Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Zhen, Gap - VM - Wilma Wagenaar

Gao Zhen: Execution of Christ


by Wilma Wagenaar

It was a pleasant surprise for me to become acquainted with the work of the contemporary Chinese artist Gao Zhen. His work, often accomplished in collaboration with his younger brother Gao Qiang who now resides in the United States, has been included in the collections of prestigious institutes and international companies such as the Saatchi Gallery (London) and the Centre Pompidou (Paris). He regularly expresses criticism about the Chinese government, which has led to a prohibition of public exhibition of his work. He currently lives in a large industrial complex in Beijing’s 798th Art District amidst his works of art and welcomes interested parties, closely watched by government officials.

His work clearly shows Western influences. I detect the brothers van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch in many of his works, all in a subtle modern transposition. His sculpture Execution of Christ evokes memories of The Third of May (1808) by Goya.

We see a life-size group of statues in bronze. I suspect it is a processing of the events on Tiananmen Square in 1989, where numerous victims perished in a revolt that was cruelly crushed. The memory of that one, unarmed young man, standing in front of the column of tanks is still etched in the memory of many people.

We see seven armed men, all recognizable as Mao at an older age. One of the Mao’s is standing behind six of them in a half-circle, their rifles directed at one slender man who is iconographically recognizable as Christ. He is dressed in just a loincloth and his hands are partly lifted in a gesture of receiving. Or of submission?

Christ’s eyes are closed, but not fearfully squeezed shut in expectation of the volley of fire or in order not to have to see the firing squad. His face with the eyes closed is relaxed, it radiates peace, as if in prayer. His head is inclined slightly to the front, directed towards the firing squad. There is no defensive posture, no denial, no fleeing. No dramatic act of despair as in the execution scene by Goya, but, in contrast, a quiet, introverted expectation.

We see Christ’s wounded hands. Is there a bullet in the wound? Did it come from the Mao who is standing behind and has already fired? And if yes, what did this bullet bring about in Christ?

No defensive posture, no curse, no pain, no fear, but submission.

This whole vulnerable body is prepared to endure what is to come. This work speaks to me of non-violence, of defenselessness, of turning the other cheek. Of blessing those who curse me and doing good to those who hate me. And of the quiet connection with the Father, who provides the strength to endure.


Gao Zhen: The Execution of Christ2009, bronze, life-size. The sculptures may be seen in the apartment of Ghao Zhen in the Art District of Beijing in China. They are not allowed to be exhibited in public in China.

Gao Zhen was born in 1956 and grew up in a family that was under attack from the Chinese authorities. After becoming acquainted with traditional Chinese art Gao Zhen followed the art academy of Shandong. He and his younger brother, with whom he has frequently collaborated, often express themselves critically about the Chinese government. The brutal events in 1989 on Tiananmen Square did not cause Gao Zhen to produce works that were less contentious, although it had this effect on many of his colleagues. Gao Zhen’s Christian faith is a very personal one, he does not attend gatherings and is not connected to a congregation.

Wilma Wagenaar is a Dutch artist concerned with the dialogue between church and art. For ten years she has organized retreats for painters in Benedictine Abbeys. She is a council member of the Stichting Platform Kerk en Kunst (Platform for Church and Art).

ArtWay Visual Meditation August 25, 2019