BEIJING, Oct 19 (Reuters) Putting breasts and a gormless expression of child-like delight on the late Mao Zedong in the name of art may seem nothing short of blasphemous for China's culture guardians.
But for Beijing-based artists, the Gao Brothers, it's a laugh.
''During the Cultural Revolution, we used to say that Mao was like the mother of China. So we decided to give mother breasts,'' Gao Qiang, the younger of the middle-aged artistic duo, said with a chuckle at his studio in northeastern Beijing.
In the run up to this week's 17th Party Congress, when China's leaders approve policy and leadership changes, a puritanical campaign to suppress ''vulgar'' and ''unhealthy'' culture has seen TV shows cancelled, pornography Web sites shut down and more curiously, the banning of ''sexual sounds'' on local airwaves.
The crackdown has also seen Gao Qiang and his brother Gao Zhen's studio-cum-gallery closed as a public space and a security officer keeping a close eye on their activities.
The Gaos, however, are taking it in their stride. When the plain-clothed security officer made her rounds, they simply snapped photos of her and made art works out of them.
''Twenty years ago, we could have been killed for this,'' Gao Qiang said with a shrug.
The brothers' ''Miss Mao'' series features life-sized, Pinocchio-nosed sculptures of China's most revered icon frozen in various poses, some quite unflattering.
One has the chairman lying flat on his back with legs akimbo and a flaming red dragon emerging from ''his'' vagina.
''I don't know why this art should be banned,'' Gao Qiang said. ''If you are relatively tolerant and can view it with a sense of humour, in reality it ought to be a relaxed thing, it shouldn't have any problems, it should be able to be displayed.'' SCRUTINY As more than 2,200 Communist Party delegates meet this week behind closed doors at the Party Congress in Beijing, the Gao brothers' Mao sculptures also remain hidden from public scrutiny at a Beijing studio.
But unlike the officials who will emerge from the week-long conclave on Monday, the art is not likely to be seen by the Chinese public for a good few years.
Local authorities, it seems, can't quite see the humour.
''This art has never been shown in China ... When shipping them overseas, they have been seized by customs,'' Gao Qiang said, adding that some pieces were still stuck in Beijing customs.
Three decades of economic reforms in China may have emboldened local artists to test the boundaries of official tolerance and taste, but unsanctioned artworks of the Communist country's past and present leaders remain perilous territory.
Last year, a local newspaper suspended Kuang Biao, a cartoonist, for a sympathetic portrait of President Hu Jintao weeping while writing a condolence letter to the daughter of a university professor who died from overwork at 48.
Zhao Jianhua, a local artist whose works include oil paintings of Mao branded with the Nike swoosh and Warhol-esque pop-art treatments of the father of China's economic reform, Deng Xiaoping, had to withdraw from a group exhibition earlier this year after authorities threatened to cancel it.
''Locking my painting away does not mean an end to creating,'' said Zhao. ''It just gives the authorities time to grow up. Give them a year or two -- maybe five -- and they may be able to appreciate my works.'' Compared to the newspaper cartoon and Zhao's Mao emblazoned with Nike symbols, the Gao brother's Miss Mao series is decidedly unsympathetic.
It pokes fun, said Gao Qiang, at those still enamoured with Mao who rose to god-like status during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Those ''too heavily influenced by Mao'' are all basically mentally deranged, he said.
But, he adds, the series is not derogatory.
''What is so-called 'insulting' of national leaders? Under Mao, so many people died unnatural or violent deaths. I think it is his insult to the Chinese people that is beyond comparison.
''And the works hardly reflect that insult,'' Gao Qiang added.
REUTERS SYU KP0842