As the Biennale of Sydney opens, having severed ties with its founding sponsor, Transfield, it’s appropriate that the White Rabbit Gallery has launched a new exhibition called Reformation. From its beginnings, five years ago, the Nielsen family’s private museum of contemporary Chinese Art has presented a striking alternative to the big public art institutions. It’s the sort of initiative that warms the heart of the federal Arts Minister, Senator Brandis, partly because it operates at no cost to the government.
If the Senator makes good on his promises of last week he’ll soon be attempting to ensure that no public institution can refuse private sponsorship without being rendered ineligible for Australia Council funding. It’s a threat that sounds remarkably similar to the pronouncements of the Chinese Communist Party, which warns its dissidents: “Take a political stance at your own peril!”
The Biennale will pay a penalty for its attitude towards Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and Transfield, but it shouldn’t be one imposed by a punitive, interventionist government. If there is a ‘reformation’ stirring in Australian art, it has to spring from new exhibition models such as White Rabbit and the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, not from a heavy-handed attempt to force recipients of public money to toe the party line. It would be wiser to respect arm’s length principles and wait for private sponsors to come to their own conclusions as to whether they still wish to support the Biennale.
The title of White Rabbit’s exhibition conjures up Deng Xiaoping’s ‘era of reforms’, starting at the end of the 1970s, which brought China into the global marketplace. The keynote pronouncement was: “It’s glorious to get rich.” Later Deng would be obliged to explain it was only normal that some would get rich faster than others.
The process was not straightforward, as a large section of Chinese people had the temerity to equate economic reform with political reform. The violent events of Tiananmen Square in July 1989 put a clamp on the nascent democracy movement and sent China back into the international wilderness. That was the period when artists migrated to all parts of the world, feeling they had no future in their homeland. Less than twenty years later they had started returning, encouraged by a growing tolerance and a booming art market.
One of those prodigals was Wang Zhiyuan, who acted as an advisor for White Rabbit in its first years, and is represented in the new exhibition by a mind-boggling wall installation called Close to the Warm, that uses thousands of tiny Chinese characters swarming like insects around a light bulb. Much of the work acquired with Wang’s assistance was produced by a new generation of artists who carry no cultural baggage from the Maoist era. Today’s artists know they can get away with things that caused trouble for an earlier generation, even though the case of Ai Weiwei shows that official tolerance has its limits.
Perhaps the most wondrous part of the new exhibition is a densely packed hang of paintings that occupies the entire right-hand wall of the gallery, from foyer to second floor. It’s a vivid reminder of the variety and quality of the collection. Return visitors will identify familiar favourites in this grid of masterworks.
The rest of Reformation is all new acquisitions. As usual there is a centerpiece: this time it is MadeIn Company’s Play – a gigantic suspended model of a cathedral covered in leather bondage gear, bristling with whips and chains. It may be the ultimate fetish object, but it’s also a wry comment on the ‘bondage’ of belief. It points to religion, which throughout history has too frequently been associated with violence and extremism. The title may be read as proof of the Chinese taste for irony.
Without doubt the most nerve-wracking work in the show is He Yunchang’s One Metre of Democracy, the documentation of a performance in which the artist asked 25 people to vote on whether he should get a surgeon to make a metre-long incision down his side. He kept asking until the vote was positive, then endured the operation without anaesthetic. Think about this if you ever hear someone complain that they’ve suffered for their art.
One turns with relief to more comical pieces such as Shyu Ruy-Shiann’s Eight Drunk Immortals, in which a set of painting robots inscribe wonky characters on sheets of paper set on the floor. Such hi-tech works rub shoulders with a diverse array of paintings and photographs, such as a series of small, exquisite figure studies by Sun Hongbin; the Breugel-like fantasy of Zhao Bo; or Don Yuan’s still lifes in which the subjects appear to have been extracted from the canvas and inventoried on the gallery wall.
It’s also pleasing to see that White Rabbit has finally acquired a work by Wang Qingsong, one of China’s most consistently impressive multi-media artists. Wang’s large staged photo, Follow You, reads like a parody of the relentless process of ideological education to which the Chinese were submitted, with the disguised artist, looking like Trotsky, being the only one awake in a somnolent classroom where books are piled high on every desk.
I could go on discussing individual pieces, but descriptions cannot do justice to the impact of a show that is so playful and confronting by turns. This week the many international visitors who have flown in for the Biennale opening will have also made their way to White Rabbit. One wonders which exhibition proved to be the artistic highlight of their trip?
Having experienced the contemporary Chinese art in Reformation, one might also sample Degeneration – an exhibition of new multi-media work, showing at the Australia China Art Foundation’s new space in the unlikely location of 9-11 Atchison Street, St. Leonard’s. This is not a bold scheme to put North Sydney on the art map, it’s because the ACAF Art Terminal T1 is part of a large-scale property development by Chinese entrepreneurs. Unlike their Australian counterparts, the Chinese believe, quite rightly, that art generates interest, and are often willing to provide space for shows.
Degeneration was originally put together by curator, Mariagrazia Constantino for OCAT, a division of the He Xiangning Art Museum in Shanghai. It features ten emerging artists, most of them working in the medium of video. The title is not intended to denote a state of decay, but to pun on the idea of an art that breaks down generational distinctions. It suggests an ongoing evolution with its own, unstoppable momentum.
The most eye-catching work is Ye Linghan’s eerie black-and-white animation, Last Experimental Object Flying, which may be seen from the doorway. These floating objects are very like a whale, or perhaps more like a zeppelin, as science and nature become confused.
Many pieces, such as Li Ming’s Nothing Happened Today, possess a kind of blank, absurdist humour. The deadpan works of Chen Wei create imaginary, ambiguous scenarios with a hint of menace. Rather than seeking to shock or challenge the viewer, these artists employ a deliberate lack of drama, which becomes even more unsettling. It is as though a gulf is opening up in the midst of everyday life, upsetting our complacent sense of identity.
Ma Qiusha takes a slightly different approach, muttering an eight-minute story of her life, before opening her mouth to reveal a razor blade cutting into her tongue. It’s not quite the same as having a surgeon carve a trench in your side, but it’s still disturbing. Then there is Lu Yang’s bizarre video, Reanimation/Underwater Zombie Frog Ballet, which shows rows of dead frogs dancing when stimulated by an electrical current.
Even those who are not attracted by the more extreme works in both the White Rabbit and ACAF shows, will have to admit that Chinese artists – competing for attention in a high-pressure market – have found ways to stand out from the crowd. The Chinese art scene may be like the Chinese economy – bound to fail one day, but somehow never managing to recognise that melancholy fact. Instead, the Chinese keep powering on. The secret may be the same advice given to Orpheus upon leaving the underworld – ‘Don’t look back’.
White Rabbit Gallery, until 3 August.
ACAF Art Terminal T1 Creative Space, until 14 May
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 22 March, 2014