Every exhibition at White Rabbit, the Neilson family’s private museum of contemporary Chinese art, has featured at least one show-stopper. The tour-de-force in the current show, Smash Palace, is Cheng Dapeng’s Wonderful City (2011-12), a 9.6 metre-long 3D print. On a long, light-box table, Cheng has placed a scale model of a city overrun with mutant, hybrid creatures apparently borrowed from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Yet these monsters are not roaming the streets, they are an integral part of the architecture.
Cheng is an architect by profession, a job that must provide some hair-raising insights into the way Chinese cities get built nowadays. High-rise buildings seem to go down as fast as they go up, only to be replaced by bigger versions. The usual trigger for this rapid-fire urban renewal is that a developer has successfully lobbied the relevant officials for permission to build something grander and more lucrative
The lobbying process may include a well-padded ‘red envelope’ full of cash, or even an apartment in the proposed building. By some accounts there are so many of these gift apartments in Beijing and Shanghai the government has become concerned about the amount of real estate lying fallow as an investment when there is an ever-growing need for accommodation.
Welcome to the new China, where everything is for sale, and appearances are everything. A report in Forbes Magazine last August alleged that as many as 80 percent of pieces appearing in the busy Chinese auction and resale market are fakes. The Art Newspaper has run similar stories about the Chinese government endeavouring to clean up “the three fakes”, namely “works, sales and auctions.”
A Hong Kong antique dealer recently told me that he has seen pieces of furniture of dubious authenticity being sold at auction for millions of dollars. The buyers, loaded with new money, are eager to acquire anything associated with the imperial court. To them, authenticity is less important than the appearance of authenticity.
It would be easy to keep listing such stories, but the basic point is that China continues to be a work-in-progress, in which the economic miracle has a dark side.
Smash Palace takes a slightly more militant approach to the new China than any previous White Rabbit exhibition. The title, borrowed incongruously from a New Zealand film of 1981, suggests that cracks are starting to appear in “the immovable edifice of Party rule.” Needless to say, the Party would dispute this diagnosis. In the years since the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, China’s rulers have shown a remarkable ability to deal with problems as soon as they arise, whether this entails a crack-down or a period of liberalisation.
Corruption is a perennial issue, but it may be that pollution presents the biggest looming challenge. China is reaching the point where is must escape a progress-at-all-costs mentality, working to repair an environment that is taking an ever greater toll on people’s health and causing widespread public anger. If that anger becomes big enough and dangerous enough, don’t be surprised if red China goes green at breakneck speed.
Smash Palace addresses the changing nature of Chinese society with a mixture of old works and new. Cheng Dapeng’s Wonderful City on the first floor, is complemented by a reprise of Zhou Jie’s CBD (2010), another sprawling installation in which the buildings of central Beijing are duplicated in porcelain that blooms with parasites.
The message of both works is similar: that unchecked urban development resembles the spread of a virus. In Zhou Die’s work, this is presented as an organic process, as the buildings are literally eaten up by new growths. Cheng takes a more elliptical approach, using hybrid forms to suggest the monsters from the Id – the forces of greed and ambition that are driving China’s ceaseless reinvention of itself.
The monsters in Bosch’s paintings had a moralistic intent, giving a concrete form to sins, and suggesting the terrible punishments meted out to transgressors. Cheng’s work has a similar dimension, although as a practising architect he might count himself among the damned.
China’s building boom is the subject of several other works in the show, including Jin Shi’s Mini Home (2005) – an exact replica of the kind of tiny, booth-like space in which many migrant workers spend their lives. These people, the Mingong, come from distant provinces to seek labouring work in the big cities, sending income back to their home towns. They are paid absurdly low wages, work in substandard conditions, and are treated like outcasts by the local population.
Wang Guofeng takes on a more spectacular subject in a series of large-scale photographs titled Ideality (2006), which depict the Ten Grand Buildings erected in Beijing in just ten months, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Communist revolution. These monumental structures, which are of Soviet inspiration but with distinctive Chinese features, are celebrations of the power of the state. The buildings were one of the initiatives of the Great Leap Forward – Mao’s disastrous campaign of fast-tracked progress that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people, largely through famine.
Wang has included a tiny self-portrait in every picture as subtle rebuke to Maoist megalomania. These almost invisible figures suggest how futile it seems for an individual to oppose the will of the Party. In retrospect, the Ten Great Buildings are modest achievements, compared to the wholesale demolition and renovation generated by the Beijing Olympics.
It’s quietly depressing from an Australian point-of-view, that in 1959 the Chinese could pull off such a vast project in ten months while the current plan for a new addition to the Art Gallery of NSW allows for an eight-year completion date.
Other themes that emerge from this artfully constructed show are the disjunctions between image and reality that characterise modern China, and the fearful stresses of everyday life. These topics are not unique to the Chinese, but are given a local twist.
The cack-handed paintings of Liao Guohe make absurd, cartoon-like statements about Chinese politics and bureaucracy, embodied in images such as a shadowy banana-nosed official pondering the issue of bananas’ rights, while holding one example at crotch-level. The unspoken gag is that reality is hardly less absurd than Liao’s comic invention.
A powerful video piece called Ketchup (2009) by Yan Baishen, draws on the old equation that sees stage blood as “tomato sauce”, but the metaphors in this childhood reminiscence grow more sinister by the minute. Another video work by Taiwanese artist, Tu Pei-Shih, Adventures in Mount Yu (2010-11) uses the bright colours of a children’s storybook to show how easily the “happy bubble” of present day prosperity may be shattered by authoritarian violence.
The anxiety upon which material happiness is based finds expression in Tzeng Yong-Ning’s Wildfire 40 (2008-11), a large sheet of paper covered in marks savagely inscribed with a red roller pen.
Although this work has echoes of artists such as Cy Twombly and Arnulf Rainer, one cannot help but see it in relation to a tradition of Chinese ink painting, in which the pressure of the brush and the delicacy of the artist’s touch were of paramount importance. Before beginning such a work, an artist would meditate to get his Qi up. Although the literal meaning of Qi is “breath”, it has a much broader range of associations, as kind of life force. Tzeng’s relentless red scribbles explode any conception of spiritual contentment. They resemble the spontaneous outpourings of a tormented soul.
Finally, lurking in the corner of the top floor gallery, one comes across a nondescript work called Even in Fear (2011), by that versatile artist, Zhou Xiaohu. Wait for a minute or two and a motor kicks in, causing a grey floppy mass of latex to begin to inflate. It is a weather balloon that gets bigger and bigger and bigger, until it bulges against the ceiling and the floor, threatening to explode at any moment.
It is a simple but effective symbol for the relentless expansion of the Chinese economic bubble that may one day burst. Zhou has given a concrete form to the process by which we keep accumulating goods and expectations, while inwardly dreading the day when it all goes bang. The bonus with this work is that every so often a balloon does explode. The growing unease one feels while watching the bubble expand is entirely justified. There’s nothing like a loud detonation to bring one out of the realms of art and back to reality.
Smash Palace, White Rabbit Gallery, March 1 – August 4, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 4, 2013