favoured tropes – that directs its bloated horn towards a diminutive, in comparison, prone figure of the Pope stretched upon an old hospital bed. It is a chilling narrative of control through the tools of propaganda and the struggle between communism and religion. Neither side is endowed with any humanitarian singularity.
Bombastic loud speakers frequent Gong’s work and they litter the studio. In a 2019 survey of his work, at Shanghai’s Himalayas Art Museum, there were several examples – from a giant tower of speakers sited in a sinister space to a specially fabricated giant version of just one speaker that over-whelmed by its sheer immensity. If it had been working, its decibels would have sent visitors running. But sometimes Gong’s loud speakers are diminutive in size, the type that one would be seen attached to lamp-posts in cities where they would spread authoritarian propaganda
This allusion to authoritarian control is the thread that runs through all of Gong’s work. It is hard to find any respite as one navigates his unique dystopic world that is grim, dark, and uncomfortable. A world conveyed through intense black and white, one where colour is banished in the face of Gong’s monochromatic palette. ‘Black and white represents the original state of being. It is about dream versus reality and contradiction and conflict,’ Gong said.
Road Trip to South America
In 2012, colour returned briefly to Gong’s painting when he created a huge map of South America on which he indicated with an arrowed yellow line the 1952 motorcycle journey made by Marxist revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, through the continent, a journey that lasted nine months. Gong had traced Guevara’s journey over five months on an old 1950s Russian motorbike that was eventually abandoned in favour of travelling by train. The large-scale vividly coloured map is exhibited on the floor like a carpet and visitors can follow Gong’s and Guevara’s journey by following the yellow line. It is like walking on an immense game of snakes and ladders.
Gong’s world is one where market forces have coalesced with authoritarianism in a dangerous coalition of privilege and power. The disenfranchised in this world are not heard and slip beneath streets filled with rubble and detritus a recurrent subject in his installations where discarded bicycle wheels, dented watering cans and all manner of domestic objects tumble from the thick paint to which they pretend to be anchored, to end up on the gallery floor like unruly adolescents.
Gong admits to being a reactionary artist, and therefore a dangerous one, and makes no attempt to hide the truth. ‘I am very critical and very political,’ he stated recently. It is a dangerous position to hold in a country such as China, but his abstruse visual vocabulary is not always easy to interpret which has facilitated him being able to successfully negotiate the strictures of China’s art police.
Railway Train to the Gulag (2019) is a seminal work for Gong. It features a sinister anthropomorphic Soviet-era train that uses enforced relocation as its major trope. The painting is a monolithic triptych, 380 x 750 cm, and since I first saw it leaning against Gong’s studio wall in 2019, it and four companion works (also dotted about the Chengdu studio) have been acquired by Australian billionaire art collector Judith Neilson, whose collection of contemporary Chinese art now numbers 2,000 works by 700 plus artists dating from 2000 to the present. All five works now hang in Neilson’s private Phoenix Central Park Gallery in Sydney where Gong joins a distinguished company that includes Ai Weiwei, Sun Xun and Liu Wei.
Railway Train to the Gulag
Railway Train to the Gulag is a visual narrative of the Gulag story as told by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his 1973 book The Gulag Archipelago. It is a grim and sombre painting of a grim and sombre subject. An unruly crowd of political prisoners scramble close to the train, grotesquely enlarged prosthetic limbs, crutches, a toppled Pope fill the painting’s foreground. While a bank of loudspeakers, the type that would spew forth communist propaganda that a youthful Gong would have been familiar with in China during the early years of communism, sit four-square on the train’s roof.
Gong remains a Chinese citizen, but has held an American Green Card for several years and until quite recently divided his time equally between California and Chengdu. Since 2004, he has taught art at Sichuan University, where he has held a professorial position. However, life as a university academic in China can be difficult. ‘Student information officers’ watch their professors closely for any signs of deviant ideological views or pronouncements that appear disloyal to the Communist Party and the slightest display of dissent can have consequences. Gong by his own admission admits to being out spoken. ‘I say a lot of sensitive things and the university is a little afraid I will make trouble. They recently persuaded me to retire,’ he explained.
Return to the Chengdu Studio
Gong will return to Chengdu soon. There is a survey show of his work planned for the end of this year at the Lushan Art Museum and a pragmatic Gong accepts that his work will be the subject of close scrutiny by authorities. ‘The museum curators recently said that while I can always run away and hide if any of my work proves controversial, they must deal with the situation on the ground and any bad behaviour could, for them, lead to a 12-month enforced shutdown,’ Gong said. But dealing with the art police is an integral part of being a working artist in China. I ask whether China’s increasing political sensitivity now means that his work is self-censored. He reflects for a moment before answering. ‘Sometimes I have to change things to satisfy the propaganda department. I am not going to deliberately make trouble, but I hope my paintings will help to educate Chinese people about the corruption that exists,’ he said.
Gong is now (October) back in the Chengdu studio planning the survey show, which will feature several of the large-scale works that were previously seen in Shanghai in 2019 along with new paper-based work that he has worked on in a ‘garage’ studio at his California bolt-hole. Although he recently said by text that the three-month long exhibition, originally slotted to open in December, may well be delayed to February through scheduling problems as a result of Covid. Winter in Chengdu can be extremely cold and I can imagine Gong huddled in his studio eyrie surrounded by books dreaming of his beloved dog, Chopin.
BY MICHAEL YOUNG