Gao Bo’s 高波 (born in Sichuan province in 1964) works have been pushing the boundaries of photography, painting and installation, while challenging the notions of disappearance, duality and sacrifice. He discovered his vocation after a first trip to Tibet in 1985, where he produced a series of candid portraits with two cameras he borrowed from his teacher and from a friend. Between 1985 and 1995 he embarked upon five journeys to Tibet, capturing street life, Buddhist monks and breathtaking landscapes.
Ten years after, Gao Bo conceived a new arrangement of these photographs. He went back to Tibet during the summer of 2009 in order to rework them by using his blood as ink as well as an automatical calligraphy he invented. Over the years, he has been increasingly reworking his photographs, covering them with thick layers of painting, adding pieces of fabric and wood, and even burning them. As the essayist and curator Alejandro Castellote writes: “All of Gao Bo’s work is a circular journey, a permanent cycle of leaving and returning.
The interview below was conducted on 22 March 2017 while the Parisian Maison Européenne de la photographie was holding a retrospective of his work.
In your series “Offrandes au people du Tibet [Offerings to the Tibetan people, 谨献, jinxian]” (2009), you have frequently juxtaposed several photographs that were originally taken between the 1980s and 1990s, shifting the original visual narrative. Why have you chosen to associate one photograph with another?
Photographs are not only associated with one another, but also different years, places, and subject matters are mingled together. I took these pictures a while ago, during several trips I did in Tibet between 1985 and 1995. All the roll films stayed asleep for a long time. Then in 2009 I closed my architectural firm and decided to go back to my starting point [Gao Bo ran an architectural firm for several years before plunging himself into art practices]. I thought I should have a look at these images. After scrutinizing them, I asked to myself: did I really take these pictures? There were merely botched photos in my memory; I even didn’t take the time to mark contact sheets with a red pen to select specific images.
Strangely enough, I re-discovered a work that I actually didn’t know before. The first selection process of these works led to a publication. At that time I didn’t consider turning them into unique prints. The goal was simply to organize my archive. These works go beyond the principles of the series. The notions of photography, date, topic, and location are surpassed; they do not exist. Instead they belong to a re-composition process that came naturally.
You have also inscribed these photographs with a fictitious alphabet that you have named “langage de l’âme” [language of the soul]. Two very different types of inscriptions coexist: one looks like Chinese cursive writing whereas the other appears closer to Tibetan writing. Can you tell me more about these superimpositions of writings?
The writing that looks like Tibetan was not written by my own hand, but by Tibetan themselves. I invited them to directly engage with the artworks in the same way I did. We were writing all together at the same time. To me such interventions were fundamental.
It happened in 2009, when I took 146 sheets of paper with me and took the train en route to Tibet again. I attempted to locate the places where I took pictures before and tried to invite people to write in these very places. But sometimes it was difficult to organise, so in the end we planned these interventions in temples, in hotels, down the street, even in people’s home. I was never alone; I was always with them.
How Chinese and Tibetan audiences react to your works?
It is difficult to consider in a general way audiences. Yet it seems that Tibetan people who were interested in culture and art were shocked, because they thought my approach was very accurate, very moving. As for Chinese, I didn’t have the chance to show my works to a wide Chinese audience yet. I am waiting and looking forward to grasp an opportunity. Anyhow, my works are not oriented towards a specific public, or the art market, or ideology. I need to create them to escape from boredom; they are true to myself.
In the past you associated Tibet with cowboy ideals. Is it still vivid now?
I was very bored at school back then and I didn’t know what was freedom. So I imagined that riding a horse and firing shots into the air was a form of freedom. I wanted to change air and discover things. Maybe it has to do with masculine ideals also. These cowboy ideals transformed into other things over time. I don’t need a hat, or gun, or a horse now [laugh].
Despite the variety of medium you are using, it seems many of your works explore the notion of the flesh, the organic. What is the place of the body in your art?
It is very important of course. I realized later on that my material is crucial. If an artist utilizes materials only for the sake of forms or colours, his works remain decorative. To me the material is already the subject.
[The German artist] Joseph Beuys [1921-1986] allowed me to grasp this attitude. At the beginning I didn’t decipher why he was constantly using grease and baize for instance. Then I understood everything was linked to his life. While Beuys evoked the term “social sculpture”, I am trying to create a total work of art. What does it mean to create a total work of art? It implies the necessity for transcending boundaries and categories, in order to reach a sense of completeness.
While seeking such completeness, I realized that it was essential that myself and my body were present in the works. I don't conduct performances; rather I am creating “ready theatre” [戏剧现成品, xiju xianchengpin]. I permit myself to break all the rules in order to create a total work of art.
Your initial goal was to become an “author-photographer”, more indebted to the documentary genre, with the ideal to enter Magnum agency. Later you declared that a subjective approach enabled you to decipher how objectivity works. What is your view of the current precepts of photojournalism?
I believe that we don’t need anymore photographers who cover stories, because today we all live and experience these stories simultaneously. It is difficult for a photojournalist to give an account of something he has selected. For instance if suddenly a bomb explodes around the corner, many would immediately take photographs. So capturing an objective image has become an arduous task for photojournalists.
Besides, I think photography and photographers have been gradually taken over by industries as it was exemplified by the slogan “you press the button, we do the rest” [Kodak advertising campaign when portable cameras were launched]. Afterwards the field engendered a single school that lasted for a long time. Some masters recognized that other schools and methods needed to be introduced. As an illustration, [the French photographer] Henri Cartier-Bresson [1908-2004] at some point stopped photography and developed drawing practice, as he wanted to be free. Somehow Magnum is a sort of shop that intends to distribute, commercialize and stick labels onto photographers. It cannot be compared with art research centres.
The photographer is the youngest artist if we consider him from the art historical perspective. We have to examine everything, avoid backward thinking. We need to revive this material, this vocabulary, we have to move forward and try other possibilities. I started to reflect upon these documentary principles during one of my numerous journeys to Tibet, and I eventually asked myself if I really wanted to follow this old school.
After your exhibition at the first edition of Pingyao International Photography Festival (PIP) in 2001, you explained that you became aware of the need to safeguard cultural heritage for future generations. Can you tell us more about this idea?
I have been involved in Pingyao International Photography Festival thanks to Christian Caujolle [founding member of Vu Agency in France]. I was very happy that Christian was planning something in China and that French government supported this event. I immediately joined the team. During this first year , I worked mainly as an intermediary who liaised between Chinese photographers and international curators.
During the second edition of the festival , I was appointed vice artistic director. I started to get involved in the city and developed close ties with local politicians. I rapidly understood they wanted to prompt urban, cultural, touristic and heritage changes. In a similar fashion I thought that perhaps thanks to the festival I could do something more. So I invited experts in heritage protection in collaboration with French government, UNESCO and other companies [Pingyao was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997]. We launched loads of projects at that time; I was busy writing countless reports on heritage development. Thanks to these endeavors Pingyao and the French city of Provins entered into twinning agreements in 2002 [Twin towns are a form of long-distance social interaction in tourism, education and cultural among other fields].
The festival started to be famous, and I succeeded to have a large space to showcase many Chinese contemporary photographers. As usual most of the venues were not available [during the festival Pingyao's old town becomes one large indoor and open-air photo gallery]. So I asked the mayor if he could think about another venue for us. We ended up in an abandoned factory, which eventually became the main space at Pingyao Festival. This space was exactly what I wanted. So I launched the “stupid donkey” (傻驴, shalü) platform where everyone met, debated, discussed. It worked very well in parallel with the exhibitions. We gathered everyone, from A to Z, from Ai Weiwei to Zhang Dali, including Ma Liuming, Liu Zheng, Song Chao, Shaoyinong & Muchen, and myself.
I also had been involved in the creation of the journal “New Photo” [新摄影, xinsheying: produced between 1996 and 1998 and photocopied like a fanzine, it became the seminal underground photographic publication of its time]. This journal became a piece of heritage. It facilitated artists to sell their works and triggered the focus on China in Arles photography festival in 2003. As I said at that time, before we were underground and after we were finally getting some fresh air.
What’s next for you?
My next project is rather simple: I am going to bring back the work that is currently exhibited inside the Maison Européenne de la Photographie courtyard to Tibet [the work is an accumulation of hundreds of stones onto which black and white portraits of Tibetan have been printed]. The journey is over; they have to go back home. I will disperse them amongst trees, mountain, water, and snow. I am hoping to turn it unto a film, which will constitute an important step in my work.