Gao Rongguo is an artist based in Beijing. His work has been exhibited internationally, including the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, CAFA Art Museum, Chongqing Art Museum, and Sotheby’s gallery. His work has been featured in Time, The Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, and Esquire and he is the winner of the Grand Prize at the PHODAR Biennial in Bulgaria, and the President’s Nomination Award from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China. Zan Boag is the Editor of New Philosopher.
Zan Boag: What prompted you to undertake the series of photographs in your work ‘Identical Twins’?
Gao Ronnguo: I was born in Shandong province and went to two primary schools, two middle schools, and five high schools. Sometimes, just when I had adapted to an environment, I then had to go to another place. Most people knew me during the transfer period; however, it was very difficult for me to remember everyone.
What impressed me most was that there were three pairs of twins among my classmates and each of them had a different fate. One of the twins went to college but the other one kept trying for more than ten years but still failed. People often compared them and there is no doubt that it would bring strong pressure to their lives.
This is my basic memory of the twins I know. In 2005, during which I was experiencing the torturous college entrance examination preparation, upon the recommendation of others I read The History of Western Philosophy, which discusses St Augustine’s statement in Confessions, using the fates of twin brothers to criticise astrology – and it was really fascinating to me. It was not an original argument by St. Augustine, but derived from the Greek skeptic Carneades, one of the leaders in Plato’s garden, who said, “People born at the same time, differ in temperament and fate.” When I entered college, I noticed that many people around me were attracted by astrology, so that their understanding of other people was entirely preconceived. I inevitably fall into a certain constellation, which is certainly not as honourable as a star being named after you. If we see in this way, then our natures have all been determined since we were born.
Therefore, I wanted to do a project based on twins, whose ages were limited to being older than 50 years old, to find out how they had changed. In fact, I learnt this from a saying of Confucius’s: “Fifty to know the fate.” There are different explanations about fate, but the fifties is often called the time to know what it is.
People always thought that my work should have been a documentary. However, I do not know what is more real. With photography it is difficult to be exactly ‘real’. For example, if you add up or take away the exposure only for a little bit, you would get two results; looking up or looking down would produce different feelings. So it is hard to tell what is real and what is not. What you see is nothing other than a phenomenon. All I could do is to process the objective thing in a subjective way. That being said, even if what the audience sees from my work is not exactly what I expected, an explanation isn’t necessary because a misreading is not necessarily a bad thing.
Topics on twins are clichés as many artists have already used them as material for their creation. Choosing this topic does not make it innovative, and although many objected, I still decided to give it a try. I believe it is like cooking – it would be acceptable if I made the same dish in a different way.
After a number of repetitive experiments, I determined the form of my work: face-to-face. However, does the form really matter? During the returning visits, models refused to accept the pictures I took from side-on. It made me feel that I did something interesting. Perhaps it is related to our culture. In fact, this face-to-face form is very common in Italy. Some portraits of couples follow this form and some people still adhere to this tradition even now. Face-to-face is more like seeing yourself in the mirror – regarding people as a mirror, one could know what he or she has owned or lost and could see himself or herself. This project has been going since January 16, 2011 and doing quick tours of 511 different villages has given me a different experience.
When discussing your series of photographs and fate, you refer to Carneades’s comment that “people born at the same time, differ in temperament and fate”. To what degree did you find that the fates of the twins in your photographs differed?
There are different degrees of difference, big and small. At first, they may look very similar, but twins are always two different people. They will have independent ideas, different personalities and habits, different perspectives on things, and their life experiences will not be exactly the same. For example, some have become disabled in accidents, causing hunchbacks; some have not married; some have been raised by other families since childhood; some need to take care of their children with Down’s syndrome; others have already died. Especially for women, marrying different families will definitely make a difference.
You also quote Confucius to explain why you chose older twins: “Fifty to know the fate”. Do you think we can tell how a person has lived from their face at fifty?
It is difficult to tell how a person has lived from a person’s expression. It is even more difficult to understand a person’s life through a photo. For example, the models in the paintings or the actors in the movies, they make people look a certain way, just role-playing, and this does not rule out a lot of deception.
Inevitably people change over the course of their lives, from birth to death. Are we able to control who we become?
We may play different roles in our lives. It is not so easy to acquire the identity of our dreams. It is even more difficult to direct your life. There are many unpredictable things in life.
Do you think our life chances are determined by our family, our genetic makeup, our environment, or a combination of these factors?
I think it is determined by a combination of these factors. The problem of nature versus nurture is always the focus of debate. When we are born, we are not equal. In societies with caste and class differences, some people lose their rights simply because of their background. Their race, gender, or religion deprives them of important life opportunities. Therefore, the influence of our environment cannot be ignored. Even in an equal society, we will still face the problem of being judged, and there is not necessarily an opportunity to be treated fairly everywhere. From a ‘nature’ perspective, ordinary families might give birth to a genius, but genius children might be extremely ordinary. If you pursue the ‘best’ genes blindly, you will face a huge problem, that is: What is perfect? We can’t achieve perfection. If others’ innate conditions are not good, we can provide corresponding help, create a good environment, and let them have better opportunities. After all, none of us in this world exists in isolation.
Your photos, of course, focus on physical differences. To what extent do you think the twins’ lives have been different from an emotional and psychological perspective?
Although I photographed them, I don’t know much about them. I can tell one thing: in the process of shooting, some of the identical twins were relatively nervous, and they were in a hostile state for a long time. They were not willing to take a group photo together. Therefore, I finally took the format of face-to-face separation, so that the two people looked like they were facing each other. I sometimes think that in life, would identical twins be upset with people treating them as one person? Would they deliberately distinguish themselves from one another?
English writer Neil Gaiman said that “wherever you go, you take yourself with you”. Do you think we are stuck with the person we are, or can we change who we are?
It is not easy to know yourself. Situations will affect the way we think about ourselves to some extent. Although an understanding of ourselves can be obtained through the opinions of others, we will inevitably deviate from our own interpretation and external evaluations of who we are. We constantly change our identity in our lives, either actively or passively, and even after death, our identity will change. The unchanging self does not exist. Our bodies, hearts, emotions, and even quirks, they are constantly changing, but to some extent, I am the same, I am still the same. This is a problem that has plagued humanity for many years. Am I the same person I used to be? Just like the classic Ship of Theseus, when all the old parts were changed, was it still the original ship? Reorganising the old parts into an identical ship, also called ‘the ship’, is that one the real ship? Looking back to ourselves, we could lose our memories, we could dress up as others, we could transplant other people’s brains, we could undergo sex-change surgery, and the whole body’s cells could be updated again... Is there is a critical point at which we change? Is it not me?