As a second Art Month winds towards a conclusion, it’s still not clear that this initiative is winning new audiences for the visual arts. For 2010’s first-ever Art Month the program was even more packed, but the season that followed was a mortifying experience for most of the commercial galleries. It seems that all the talks and dinners and booze-ups don’t necessarily translate into increased sales. For the most part, it’s a case of preaching to the converted.
Nevertheless it would be premature to declare the experiment a failure because any large-scale event requires at least three years to establish itself in people’s minds. Sydney is a city that embraces all kinds of festivals even though it has few people who might be called dedicated art collectors. This will change over time, but it is anybody’s guess how long it will take before a rising generation of dealers may consider themselves established propositions.
Perhaps it’s my imagination, but things feel rather slow in at the moment. The museums are leading the way, with the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the National Gallery of Australia, all sitting on shows that have been running for months. The most engaging exhibitions are to be found in the privately run, not-for-profit venues: Yang Fudong’s epic video sequence, Five Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation; and The Decade of the Rabbit, at the White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale.
It’s not coincidental that both these exhibitions feature Chinese artists, because – does it need saying again? – this is where the most exciting contemporary art is being made. The scale, ambition and imagination that characterises the art coming out of China is unmatched by any other nation. This is not simply because labour and materials are comparatively cheap, it is because the Chinese are hungrier than their western counterparts. They are addressing an international not a local audience, and working on a scale that appeals to museums rather than private collectors. They make everyone else look timid.
Yang Fudong will have to wait until I’ve had a chance to watch his five-hour-long project. In the meantime, it’s pleasing to see how many people have now got into the habit of visiting White Rabbit. Last weekend the gallery was packed with visitors, all looking suitably impressed.
Of the four shows held so far at White Rabbit, drawn from the private collection of the Neilson family, The Decade of the Rabbit is the most skillfully arranged. In retrospect the previous exhibitions seem a little crowded and hectic, as if it had proved hard to decide what to leave out. This time the rooms feel more spacious, and the dialogue between works more finely calibrated.
Some artists and artworks are back for a second look, notably Wang Yuyang’s silicon mini-van that inhales and exhales, and Liang Yuanwei’s two floral paintings with indescribably delicate surface effects. Shi Jindian, who dazzled viewers with his motorbike made out of blue wire, returns with a full-size jeep chassis and engine, while there are two more violent, anarchic animations from Pisan. Most of the works in this selection have not been shown before, and require at least two looks before they reveal their secrets.
The first piece encountered on Level one, is Ye Su’s Analysis 04, an innocuous-looking arrangement of two parts of a tree trunk connected by a swathe of chains. It is only upon closer inspection that one realises the chains have been carved, link-by-link, from the same trunk.
One vague rule this time is that titles are as dull as the works are startling, as if artists were trying to camouflage their intentions for as long as possible. For instance, Wang Lei has contributed two pale grey, woven robes called Fabrication. Such traditional garments are usually made from brightly coloured silk, so it seems an obvious gag to put them together like a monotone woolly jumper. The robes symbolise the way traditions have become colourless and ghost-like alongside the ferocious social and economic progress of latter-day China. The surprise comes when we realise that the fibres have been made from the pages of an English-Chinese dictionary. Not only does this introduce the idea of translation from one medium to another, it suggests that China’s modernisation is a form of westernisation.
It also plays on the diverse ways identity is embedded in language, and in clothing. One thinks of Wittgenstein’s famous dictum “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”; and of clothing as second skin, masquerade and indicator of social status. Even the anodyne title is transfigured, because “fabrication” can also mean a lie.
No less staggering is Gao Rong’s corner installation, which goes by the deadpan title: 1/2 Level, Unit 8, Building 5, Hua Jiadi North Village. At first glance this looks like a faithful reconstruction of a small part of one of the millions of rundown, virtually uniform buildings found in all Chinese cities. Closer inspection reveals that every part of this life-size construction has been created by embroidery. This includes the rust stains on a waste pipe, the exposed wires in a circuit board, and a fragment of shoe print, where someone has kicked the wall.
The painstaking realism of this work makes light of the humdrum nature of the subject, testifying to the transformative powers of art, which can make the ugliest, most ordinary scene into a thing of wonder. It is the sort of transformation that China – and the world in general – requires on a gargantuan scale.
These many-layered works are contrasted with a series of pieces that deal specifically with nature, such as Shi Zhiying’s mesmeric painting of the ocean, which the artist links to Buddhist philosophy. Alongside this canvas are three shrubs made from tangled wire by Huang Zhen, who relates the work to the Daoist reverence for Nature. Song Jianshu’s simple, poetic sculpture, Hey Baby, shows a wooden pillar emerging from a blackened carapace, presumably as a metaphor for the soul.
In the current Singapore Biennale, which features 63 artists, there is hardly a painting to be found. By contrast, the White Rabbit exhibition features a strong, diverse selection of abstract and figurative works. This may be attributed to the fearless taste of the private collector, who uses her own money, as opposed to the institutionally formed judgements of professional curators.
Of the paintings in this show, the stand-out is Bingyi’s large canvas, I Watch Myself Dying, which has a loose expressionist dimension quite unlike anything else being made by Chinese painters, who tend to favour crisp, identifiable forms that allow for a display of virtuosic skills. Bingyi has the kind of talent that can afford to discard the obvious signs of painterly technique. The power of her work lies in its clashing registers of bright, appealing colour and grotesque imagery; a distinctly oriental sensibility and sense of space, combined with a deep understanding of western art history; and an ability to create a highly personal work that transcends the simple focus on the self.
She has the credentials to back up her abilities. Having initially studied electrochemical engineering in Beijing, she travelled to the United States, where she obtained her BA, MA and PhD in art history from Harvard and Yale. Nowadays, she lectures in both Beijing and Buffalo, and exhibits her work at high-profile galleries.
But those whom the gods favour so plentifully, they also destroy. In 2009, Bingyi was badly burnt in a domestic accident, and has since undergone a harrowing round of operations and therapeutic treatments. I Watch Myself Dying is the artist’s unsentimental commentary on this process, a view of her body reduced to lumps of battered flesh scattered about an operating theatre. In style there are echoes of James Ensor and Francis Bacon, but the most obvious reference is to Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp.
Bingyi’s picture is dark in subject matter, but painted with an amazingly vibrant and airy palette. The action is set on a clear blue ground, which is the colour of the sky, and perhaps, of heaven. We are all engaged in dying but few of us experience such a terrible reminder of our own mortality, or the fragility of the body itself. From the depths of her own pain Bingye has created an image so arresting and powerful that it takes one’s breath away.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, March 26, 2011
The Decade of the Rabbit, White Rabbit Gallery.