As a squad of entombed warriors takes up temporary residence at the Art Gallery of NSW this may be an opportune time to look at the state of Chinese art two thousand years down the track. White Rabbit, the Neilson family’s privately funded museum of contemporary Chinese art, is currently holding its third exhibition. Like its predecessors, The Big Bang is drawn exclusively from a permanent collection that grows by three-monthly increments, when Judith Neilson makes one of her regular visits to China.
There is a belief within the art community that privately funded galleries lack expertise, scholarship, professionalism, and all those other qualities in which public galleries take pride – rightly or wrongly. It’s also worth noting that they lack the cumbersome machinery of bureaucracy and accountability. They don’t have to spend time sucking up to donors and sponsors, or pleading with governments for a hand-out.
Neither do they have the same responsibilities towards the public and posterity. This means that a private collection may sell any work and not generate the controversy the AGNSW met with recently when it auctioned off Ian Fairweather’s Gethsemane (1958). What made this so provocative was that the work had been a gift from Patrick White, the only Australian to win the Nobel Prize for literature. When even White’s bequest may be been treated in this way it can only make potential donors think twice about where they leave their bequests.
There is one obvious reason why the AGNSW was led down this problematic path: the inadequacy of government funding. The idea that funding for the local art museum is an indulgence, not a duty, is one of the great blights on Australian political culture.
Governments welcome private museums and foundations such as White Rabbit because these initiatives give a visible boost to the arts, while letting the state off the hook. But as wealthy collectors channel funds into their own galleries this also removes a potential source of patronage. The moral of the story is that inadequate public funding leads to practices that actively discourage private contributions, as principles are sold out for a quick buck.
If you are wealthy enough it makes perfect sense to start your own gallery. It can be made tax effective through a foundation, and it means that your money is not going to be spent in ways you dislike. The reason so few people take up this option is that they simply have no interest in the arts. Even the Lowys, who have been prominent figures at the AGNSW, seem more interested in the social cachet than the art itself. Their big splurges are foreign affairs and football. No family in the United States could provide two heads of Trustees for a major gallery without having made many millions in private contributions.
For collectors willing to trust their own taste and judgement, such as Judith Neilson, works may be acquired quickly, without the agonising search for permissions and funding that characterises public galleries. Consequently, in little more than a year of existence, White Rabbit has proven to be a dynamic entity. It mirrors the rapidly evolving profile of contemporary Chinese art, which has left the rest of the world looking rather dull.
The phrase “creative destruction” was coined by Marxists as a way of describing the boom and bust cycles of capitalism. The famous economist, Joseph Schumpeter, gave a more positive spin to the term when he used it to describe the power of innovation, which sweeps away old inefficiencies and conventions. Recently, the American urbanist, Thomas J. Campanella, has applied this concept to China’s ferocious drive for urban renewal that has seen cities such as Beijing and Shanghai transformed beyond recognition over the past two decades.
The term remains ambiguous, suggesting that every gain is predicated on a loss. This accurately describes the way China’s phenomenal progress has coincided with the extirpation of its cultural heritage, as concrete skyscrapers and apartment blocks have replaced low-level courtyard houses and temples.
The destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, left nothing positive in its wake. The nation had its heart and soul ripped out, and much of its historical identity effaced. By contrast, the economic boom of the past two decades – inevitably christened a “revolution” by many commentators – has made many Chinese prosperous, and improved the lifestyles of millions.
Even the appalling damage done to the environment is now being pegged back, with China leading the world in green technology. This is partly because the United States has poured its billions into the casino of the finance sector rather than investing in the innovations that Schumpeter saw as essential to the success of creative destruction.
Artists have played a valuable role as recorders and commentators on a society in flux, picking up on the blend of positive and negative energy that crackles in all directions. Entering The Big Bang, the first thing we see is an eleven-metre tower of discarded plastic bottles in the shape of a tornado. This is Wang Zhiyuan’s Thrown to the wind (2010), an unambiguous comment on the waste generated by a newly affluent society. Three photographs on the nearby wall show panoramas of pollution on a barely imaginable scale.
There are three further floors of paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos and installations that demonstrate the diversity of the Chinese art scene. One sub-section features works by four artists from Tibet, a region that has begun to assert itself creatively after a thousand years of exquisite, but repetitive, thanka paintings.
Liu Zhuoquan was born in Hubei but spent eight years in Tibet, which he credits with changing his attitude to the world. He has made his reputation with a unique form of painting, using angled brushes to create layered images on the inside of glass bottles. His inventory so far includes body parts, consumer goods, plants, and many other items, as he works his way towards a goal of ten thousand pieces. In the broadest sense, Liu’s miniaturism is also a way of recycling discarded bottles, transforming them into objects d’art.
This is not the only work that has the ‘wow’ factor in abundance. Two videos by Pisan (AKA. Wang Bo), will come as a surprise to those accustomed to the slow, tortuous creations of most multi-media artists. The semi-animated Daydream (2006), and the riotous, scabrous You are always hanging around me (2010), manage to combine the entertainment of a music video with the kind of violent satire once associated with the Weimar Republic – another occasion when social upheaval led to an explosion of creativity.
Ai Weiwei has specialised in astonishing audiences, but even by his standards Sunflower seeds (2009) is an extraordinary work. For two years he paid 1,600 people to paint tiny porcelain sunflower seeds. Five hundred kilos of these seeds – approximately 400,000 – lie heaped on the floor at White Rabbit. The joke is that sunflower seeds are one of the cheapest and most abundant forms of food in China, yet this pile of porcelain facsimiles is rare and valuable. Even the high price Ai Weiwei is charging for the work tends to reinforce the idea behind the piece – a trick that most conceptual artists might only envy. The mound of seeds is also a metaphor for the Chinese people – a huge, imposing mass in which individual identity is concealed.
It might seem that Ai Weiwei has stolen the show, until one reaches the third and final floor, which contains a work with the anodyne title of Paper (2010), by the relatively unknown Li Hingbo. Standing by the entrance is a life-sized male figure, crudely carved out of wood – or so it seems. It resembles a work-in-progress by Stephen King, whose wooden pieces are often seen in Sculpture by the Sea. On the floor behind, one sees long tunnels of concertinaed brown paper, like a nest of copulating anacondas. Gradually one realizes that these writhing serpents are the extended limbs of an identical figure, and that both are made of densely compressed paper. A few finger-tips may be seen at the end of one tube, a few toes at the end of another. The compacted figure is 1.7 metres tall, but its twin stretches for more than thirty metres. Like China itself, there is room for further expansion.
The Big Bang, White Rabbit Gallery, until February 2011
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 4, 2010