Every new show at White Rabbit is supposedly “the best yet”. How could it be otherwise? No art museum, public or private, likes to take a backward step. This time, however, I’m inclined to agree. There’s something very complete and confident about the exhibition, Paradi$e Bitch.
In a display of mostly new acquisitions, we get a vivid, almost hallucinogenic, portrait of contemporary China.
The curatorial duties have been handed to David Williams, usually found at the front desk, and he has shown an aptitude for the job.
The title comes from a two channel video by Chen Tianzhou, who was recently given a survey at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. It features muscle-bound twin dwarves with dyed blonde hair, performing to a rap tune. The heavily tattooed twins are dripping with bling, including a diamond studded dollar sign swinging from a gold neck chain.
They are a contemporary symbol of the “little man” that became a representative figure of the Weimar Republic, through Hans Fallada’s novel, Little Man, What Now? (1932). The difference is that Fallada’s little man was a poor book-keeper in a society in economic freefall. Chen’s twins are aggressive, fashion-conscious aspirationals, eager to flaunt their new affluence.
What Weimar Germany and contemporary China have in common is a pronounced cultural decadence – an ‘anything goes’ mentality that mixes high ambitions with every form of popular distraction. The mix includes a volatile art and antique market, in which a huge volume of high-priced fakes are sold to wealthy buyers more concerned with a price tag than with authenticity. Part of the appeal is to be seen to pay a fortune.
China wants everything the rest of the world has and it wants it now. The Chinese may have the money to realise their dreams but one can’t acquire taste and knowledge overnight. The boom has produced bizarre institutions such as the Long Museum in Shanghai, founded by Wang Wei and her husband, Liu Yiqian, who were famous for buying whatever was on the cover of an auction catalogue. The museum’s collection is a mish-mash of old and new, with haphazard labelling and an exhibition program that seems to be made up on the run.
One imagines that in time the Long Museum will become more settled, which is another feature of the new China – a place where mere anarchy can quickly transform itself into high professionalism. Many believe that the biggest test for the future will be the speed with which China can embrace renewable energies and resolve its pollution problems. Personally, I’ll believe China rules the world when I can buy a decent cup of coffee in Shanghai and Beijing.
Among the highlights of Paradi$e Bitch is a large-scale installation by Xu Zhen, the brains behind MadeIn Company, which works across a bewildering array of styles and media. Eternity (2013-14) includes full-scale replicas of classical Greek sculpture of the Elgin Marbles group, surmounted by facsimiles of ancient Buddhist statues. What makes the piece so startling is that the Buddhist sculptures are turned upside down, sprouting head-first from the headless shoulders of their Greek counterparts. As a representation of the clash of civilisations it’s an icon in-the-making. It may be significant that Xu Zhen shows both cultures in a state of ruin.
On the first floor, Chen Wei has an equally striking installation called Drunken Dance Hall (2015) – a night club with a dance floor covered in broken glass, and a mirror ball stranded in the midst of the carnage, like a satellite brought down to earth.
Such images are familiar from Chen Wei’s unsettling, staged photographs, but it bespeaks a huge ambition to produce a three dimensional stage set. The artist says the initial idea came from Rimbaud’s poem, The Drunken Boat, in which a drifting boat free-associates in the manner of a dying man whose memories flash vividly through his mind. Chen Wei’s nightclub is also a place for the dissolution of the self, a lurid chamber in which time is suspended.
By the time we arrive the club has been abandoned. What once seemed seductive now looks tawdry, as if the room itself was suffering from a massive hangover.
A third major installation is Shi Yong’s A Bunch of Happy Fantasies (2009). It is based on a poem written by a friend of the artist who was an opium addict, which ends with the lines: “I used to believe in love, but now the future is all despair.”
Shi Yong has turned the poem into a collection of small neon characters set like poppies in a field. Because these characters are inverted they are confusing not only to those of us who can’t read the calligrams, but to native Chinese-speakers. It’s not the “poppies” that are red, but the entire room – a blazing, eerie glow that leaves a green after-image on the retina. It’s an image of infernal disillusion that begins as an opium dream and extends to engulf us all. We each have our own fantasies that are no less illusory than the visions induced by the drug. We enjoy a state of comfort that may be equally ephemeral.
There is also an underlying metaphor in Li Hui’s Cage (2006-14), a room criss-crossed by thin, green laser beams that make us pause before proceeding. One has the urge to step over a beam as if it were a solid obstacle. While the piece probably owes a debt to the work of New York light artist, Anthony McCall, it creates a unique feeling of disorientation and claustrophobia. The message is simple: we all live within cages of our own invention.
As usual, this White Rabbit survey is not limited to large-scale installations. It includes Huang Bo-Ha’s monochromes, made by applying layer upon layer of pigment, every day, for months on end. There is also a poignant brush-and-ink painting by Lin Chuan-Chu, called Lunchbox (2002), which shows a frugal meal of rice and salt, eaten as an act of mourning. The tragedy in this case was the banishment of the artist’s brother from the family, viewed as a form of death. The humble lunchbox bears a close resemblance to a coffin.
Another characteristic White Rabbit touch are those works that are labour-intensive to a mind-boggling degree. This includes not just Huang Bo-Hua’s paintings, but a progressive drawing project by Guo Tianyi; the cumulative photo assemblages of Hong Hao; and three circular, kinetic sculptures by Mia Liu called Guggen’ Dizzy (2009-11), made from thousands of entry tickets from New York’s Guggenheim Museum, decorated with forms clipped from coloured tape.
Among more socially committed works are Shao Yinong and Muchen’s images of disabled children, photographed in the manner of the famous picture of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square; and Zhang Dali’s Square (2104), a gallery of life-sized sculptures of social outcasts, on which birds have come to perch.
One of the most exciting parts of this show is the chance to see six brilliant animations by Bu Hua, including classics such as Cat (2002) and Savage Growth (2008), along with several new acquisitions. The quality of drawing, wit and invention make Bu Hua one of the most original graphic artists at work anywhere in the world. She is the perfect avatar for a society in which the line between fantasy and reality is being constantly redefined.
White Rabbit Gallery, until 31 January 2016
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 24th October, 2015