Ever since Deng Xiaoping plunged China into the era of reforms in the late 1970s, with the legendary words: “To get rich is glorious”, the nation’s leaders have spent a great deal of time resolving – or ignoring – contradictions.
Karl Marx himself would have had difficulty explaining the paradox of a communist country with a stock market.
When vast disparities of wealth began to appear in a supposedly classless society, Deng had to explain that it was natural not everyone would get rich at once. Thirty years later China has 115 billionaires, but several hundred million of their fellow citizens are still waiting their turn. The great conjuring trick has been to revolutionise the economy without an equivalent change in the political landscape.
In China today, ideology has been swept away by a rising tide of prosperity, but it lingers on in the occasional crackdown on some dissident element. The resilience of the hybrid communist-capitalist system rests on uncertainty, ambiguity, a sense of niggling insecurity. One never knows what may be banned or censored, or how stringently the limits of the law will be enforced.
Chinese art represents a particular problem because of its growing success and worldwide visibility. On one hand it is an economic boom in the making, and a magnet for well-heeled tourists. On the negative side, artists have a distressing propensity to draw attention to social and political issues that make the government feel uneasy.
No-one can determine the point where the authorities’ eternal vigilance becomes mere paranoia.
In the period directly following the Tiananmen incident of 1989 exhibitions required permits. Once given, many of these permits were swiftly withdrawn, perhaps on the day of an opening. Nowadays the authorities prefer a softly-softly approach. If a gallery is exhibiting a work that is deemed offensive the dealer or artist might receive a tactful visit from an official who suggests it would be best if the piece were taken down.
This is an improvement on the past, but still an ordeal. In the Shanghai Contemporary art fair held last week, the Belgian gallery, J. Bastien, was instructed to remove ink paintings by Gao Xiangjian, best known as the only Chinese writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Although Gao’s paintings are largely abstract, with no trace of political content, his novels and plays are banned in China, and a zealous censor decided this was reason enough to have his work pulled. Most frustrating for the gallery was the fact it had already shown Gao’s paintings at the two previous Shanghai art fairs with no interference.
Such incidents produce unpredictable conditions for the making and exhibition of art, leading to a high degree of self-censorship as artists try to anticipate what will or won’t be acceptable. Very few have been as direct as Ai Weiwei, whose outspoken criticisms forced the predictable reaction from the authorities. (The mere mention of his name is enough to ensure a website is blocked in China). A more common tactic is a studied ambiguity, whereby a work may have an ‘official’ explanation but be open to a range of interpretations.
For these reasons, Double Take is an especially apt title for the latest exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery. This is the sixth rotation of the collection since the gallery opened its doors three years ago. It brings together a number of familiar works, along with a few new pieces. This is not a holding operation, like so many of the collection-based shows at public art museums, but a deliberate strategy to enable new visitors to see a range of items that have proved popular in the past.
White Rabbit’s profile and attendance figures have grown enormously since 2009, as ever more people have become aware of the power of Chinese contemporary art. In 2014, when the famous Swiss collector, Uli Sigg, completes the transfer of more than 1,400 works to a new museum complex in West Kowloon, the Neilsons, who run White Rabbit, will possess the world’s largest private collection of contemporary Chinese art.
Ultimately it is not the size of the collection that is important, but the quality. Among the pieces being reprised in Double Take are Li Hongbo’s Paper (2010), which consists of two identical figures – one standing, the other stretching around the room in serpent-like coils, as apparently solid limbs are revealed as being made from compressed paper. Another jaw-dropping work is Dust (2008), by Cong Lingqi, which suspends hundreds of tiny models of everyday objects in a strong beam of light.
Then there is Life Strands (2004) by Zhang Chun Hong – an exquisite 11-metre drawing of the artist’s braided hair that leaves the wall and extends onto a platform; and two wire sculptures by Shi Jindian – Blue CJ750 (2008) and Beijing Jeep’s Shadow (2007) – the former a motorcycle and sidecar made from blue mesh, the latter a full-scale chassis and engine of a jeep woven from thin strands of black and white wire.
What these works have in common is that they are large, elaborate presentation pieces – would-be masterpieces intended to launch the artist with explosive force into a crowded and competitive art scene. Judith Neilson has made a point of acquiring these spectacular, museum-quality works, which are often produced by young or emerging artists.
This is where a private collection has the edge over so many public collections, which tend to concentrate on artists with established reputations. Whatever the thinking behind this approach – and if truth be told, it is hardly more than following fashion – it does not result in a guarantee of quality. The overwhelming impression is one of conservatism and conformity, as museums acquire third-rate works by big name artists.
The difficulty for artists such as Li Hongbo and Cong Lingqi is to follow up their dazzling debuts. They have set the bar very high, and now have to match those standards. One solution is simply to scale up the size of one’s production, as Li Hongbo did with his Sydney Biennale piece at Cockatoo Island, but the larger size does not translate into the same level of impact.
An artist who has shown that he can keep extracting new ideas from a signature style is Liu Zhuoquan, who was represented in the Biennale with a massive installation of painted bottles at the Museum of Contemporary Art. A new piece called Seven Sparrows (2011) refers to Chairman Mao’s madcap campaign of 1957 against the sparrows, which he claimed were ruining the crops. After the sparrows had been exterminated, their natural prey, the insects, reduced the harvest to ruins. In the famine that followed the so-called Great Leap Forward, an estimated 40 million people died.
Liu Zhuoquan has juxtaposed six dead sparrows painted in the interior of large bulbs, with the figure of a torture victim, as a comment on the arbitrary use of violence for political ends.
Among other new acquisitions, the main attraction is Tu Wei-Cheng’s Happy Valentine’ Day!! (2011). The installation is made to resemble a confectionary store, with heart-shaped balloons, and row upon row of tiny chocolates. The only twist is that the chocolates are all moulded into the shapes of guns, tanks, jet fighters, bullets, and other weapons of war. Even the store logo is a mushroom cloud in the shape of a heart.
Tu Wei-Cheng is a Taiwanese artist, and his weapons of mass confection stage an ironical comment on the mixture of rapprochement and hostility with which mainland China regards his homeland. The sugary sentiment of Valentine’s Day conceals war-like, possessive intentions. It’s a heavy-handed idea, but the immaculate presentation of the work is as irresistible as chocolate.
In Goddamn Life (2008), another Taiwanese artist, Liao Chien-Chang, has contributed a video of himself on that supreme fetish object, a Harley-Davidson. Yet as the camera pans back we realise his Harley is only a disguised bicycle with delusions of grandeur.
The fake Harley-Davidson, also shown in this exhibition, is a perfect example of the other aspect of this show: the fact that so many works are not what they appear to be. The ambiguity extends from Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds (2010), made from porcelain, to a small wooden school desk by Ah Leon, which is actually a ceramic sculpture. Lu Xinjian’s abstract painting, City DNA – Beijing (2010) is a schematic translation of the maps on Google Earth, while Gao Rong’s worn and soiled bus stop is really a fastidious piece of embroidery.
The level of craftsmanship in these pieces is breathtaking – especially for western audiences who have grown accustomed to an art scene contemptuous of the need for skills. But there is more involved than mere trompe-l’oeil effects. The double nature of these works is a metaphor for the double nature of Chinese society in which anything may be more than it seems. As we learn to read the codes, we begin to understand what it is like to function in land in which contradictions are a way of life.
Double Take, White Rabbit Gallery, August 31, 2012-January 2, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 22, 2012