In the words of the Chinese philosopher, Mencius, “we survive in adversity and perish in ease and comfort.” This thought may be universally applicable but it is especially relevant to China today, as the horrors of the 20th century recede into the mists. It has been almost 40 years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, and 25 years since soldiers fired on protesters in Tiananmen Square. Two generations have grown up in an increasingly affluent society, enjoying opportunities that would have been inconceivable to their grandparents.
But for everything that is gained in the new China something else is lost. This may be an era of relative peace and prosperity but it is also one of uncertainty. In the Mao era almost everyone lived a frugal life, with their future laid out on train tracks. Today’s China is a roller-coaster ride between extremes of wealth and poverty. The booming economy has created many victims, inducing a widespread nostalgia for those days of ‘the iron rice bowl’.
These are some of the issues explored in Commune, the 11th exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery, the private museum of contemporary Chinese art put together by Judith Neilson. Since its inception in 2009 White Rabbit has become one of Sydney’s leading art attractions. Nowadays it always seems to be full of people.
The catalogue for the new exhibition says the collection includes more than 1,100 pieces by 450 artists. By now that total is even higher, representing the world’s largest private stockpile of contemporary Chinese art. The general rule has been to collect nothing made before the year 2000. With such a limited time frame the quality of holdings seems even more remarkable.
One of the reasons this art is so consistently dynamic is the turbulent nature of Chinese society over the past two decades. Hundreds of millions of people are pushing, scrabbling, striving to get ahead. Those who don’t take action sink quickly to the bottom of the social pond. This rule also applies to artists who compete for attention in a crowded market. For emerging artists the age of adversity is still current. The ‘ease and comfort’ belongs to those who have made it to the top.
As a general rule those successful figures who sell works for astronomical sums, have become far less interesting. It’s hard to sustain much creative tension when one is an international brand.
By contrast, many of the artists in the White Rabbit collection are working hard to establish themselves, drawing on all their ingenuity. The range of individual approaches coincides with China’s newfound taste for individualism, which is breaking down centuries of collective behaviour. As far back as the 6th century BCE, Confucius emphasised the importance of family and extended this idea as a model for government, seeing the Emperor as a father. The Communist victory of 1949 meant that the forced egalitarianism of the commune became the basic social model for all of China.
Confucianism and Maoism were both rigidly hierarchical systems. Individuals were united in one body under the unassailable leadership of the Emperor or the Great Helmsman. It wasn’t a program of healthy social cohesion, but a means of control. During extreme periods such as the Cultural Revolution those who acted in an individualistic manner might be deemed counterrevolutionaries.
At such times, when neighbours viewed each other with suspicion, and rival disciples of Mao Zedong fought battles in the street, the family was the only safe haven. Although children were encouraged to inform on their parents, family feelings usually won out over ideological zeal. This sense of family permeates many of the items in Commune, making this White Rabbit’s saddest and most insightful show.
At least three works pay homage to dead relatives. In Return: Old Lady Gao Comes Home (2012), Zhang Lidan takes a suit of clothes and a hat belonging to her great-aunt, Gao Suhua, and places them in various locations around her village. The ghostly clothes echo the shape of the old woman’s body, but the head and hands remain invisible.
In a series of exquisite small paintings, Chung Shun-wen reproduces the patterns found on the clothes worn by her grandmother, who died at the age of 97. It’s a simple idea but beautifully executed. Chung even includes the buttons on a blouse, making us conscious that we are looking at well-worn garments, not simple decorations.
The largest work in this sub-section is Gao Rong’s The Static Eternity (2012) – a full-scale facsimile of her grandparents’ two-room house, complete with portraits of the absent owners. The breathtaking aspect of this piece is that every single part has been embroidered, from the rusty stains on a wall to beds, books, furniture and thermos flasks. This installation was first shown in the 2012 Sydney Biennale, but it has a special resonance in this context, as part of a cumulative picture of stoic endurance.
There is also a strangely elegiac feeling about Chen Mingqiang’s A Pictorial Study of Marriage Certificates in the New China (2013), which is both installation and university dissertation. It consists of many hundreds of marriage certificates collected from all over China, often from junk shops. Most of them are emblazoned with portraits of Chairman Mao and other revolutionary insignia, reminding us that even marriage was once considered a political act. Was there room for romance amid the propaganda?
One could argue that the entire Cultural Revolution was a romance – of a malign variety that brought the Chinese economy to a standstill, destroyed the education system, and vandalised the nation’s cultural heritage. The campaigns to eradicate the “Four Olds” – customs, culture, habits and ideas – in favour of a clean slate have left their mark on a society that still has little feeling for conservation or heritage.
Bai Yiluo’s Spring and Autumn 1 (2007) brings us a four-metre-high tree made from old farming equipment. It makes one think of all those displaced farmers along the Yangtse, when the Three Gorges Dam was built; or perhaps the shovels, rakes and ploughs melted down for scrap metal during the Great Leap Forward. It’s as if these old tools had suddenly sprung into new life.
In The Great Wall Plan (2011-13), Wang Chen has gone in search of bricks from China’s most famous monument that have been taken and reused by villagers. Among other items he found a small shrine, a communal oven and a pigsty. All three items have been acquired by White Rabbit and carefully reconstructed. Sydney artlovers can now enjoy the bizarre spectacle of an empty pigsty made from fragments of the Great Wall. Even today the Chinese did not care enough about those old bricks to think about keeping them at home.
It’s become customary for the top floor of White Rabbit to house some extraordinary spectacle that crowns an exhibition. This time the works have a very different character. Hu Jieming’s The Remnants of Images (2013) presents a set of antiquated filing cabinets covered in the archival photos and moving images on small screens. Even the drawers on the cabinets are animated, opening and closing to reveal more images. The installation reflects of the haphazard nature of memory, and perhaps China’s wilful attempts to forget the sins and trials of the past.
Hu’s filing cabinets are surrounded by Jiang Jian’s stark, black-and-white photographs of orphans, who stare at us impassively, alongside framed pictures of their identity documents. The work dates from 2009, leaving us to wonder how these young lives have changed over the past five years.
Jiang’s The Orphan Files is reminiscent of Chien-Chi Chang’s photos of the inmates of a mental institution, shown earlier this year at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. There are also affinities with Human Being (2008) Li Wei’s diminutive, life-like sculpture of a naked woman, exhibited on the second floor of White Rabbit. Yet the quality in Jiang’s photographs that impresses itself upon us is the powerful sense of individual personality found in each of these pictures. It suggests you can take away a family and a home, or treat people as mere statistics, but a core of selfhood remains inviolable. Multiply this lesson by 1.3 billion and you have a portrait of China today.
White Rabbit Gallery, until 1 February 2015
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 1st November, 2014