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Gao's Chinese zodiac animals (above) and one of the works from his Discrepancy series. He says dreams boost us and give us "big bellies", but the sculptures' mini wings are a reminder that reality keeps us grounded.
Gao's Chinese zodiac animals and one of the works from his Discrepancy series (above). He says dreams boost us and give us "big bellies", but the sculptures' mini wings are a reminder that reality keeps us grounded.

Charming way to reflect life and emotions

Behind these sculptures lie a lifetime of research into Chinese traditions and philosophy and hours of thought to make them impactful.
Sep 9, 2016 5:50 AM

AT first glance, Chinese artist Gao Xiaowu's works are too "cute" to be included in the canon of contemporary Chinese art. Take his balloon figures with tiny wings, for example, in his City of Dreams series. Or the smiling zodiac animals, all in standing positions, with paws bent in front and looking like soft toys dipped in bronze.

The 40-year-old artist first gained fame with his distinctive sculptures of human figures, bowed obsequiously at the waist but facing forward with closed eyes and a grin. The enigmatic grins and passive expressions are now very much his trademark. The figures were a comment on how human behaviour today has to fit into standardised forms and thus has become more restricted. The white-collar status that the Chinese want to attain also means that they have to conform.

Those 2004 sculptures, in Gao's Standard Times series, have since been copied and reproduced from Asia to Europe - a backhanded if detrimental compliment for the artist. But Gao has created many other series since - all a reflection of what's going on in his life and also his emotions, he says.

His City of Dreams, for example, reflects youthful idealism. "Ever since we're young, we're taught to dream but reality often doesn't match up to those dreams we have," explains Gao, whose dream it was to leave Xiamen and work in Beijing, which he did in the early 2000s.

The dreams boost us and give us "big bellies", but the mini-sized wings he's attached to the sculptures are a reminder that reality keeps us grounded. "It's the truth, and it was something that I grappled with when I moved to Beijing. But though it's not such a positive truth, I wanted to portray such ideas in ways that would be appealing to the audience. I want the audience to first be drawn to the beauty or humour in my art, and then understand the philosophy behind it."

Describing himself as an optimist, Gao shares that he prefers to use humour and irony to portray his ideas. Born in Sanming, Fujian province, he graduated from Xiamen Art Academy in 1999, and worked there for a little over three years before leaving to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 2004.

He comments little on politics, but prefers to reflect on the social issues affecting the common man. His works also reflect what he's going through in his own life. In 2007, he created Fell Asleep, dedicated to his wife, to indicate that sublime state of contentment and rest from worldly pursuits. In 2011 and 2012, he sculpted a series of babies held up by hands - reflecting his musings about his own children.

Having exhibited regularly in Singapore since 2006, Gao brings out smaller table-sized works from his Pet God series this time around for show. The series first started with the dragon and the lion - two symbols revered in Chinese culture. But by depicting them as soft toys - the grin, the bent paws, standing upright - he's also commenting on how society has lost its reverence for them.

"Not that I'm advocating religion, but what we have now is this 'imbalance between heaven and earth', as the Chinese saying goes," says Gao. "There's too much pursuit of material wealth without thought for spirituality."

Gao himself has started studying Buddhist philosophy a lot more - he recently enrolled in an eight-year course - as he ponders the idea of detachment.

The Discrepancy series depicting monks elevated on what looks like a screw, reflect the tussle between detachment and engagement. Gao himself doesn't believe in the idea of leaving society for one's own betterment, and believes that as an artist, he needs to reflect and critique on everyday issues in society.

"But it's not just highlighting problems. It's also about presenting a solution as well - that's more challenging but what I feel that artists could do," he notes.

He takes his contemporary artist's role seriously. "To be a contemporary artist is to create works that have an impact on people's lives, and to engage with them on current issues," he elaborates.

Ever the optimist, Gao also believes that his art can spur a similar positive, do-good spirit. "I want my art to have a ripple effect, and to make our society a better place," he says, with a smile.

  • Gao Xiaowu is one of three cultural ambassadors of the inaugural Chinese Culture Week (CCW) to be held in Singapore from Sept 9 to 13.
    CCW is spearheaded by Camellia Culture & Business Centre in partnership with the China Culture Centre and DesignSingapore Council. For more information on the events during CCW, please go to