Gu Dexin disappeared from the art world in 2009. He left behind a legacy of gory, provocative and daring works. In 2012, academic and curator Philip Tinari called Gu 'China's most important contemporary artist you've never heard of'. His sudden withdrawal was one of firm choice; Gu was fed up with the art world. He still lives in Hepingli, the neighbourhood of Beijing where he was raised. He began painting in the late 1970s, coinciding with the end of the Cultural Revolution and a newly open political and social atmosphere. Several art collectives and painting societies were formed in Beijing and Shanghai in the 1970s and 1980s (perhaps the best known being the Stars Group); Gu was a founding member of the New Measurement Group, which also included Wang Luyan and Chen Shaoping. When many artists in Beijing were enrolling in the Central Academy of Fine Arts or moving away from China to foreign art centres like Paris or New York, Gu opted out and stayed home to work alone—the first of many defiant gestures that came to define his career.
Gu's early paintings are characterised by experimentation with established styles, trying his hand at expressionistic painting and plein-air landscapes. But around the age of 20, Gu's work became less conservative; his paintings, watercolours and embroideries began to depict dystopian realms full of sexually-charged creatures, while his blowtorched plastic sculptures approximated human innards. During this time, he toyed with simple computer animations and made erotic and grotesque sculptures from clay. Gu also became known for his temporal installations of perishable goods such as fruits, meat and animal intestines, which he left to rot in the exhibition space to explore the dichotomy of decay and permanence. Critical of some of his peers' commercialising of politics, Gu was known to fill the lawns and hallways of the museums that held shows promoting such work with decomposing fruit and animal intestines.
In 1989, during one of the most tense periods of recent Chinese history, Gu's blowtorched plastics were debuted in the exhibition China/Avant-Garde at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing and in Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the latter of which is widely cited as the first time contemporary Chinese art was shown in a global context. Six years later, for the 1995 Venice Biennale satellite exhibition Asiana: Contemporary Art from the Far East, Gu transformed the hall of a Venetian palazzo into a sanguine morgue by placing bloody chunks of beef decaying in transparent coffins and covering the floor with red plastic beads. The coffins were designed to be sealed, but after three days of the meat rotting in the summer swelter, the exhibition's organisers were forced to remove the flesh, leaving empty coffins stained with blood. In 1998, for the exhibition Trace of Existence: A Private Showing of China Contemporary Art '98 at Now Studio in Beijing, Gu covered a red tablecloth with 100 kilograms of pig brains, then concealed the assemblage with another cloth. Though Gu is resistant to interpretation, the work has been read as a political metaphor, with the brains acting as the 'heads' of the Chinese state, of whom Gu has been consistently critical.
Even before his withdrawal from art, Gu was always a recluse—Tinari called him a 'monastic Bartleby'. In 2009, Gu quit art entirely after one last monumental solo show, again characterised by its bloody connotations. The exhibition, 2009-05-02—titled after the show's opening date, as the artist was often inclined to do to avoid imposing meaning on his works—took place at Galleria Continua in Beijing's 798 Art District. Across the span of the gallery were mounted white-washed panels that repeated the same 11 phrases: 'We have eaten people'; 'We have eaten human hearts'; 'We have eaten human brains'; 'We have beaten people'; 'We have beaten eyes blind'; 'We have beaten faces bloody'; 'We have killed people'; 'We have killed men'; 'We have killed women'; 'We have killed elders'; 'We have killed children'. Upstairs were televisions screening footage of blue skies—the kind rarely seen in Beijing. The installation was later included in the 2017–2018 exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York.
In 2012, a major retrospective titled Gu Dexin: The Important Thing Is Not The Meat opened at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. Curated by Tinari without the involvement of Gu, the show included nearly 300 largely unseen works in media ranging from model cars, paint, plasticine and wood to animation, SimCity and sculpture—illustrating, as the title suggested, that Gu's mysterious and little-known practice went deep beyond the flesh.