BEIJING — Their weapons are brushes, their battlefields canvases. And here in China, where political dissent often leads to prosecution, the works of avant-garde artists can sometimes appear as threatening as a mass protest.
Enter the Gaos, Qiang and Zhen, soft-spoken brothers who use startling images of Mao Tse-tung as focal points of their sculpture, painting and performance pieces.
"I don't consider myself a dissident at all," said Gao Qiang, 48. "I never even think about this question. I just use art to express what I want to express."
Regardless, they are two of the most incendiary figures in China's contemporary art world.
Over the years, authorities have raided their exhibitions, confiscated their pieces, jailed their associates, and turned off the electricity in their studio. The brothers -- who are scheduled to have their first solo show in Los Angeles in September -- have been denied passports and were forbidden to leave the Chinese mainland for more than a decade, up until 2003.
"The truth is not always something rosy," said Gao Zhen, 54. "Often it involves conflict, strife. I hope we can get at the truth through our art."
The recent opening of "Portraits," their latest exhibition in Beijing, was an unambiguous reminder of the brothers' delicate position in a country that still places tight restrictions on freedom of expression.
It was an invitation-only affair that benefited from no promotion besides a few e-mails to trusted members of the Gaos' inner circle, and took place at a venue so tucked away that guests were shepherded in SUVs from a nearby highly commercial art district.
As a result, the overall atmosphere was intimate rather than exuberant, cautious as opposed to celebratory, a natural result of having to operate below the official radar.
The exhibition featured a series of portraits of famous 20th century dictators and radicals next to portraits of them as babies, all adapted from photos. They included Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il.
Overlaid with subtly shaded lines, as though from a grainy TV broadcast, the portraits act as a commentary on modern media, casting a new light on the iconic "media portraits [that] have made them who they are remembered as today," said Melanie Ouyang Lum, an art critic and close friend of the Gaos.
The brothers' previous show, in September, was also of the underground variety. A sculpture of Mao, still a sacrosanct figure in China, knelt on the ground, hand on his heart and face racked with sorrow. In another piece, Mao figures pointed rifles at Jesus.
Though "Portraits" doesn't address the government as directly as the Mao show, the artistic purpose is very much in the same vein: recasting familiar political images in shocking and unfamiliar ways.
"It's fine if people get shocked by the work or think it's sensationalist, but that's not the intention," Gao Qiang said. "I personally never get shocked by art because life itself in China is shocking enough."
That's what puts the brothers at the fore, said "Portraits" curator Ai Weiwei, who is no stranger to controversy, having served as a design consultant for the famed "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium until he became a vocal critic of Beijing's handling of the 2008 Summer Games.
"Most Chinese artists just want to make money," Ai said during an interview in June at his Beijing studio. "They're filled with internal cowardice.... They're just looking for material success, and because of that the work becomes so empty."
The Gao brothers' art, on the other hand, is a stark appraisal of some of the most sensitive elements of Chinese society, from politicians to prostitutes, Ai said.
The brothers turned to art after their father, a factory worker, died in the Cultural Revolution, which roiled China in the 1960s and '70s. The Gaos say he was tortured to death; authorities called it suicide.
Inspired by the melancholia of such artists as Edvard Munch, the brothers started producing risque pieces in the 1980s, including "Midnight Mass," depictions of male genitalia made of condoms and balloons. Though the next 20 years saw a steady output of increasingly envelope-pushing work and frequent run-ins with authorities, the brothers said they've never been able to establish a sense of how far they can go, of what will or won't fly under official scrutiny.
"What might offend the government one day won't the next," Gao Qiang said. "There's no set rules or prescriptions."
Guests at the "Portraits" opening offered more specific theories of what might constitute a threat.
"Essentially, anything that offers different ideas and opinions to the single-party ideology," said artist Wu Wenjian, who was jailed seven years for taking part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
"There can only be one official voice in China."