Gu Tao. Photos: Guo
Henry David Thoreau had to move to the Walden woods to be a
hermit and be inspired, then modern-day Chinese eccentric Gu
Tao moved in the opposite direction. He came from the
isolated forests of Inner Mongolia to teeming Beijing,
intending to tell unique stories about his birthplace to the
rest of the world.
studio is like Thoreau's cabin in the modern city. The
two-story loft building contains a Mongolian cuo luozi,
where he sleeps during warmer weather. The conical-shaped
tee-pee is made of thin tree trunks, covered with canvas and
animal skin, giving the studio a touch of nature.
is no heating; he uses a charcoal furnace to keep warm,
probably aided by the empty bottles of beer, wine and whisky
scattered on the floor – one wonders how many hours a day is
he sober. But from such an inauspicious-looking studio,
photographs, documentary films and paintings of high
artistic quality flow out naturally.
Drifting and drinking
first step after leaving the forests was when he attended
college in Hohhot where he majored in oil painting. After
that, it was but a small leap to Bejing, when in 1999, he
was considered to be one of the so-called "artistic youth."
He had no plans; he had painting and photography skills, but
had not found the focus he needed.
photography series set in Qinhuangdao in 2001 called Boat
was published in Photo China magazine. The tone of the
photos was gray, telling the story of a wandering soul, who
could not find direction in life. "From the age of 25 when I
graduated from college till 35, I've tried many things for a
living. But none of it seems to reflect my inner need," says
wild woodland youth was a barrier preventing him from being
in tune with Beijing urban life. He moved from a basement in
Wangjing, to the 798 Art Zone, and now to a studio
surrounded by withered grass fields and trash sites, further
and further away from the city. "When I grew up in the
woods… the stars were like little torches shining from
above. I felt suffocated living in the city. The night sky
is like a black canvas with nothing on it," he says.
still keeps many of his Mongolian habits. Drinking is a
notable one, and wearing a tall hat is another. "I cannot
fit in anyway, so I concentrate on what I really care about
and just be myself," he says.
further he lives from Inner Mongolia, the stronger his
nostalgia is. However, every time he returned home, it was
no longer what he remembered.
2000, Gu started a long-term project, Mongolian Facial
Expression, in which he wanted to use 16,000 Mongolian
expressions to form the face of Genghis Khan. "Although
tiled houses have replaced the yurts on the prairie,
shepherds ride motorbikes to feed their flocks, and every
facial expression still touches me," says Gu. "I want to
photograph Mongolians living everywhere, from shepherd to
celebrity, from home to abroad."
among his multiple personalities as photographer, painter
and film director, Gu believes the latter suits him best. He
has devoted much of his time in recent years to an
open-ended film project, documenting the lives of one of
China's least known ethnic minorities, whose way of life is
on the verge of extinction.
Disappearing hunting culture
raised in Alihe on the border between Inner Mongolia and
Heilongjiang provinces, where the Greater Higgnan Mountains
meet the Hulunbeir Prairie.
place where Oroqens live, together with Mongolians, Daurs
and Ewenkis. Gu himself is the product of a mixed Manchu-Han
southern slopes of the mountains where we live have less
snow, so we hunt animals on horses. The neighboring Ewenkis
live on the northern slopes. Reindeer are crucial for their
hunting culture. Men hunt, and women use reindeer to carry
the kill back," explains Gu.
Ewenki migrated from Lake Baikal in Siberia to the mountain
forests in the 18th century to form their distinctive
hunting culture. Since the 1950s, the mountains' natural
resources have been exploited, and the hunters moved to
settled villages; now there are only five hunting sites and
about 750 reindeer left.
father, Gu Deqing, the author of Hunters' Diaries, recorded
their hunting culture in the 1980s. Gu picked up his camera
to follow his father's path, although there wasn't much left
2003, a policy of "ecology migration" finally decided the
Ewenki's fate. The majority signed government documents and
dropped their guns to settle in villages, while the reindeer
were supposed to be bred in captivity.
news reported that the hunters happily moved to their new
houses, but behind the camera, they were shedding tears in
private, because the reindeer were dying. After a week, some
of them returned to the mountains to raise the reindeer
there," says Gu.
Ewenki, aoluguya means a place where poplar trees flourish.
Gu uses it as the name of the documentary, to symbolize the
is no complete story in the documentary; it records life for
three years after the enforced migration. Liu Xia, He Xie
and Wei Jia are the three main characters in the
documentary. When the hunters' guns are confiscated, alcohol
becomes their major pastime.
matter how humorous they are in life, they cannot escape
their tragic fate. He Xie was a hunter who lost his father,
brother and son; Liu Xia lost two husbands and became an
alcoholic; Wei Jia is an artist who burns every painting
right after he finishes.
might wonder why Maliya Suo, matriarch and the last
spiritual leader of the Ewenki, who still lives in the
mountains with her reindeer is not the center of Gu's
documentary, but Gu explains: "Maliya Suo does not like the
spotlight. She treasures her private life. She has glaucoma.
She suffers from the camera flashes."
Ewenki, Gu is not an outsider trying to abruptly gatecrash
their lives with a camera. His documentary Aoluguya.
Aoluguya was edited down from several hundred hours of film,
which to Gu, is an archive for future generations.
year, I live with the Ewenki for several months and film
their lives. I put the films in different categories." This
enables him to record the subtlest details and the most real
moments. In one scene, Liu Xia suddenly throws a chair at
her younger brother Wei Jia's head, drawing blood. Another
relative slaps her, to warn her off.
might find it brutal and violent, but this is their life.
They hit each other all the time, but there is no hatred,"
says Gu. In another scene, Liu Xia holds a reindeer like a
child. The reindeer licks her face and she says happily,
"can you taste alcohol?"
next step is to form an NGO, to preserve the ethnic minority
culture on film. "I care about these people, I care about
what happens to them when hunting is forbidden and their
traditional culture is dying. I'll keep filming the next
generation; for me, this is a project that will never end."