In the studio with Michael Gao

In the studio with Michael Gao, whose practice delves into the meme culture in Asia and the United States. We met with Michael to tell us more about growing up in Northern China, his greatest influences, and how moving to the UK mobilised change within his practice.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

The day when my practice became a scheduled event. I truly believe that being an artist is a huge commitment as it carries more inherent risks compared to any other careers. When I realised I’m willing to invest the extra hours and the extra effort I knew I met the bare minimum requirement.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? 

I was born in Northern China and lived in several different cities in my childhood. As a family we moved every two years or so. As well as a weird accent, that experience gave me an open mind and exposed me to different cultures and ways of life. Amidst that travelling, I found the internet as a place I can always return to. An address that I could have for more than two years. Maybe that’s why I’m so interested in the online landscape as the main theme in my practice.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? 

I have been a visually inclined person since a young age. As a kid, I developed a particular love for IKEA leaflets and the various design catalogues found in our household. This early exposure nurtured a keen sensitivity towards graphic and visual designs, which I thoroughly enjoy engaging with. I find great pleasure and comfort in reading artist interviews in magazines, where they describe their creative journeys and daily life. It was during this exploration that I discovered my genuine desire for immersive 10-14 hour studio sessions, which confirmed that I was on the right path.

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

I explore the absurdity of both the real and digital landscapes, and examine themes of censorship, technology, and the political climate as represented in the online world. We currently live in a captivating era where the digital world holds immense significance in our daily lives, influencing not only its own unique cultures but also impacting real-life cultures. Personally, I find it profoundly funny that the lighthearted aspects and perpetual anger could coexist and combat each other on the internet. I try to depict that humour in my paintings.

Who are your greatest influences? 

John Singer Sargent, Alex Colville, Austin Lee, Craig Mullins, Hirohiko Araki, The Beatles, George Carlin.

An unexpected source of inspiration?


What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I analyse my paintings in a third-person perspective while I paint, instead of having the audience in mind. My goal is to create compositionally sound paintings that include elements that leave a lasting impression. At times, this may call for loudness, while other instances demand subtlety. Ultimately, I want my work to resonate in the subconscious of viewers, leaving a lasting imprint in their minds.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practice? 

I think moving to the UK for university is hands down the best change in my life. It felt right when I’m out here, and I am definitely more comfortable in the UK. I have always been an independent kid and I’m really lucky to have parents who support me. Looking back it’s an amazing decision because otherwise I wouldn’t have met these talented friends that influenced my aesthetic and pushed me in my practice

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I love the paintings that feel right from the start to finish, when I identify a good concept and execute it brilliantly. I also enjoy the ones that start with a “maybe” and get developed along the way. But when I remain visually critical about my work at every stage, allowing the painting to tell me what it needs, that’s when I create pieces that I’m proud of.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

I Know Where You Live and Grande Doubleshot Americano (2023) both dive into the internet and explore the digital landscape as an alternative reality on its own. I collect visual material from various sources and infuse them with reconstructed and distorted portraits of celebrity lookalikes. Combined with word plays and references to popular culture in the titles, these bizarre paintings take on a more humorous tone, reflecting this lighthearted aspect of the internet.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

Inflatable sculptures, large scale murals, fashion.

Describe your work in three words:

Satirical. Unexpected. Funny.

What do you listen to while you work? Is music important to your art?

Recently it’s a video on repeat “Formula 1 V10 Sound 1 Hour Loop” on YouTube. Music is a huge part of my influences but I also enjoy staying in my head while I paint sometimes.

What is your favorite read?

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Right now I’m reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It’s a great read so far!

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received (any quotes or mantras you particularly connect with)?

You may not rest now; there are monsters nearby.

What makes you laugh?

Sentences that are constructed in an unexpected way.

What makes you nervous?


Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?

“What’s your airbrush cleaning procedure?”

Is there anything you’ve recently tried for the first time? 

Using 70% surgical spirit as the airbrush cleaner. Insanely good. Thank you Maciej for the tip!

Is there anything you’ve been hesitant to try in the past but you’d like to this year?

Some dessert recipes.

Do you have any superstitions?

God help those who help themselves.

Would you rather know what the future holds or be surprised?

I’d like to be surprised. Knowing the future has so much potential to ruin your present.

What palace in your everyday environment do you go to for inspiration?

Other studios in my college or any body of water if I feel like going outside.

What are some things you’re most passionate about outside of your practice?


What is your relationship with social media?

Instagram is a place for networking; Youtube is my hub of entertainment. I don’t use anything else but these two already take up too much of my time.