Sydney’s art scene has been immeasurably enriched by the vision of one woman, Judith Nielson, and her collection of contemporary Chinese art. In an act of extraordinary philanthropic generosity, she has made her collection freely available to the public in a gallery financed and operated by the Nielson family, called the White Rabbit Gallery.
Only a tiny fraction of the growing collection is exhibited at any one time, in curated shows that change biannually. Housed in a former industrial space, her White Rabbit Gallery has become hugely popular. At least in part this is because a White Rabbit experience is quite different from visits to other museums, which can still exude the rarefied and alienating air of the ‘temple of high culture’. At White Rabbit, in contrast, friendly staff engage visitors in conversation about the works. There are showings of Chinese films, a book club meets regularly to discuss books about China, and the excellent library is available for research. Judith Nielson told me that she hoped that the gallery and all its varied events might find a place in Sydney’s cultural life as a new kind of ‘salon’, for the discussion of ideas about contemporary art, and about Australia’s relationship with China.
The main thing, however, is the quality of the works in the collection. Nielson has acquired works by significant artists of international stature, as well as works by young emerging artists, all created after the year 2000, and connected by their inventive and unorthodox approach. A new White Rabbit exhibition is always filled with surprises. You might find some rather notorious porcelain sunflower seeds, a replica Harley Davidson which turns out, on closer inspection, to be a bicycle, or what appears to be a Beijing doorway which then reveals itself to be padded cloth, stitched and embroidered to simulate a down-at-heel urban apartment. On another visit you might encounter an apparent confectionary shop with shelves and counters filled with satin-lined chocolate boxes, decorated with red satin hearts. But wait! The ‘chocolates’ in this installation, by Tu Wei-Cheng, are miniature tanks, hand-grenades, warplanes and assorted artillery, not sweet treats at all. There is Shi Jindian’s military motorbike and jeep made of intricately crocheted wire, a sculpture by Wu Daxin which freezes each night and melts anew each morning, and an automatic teller machine and battered mini-van from Wang Yuyang which breathe, as if becoming new life forms. At White Rabbit, it seems, things are not always what they appear to be.
These works, and the others in this huge – and growing – collection, have shown Sydney the richness and diversity of contemporary art in China in the years since the first flowering of the ‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism’ movements of the post-Mao era. The art produced in the PRC and Taiwan today is like nothing else on the planet, as Nielson discovered to her delight and astonishment on her first visits to Chinese galleries and artists’ studios. A highly academic training in both western and eastern techniques produces graduates possessed of extraordinary levels of skill. They emerge from this rigorous schooling with a surprising willingness to innovate, experiment, work across genres and challenge conventions. Then there are the opportunities provided by affordable labour and materials which allow artists to work on a scale and level of ambition available only to the most successful select few in the west. It is this extraordinary foment of inventiveness and creativity combined with impeccable levels of craftsmanship and technical virtuosity which distinguishes Chinese art today. The 2013 exhibition, Smash Palace, is no exception. It explores the ways in which China is changing, and focuses on the new ‘mega-cities’ where more than half of China’s population live and where people must cope with the stresses of the constant transformations of the urban landscape, fears about the safety of their air and food, and growing cynicism about official corruption. The artists in this show reflect upon all these issues. They tell a story of today’s China.
One work which has proved controversial – and a little scary – is Zhou Xiaohu’s Even in Fear, a weather balloon which slowly, slowly inflates until it seems about to burst, pressing against the ceiling, and then deflates to become a wrinkly empty bag. It is a potent metaphor for current anxieties about the global impact of the bursting of the Chinese growth ‘bubble’. The artist says it is about ‘the human desire for expansion’. Cheng Dapeng’s Wonderful City is produced with a 3D laser printer. As a practising architect he is all too familiar with the ‘wonderful cities’ promised by developers, those dystopian landscapes of skyscrapers, occasionally punctuated by factory chimneys belching smoke, stretching to the far horizons. His work is a white field of tall buildings on top of which perch a variety of mutated creatures. The artist says these mutants are like ‘yaoguai’ – monster ghosts – resulting from extreme disturbances of the natural order and the human psyche. ‘Rapid development has made Chinese cities monstrous and surreal, and the people are becoming more and more like monsters,’ he says. This work is juxtaposed with Zhou Jie’s CBD 2010, a porcelain Beijing on a field of that most basic of Chinese substances – rice. Deceptively visually appealing with their glazed white surfaces, these buildings are infested with fungus-like extrusions, covering every surface with their creeping tentacles. The artist copied their forms from scientific images of disease-causing organisms. They represent the metastasizing properties of urban development, which she sees as a cancerous growth, violating nature. ‘We are invading nature, violating its laws and upsetting the balance,’ she says.
Bai Yiluo’s 2008 Recycling, an enormous fibreglass human heart tied onto the back of a tricycle, can be interpreted in multiple ways. These ‘san lun che’ carry everything imaginable, but most often huge loads of recycled paper, cardboard and firewood. In today’s China they are considered an undesirable reminder of an older, poorer, more traditional world. The artist alludes to the notion that our deepest, most human needs are disposable in the rush to acquire material wealth. There are also suggestions of the deeply disturbing trade in human organs. This work is juxtaposed with Jin Feng’s panoramic photograph, Appeals Without Words. It depicts a row of ‘petitioners’ – rural villagers attempting to bring protests about corruption and land seizures to the attention of provincial officials. In this staged photograph they are painted gold because they will wait so long to be heard that they may as well be statues, and their petitions are blank sheets of paper because no-one will ever listen to their pleas for justice.
Yang Yongliang’s Infinite Landscape is a digital animation based on his knowledge of traditional paintings. At first glance it is a tranquil traditional landscape, then you realise it is in constant motion. The ‘mountains’ are towering piles of skyscrapers and the image is criss-crossed by freeways bearing cars and trucks. The arms of cranes reach upwards and teams of construction workers labour in the foreground. The artist has said he feels ‘despair and sadness’ at what is being lost in the relentless modernisation of his home city of Shanghai. Jin Shi’s Mini-Home makes visible the unseen lives of poor urban migrants, a vast labour force living in the liminal zones created by urban demolition. They make temporary homes in the cracks of the cities – alleyways, construction sites, underneath bridges and beside freeways. The artist represents the contrast between the poverty of their reality and their aspirations by miniaturising the chaotic and cluttered temporary dwelling and all the possessions of its owner.
MadeIn (the artist formerly known as Xu Zhen) is represented by a work entitled Under Heaven 20121018 made of rosettes of oil paint squeezed onto the canvas from a pastry cook’s icing bag. The paint is so thick that the smell of oil paint fills the room and the work needs to be periodically turned upside down so that the paint does not begin to slide downwards. Initially it appears to be both charming and beautiful – but like dollops of an artificially flavoured and sweetened dessert it soon begins to cloy. The title is a reference to the ancient Chinese concept of ‘tian xia’ – ‘all under heaven’ – because the pattern is reminiscent of cityscapes seen from space. As such it reminds us that we are nothing but tiny life forms coexisting in a seething mass – much like the experience of living in a Chinese city. Wang Guofeng’s Ideality 1 – 10 depicts the Ten Grand Buildings constructed in just ten months in Beijing to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1949 Communist Revolution. These monuments to a socialist utopia render the individual human being miniature and insignificant. Shot at very high resolution, with people and cars edited out and the tiny figure of the artist dressed in a Mao suit inserted into each picture, the photographs are a cautionary tale about the unchecked power of ideology. If these overblown socialist edifices now seem to be relics of a lost civilisation, how will the shopping malls and ‘Wonderful Cities’ of multi-storey apartment buildings appear to future generations?
The White Rabbit Gallery provides Sydney with the opportunity to see how Chinese artists manage with apparent ease the paradoxical feat of looking back to tradition, yet at the same time engaging with a challenging future. By engaging with the vitality of the contemporary art of China, visitors to the gallery come away with the realisation that art, in fact, speaks a universal language.
By Luise Guest
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