Where would we be without China? Even allowing for recent tensions, Australia’s much-vaunted economic boom owed everything to China’s insatiable hunger for natural resources. Every Australian household is stuffed with goods made in Chinese factories, and for many years we have viewed Chinese food – in barely recognizable incarnations – with the fondness the British feel for Chicken tikka masala.
Nevertheless, for most of us China is obscured by a Great Wall of clichés. Every second article on a Chinese topic is titled ‘Cultural Revolution’ or ‘Great Leap Forward’. Mao Zedong’s familiar features still dominate western perceptions, fuelled by the publication of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s best-selling biography, Mao: the Unknown Story (2005). One of the strange side-effects of this book is that many western tourists now feel obliged to inform the Chinese that Mao was an evil dictator. Yet those who suffered under the Chairman’s capricious rule retain a more ambiguous view. For the supreme achievement of uniting China Mao will always be seen as a great man.
That same vision of a united China is one of the reasons why many Chinese are intolerant of the aspirations of Tibet or Xinjiang. In their minds, nothing could be better than being part of this great juggernaut, moving inexorably towards world economic supremacy.
Over the past two decades it has become apparent that China’s entry into the international marketplace has brought about more sweeping changes than the Communist victory of 1949. China has gone through industrial and technological revolutions in record time. The accompanying cultural changes have been just as dramatic. In the visual arts the Chinese have worked their way through the entire history of western modernism in a single decade.
The works associated with the movement called ’85 New Wave were derivative of western models, but adapted for a Chinese context. The next wave of artists, identified with movements such as Cynical Realism and Political Pop, threaded their way through a minefield of political repression and censorship – one of the legacies of the events of June 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Artists used black humour and irony to exorcise the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, which had brought the nation to the brink of anarchy in the decade from 1966-76. During the nineties China produced the most extreme performance art, but also the most saleable commodities, with endless mutations of Mao’s image being sold to western museums and collectors who had been softened up by Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits of the Great Helmsman.
And so we come to contemporary Chinese art, which is more ambitious, more diverse, more humorous and daring than the art being made in any other part of the world. As of last week, Sydney is home to the White Rabbit Gallery, a showcase for one of the world’s largest private collections of contemporary Chinese art. Located in a converted factory in Chippendale, White Rabbit is open to the public from Thursday to Sunday every week. Admission is free, and there will be a raft of public programs dedicated to Chinese art and culture.
White Rabbit is a not-for-profit organization that receives no government funding. It is the creation of Judith Neilson, whose billionaire husband, Kerr, runs the boutique funds management group, Platinum. With the possible exception of Kerr’s shoes, the museum is the flashiest thing in the Neilsons’ lives. In status-obsessed Sydney they keep a low profile.
The collection of more than 400 works has been acquired on numerous trips to China over the past decade. As an advisor, Judith Neilson has used the Australian-trained artist, Wang Zhiyuan, who has contributed a huge wall sculpture of a pair of underpants to the inaugural exhibition, complete with music and neon lights. Wang’s role, however, is limited to offering suggestions. Unlike many top collectors who are happy to leave everything to consultants, Judith Neilson makes her own decisions about acquisitions.
In Chinese fashion, the gallery is a family affair, with the Neilson daughters, Paris and Bo, both playing a role. They are aware that by not employing teams of credentialled experts they risk incurring the derision of the art world, but that is hardly a major concern. They are not trying to make money with the gallery or cement their places in the social pages. Judith Neilson says that White Rabbit is nothing more than an expression of her enthusiasm for Chinese contemporary art, and a desire to share this work with a wider audience. Even the name of the gallery was decided on a whim – it has no deeper meaning beyond being memorable.
Starting a gallery is the kind of thing you can do when you have already made enough money to satisfy your immediate needs and fantasies. The Besen family has done this with the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Victoria, while David Walsh will soon be opening his Museum of Old and New in Tasmania. Elsewhere in Sydney the Shermans are running an adventurous international art foundation with an exhibiting space in Paddington.
The man on whom everyone is waiting is Kerry Stokes, who is yet to settle on a public venue for a collection that outshines most of the public galleries in this country.
The moral of the story is that many wealthy people in Australia could fund private museums and foundations. The money that might be given to the tax man, or more likely diverted into circuitous tax minimisation schemes, could make a huge difference to Australia’s cultural infrastructure. The trick is to find business tycoons who give two hoots about the arts.
I have to declare an interest in White Rabbit, as I have written artist profiles and an essay for the catalogue of the collection, which will be published towards the end of this year. This has given me such a familiarity with the works that it is difficult to be objective, but that’s where my involvement ends. There is nothing controversial in declaring that White Rabbit is unequivocally a brilliant asset for Sydney, or that the art is of a stature that puts the usual Biennale fodder to shame. One reason for this distinction may be that people tend to make better choices when spending their own money.
Almost everything in the White Rabbit collection has been created after the year 2000. Many of the artists are still in their thirties, some in their twenties. They have no first-hand experience of Maoism or the Cultural Revolution, which defined the lives of previous generations. They have never known a China without advertising or a booming marketplace. Freed from the burden of the past, they have taken many idiosyncratic pathways, but there remains an element in almost every work that is distinctively Chinese.
This is obvious in both the imagery and the meaning of the first work most visitors will see: Chen Wenling’s Valiant Struggle No. 11, a towering sculpture of an eleven-metre tongue protruding upwards from a small red car. A golden pig and two figures dangle from the tongue, grasping after China’s new wealth while trying not to plunge to earth.
The most international of artists – the impressive Bingyi, who has an MA and a PhD from Yale – is also the most thoroughly immersed in Chinese tradition. Her Six Accounts of a Floating life makes reference to a famous 18th novel, while being painted in an expressionist style that owes a debt to western art.
Perhaps the most provocative piece in this first hang is Chen Linyang’s Twelve flower months, which consists of explicit photographs of the artist’s body smeared with menstrual blood. Each work is framed by a traditional window or door shape and juxtaposed with a flower that blooms during that month, bringing a delicate beauty to the installation. It remains confronting, but no-one could deny the artist’s aesthetic finesse.
There are some sixty works on display until the end of the year, when the collection will be rotated. One noticeable feature of this selection is that it features an unusually large number of female artists, reflecting both the advances that women artists have made in China over the past decade, and the preferences of the collector.
Another feature is the large number of artists who have studied and lived overseas. Many of those pilgrims have since returned to China to take advantage of cheap real estate and labour, but their international experience has given them a completely different perspective on contemporary art to the artists of earlier generations.
This is reflected in the work itself, which ranges from deadpan photographs of orphans by Jiang Jan, to Bua Hua’s apocalyptic animations, to Cang Xin’s shamanistic drawings. Regardless of whether the artist is making paintings, sculptures, videos or large-scale installations; commenting on latter-day consumerism, or age-old tradition; these works display an extraordinary degree of originality. They are the products of one of the most peaceful but turbulent periods in China’s history: the decade in which the world’s oldest civilisation finally discovered the concept of individualism.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 15, 2009