Certain nations are not renowned for their playfulness. Nicht wahr? Yet this is not the case with the Chinese who found out many years ago the only way to make life bearable is to laugh about it. The Chinese sense of humour is robust and dark. It may have been this way from time immemorial, but was hammered into shape during the Mao era when the population was bombarded with propaganda images of happy, smiling peasants, heroic soldiers and workers.
There are many forms of serious play, as one can observe with any sporting contest, but in Chinese contemporary art play almost always takes a humorous form. A big part of the game is finding a way to make critical statements without overtly offending the government. This is not quite as difficult as it was in the 1980s because the authorities have since learned the value of that tactic Herbert Marcuse dubbed “repressive tolerance”. In other words, rather than coming down hard on every little critique the state ignores most of its detractors, denying them the glare of publicity.
In more severe cases the authorities might have a quiet word with an artist or a gallery, rather than send in the police. Always in the background there is the implied threat of repression and this makes artists reluctant to venture direct statements. There are exceptions of course, notably Ai Wei Wei, who pushed those unspoken limits to breaking point.
The boundaries of acceptability tend to expand and contract according to the political climate of the day. During the Cultural Revolution anyone who defaced an image of Mao Zedong, even accidentally, risked being put to death. Twenty years later there was an explosion of absurd, Pop-style images of Mao. But even today there is some uneasiness as to whether it is strictly permissible to mock or criticise the Great Helmsman in a public forum.
Many of the works that highlight political or social injustice may be said, credibly, to be about a completely different topic. This has meant that audiences around the world have had to become skilled at reading ‘between the lines’.
State of Play, the current exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery, acknowledges that artists enjoy having the freedom to experiment but suggests: “creativity also draws energy from unfreedom, from artists’ reactions to the strictures of political control and social convention.”
The show has been guest curated by art consultant Barbara Flynn, in collaboration with Bonnie Hudson. Flynn admits to no special familiarity with contemporary Chinese art, but the collection put together by Judith Neilson is so large and multifaceted that expert knowledge is hardly necessary. Neilson, who has just joined the billionaire’s club in her own right, is one of the very few members of that 49-strong community to make a significant contribution to Australian public culture. It is no small gesture that the world’s largest private collection of contemporary Chinese art can be sampled, free of charge, in Sydney.
Any scholarly survey of play in contemporary Chinese art would have to delve back into the 1980s, to the laughing self-portraits of Geng Jianyi, soon to be followed by the grinning clones that still populate Yue Mingjun’s paintings. Play is a key element in Guan Wei’s works, which often come across as cryptic, teasing puzzles. It’s crucial to Tang Zhigang’s paintings of small children playing the role of party officials, or Siu Zhanguo’s sculptures of brightly coloured dinosaurs in cages. The list goes on and on.
Because the White Rabbit collection is limited to works made no earlier than 2000, there is little scope for dipping into the past. Many of the artists in this show might be classed as ‘emerging’, or still in the process of forging a reputation.
There are a number of works that take childhood as their theme, resisting the idea of growing up and becoming responsible adults. Yu Xiao portrays herself as a little girl playing with a Barby doll. She reflects a nostalgia for childhood that must be felt everywhere in a society that until recently enforced a strict one child policy. These children have been spoilt and doted upon like princes and princesses.
Bu Hua has created her own double in the form of a schoolgirl drawn in cartoon style. Bu is known for short animated films such as Cat (2002), but also for graphics such as Beauty No. 3 (2008), which features her alter-ego puffing on a cigarette while staring at an overgrown insect. This is a laidback moment for a figure often found negotiating some apocalyptic scenario in a film.
Yu and Bu’s images are minor works in the context of the White Rabbit collection but it is one of the pleasures of this gallery that exhibitions have room for both the large-scale museum piece, and for smaller works such as Sun Hongbin’s tiny, exquisite paintings, which have the immediacy of snapshots but the most seductive brush technique. As with Goya’s small paintings one can feel there is a story behind every image.
Of the large-scale works, Shyu Ruey-Shiann’s One Kind of Behaviour (2000-7) is an elaborate one-liner, featuring a host of galvanised iron buckets tricked up with mechanisms that make them hop about like hermit crabs on the beach. The title suggests that hiding in one’s shell and walking sideways are not traits exclusive to crabs.
Jian Hun Xi is more conceptually ambitious in The Empire (2013), a scale model of the Capitol building in Washington D.C., made out of unpainted wood. The model is so large a hole has been cut in the gallery floor to accommodate it.
The interior of the Capitol has been transformed into a cosy, domestic space, complete with bed and mattress, books and clothing. The only disquieting feature is a surveillance camera, which makes one think of a prison cell or an asylum.
Jian’s idea is that the Capitol is a symbol of power, so he invites us to lie down inside this structure and dream of world domination. Known as a performance artist, Jian has already been out to Australia and installed himself inside this model. His performance was more sedate than the activities that got him and a friend banned from the Tate galleries in Britain – jumping up and down on Tracy Emin’s unmade bed, and peeing on Duchamp’s urinal. Museums don’t appreciate it if you take the conceptual art too literally.
On the same floor is Yang Yongliang’s Cigarette Ash Landscape (2013), which employs a series of paper scrolls, rolled one inside the other to create a gigantic cigarette. This oversized cancer stick dangles from the ceiling, leaving a pile of ash on the floor. It’s a new departure for Yang, who is known for his detailed multi-media works that reinvent the Chinese landscape tradition by installing the features of a modern metropolis into the craggy mountains favoured by the literati painters.
Apart from reminding me of the countless fags I‘ve passively inhaled in China, the Cigarette Ash Landscape is a sly metaphor for the Chinese economic boom, which is supposedly on the brink of burning itself out. When will that fateful day arrive? Probably when China enjoys the same standard of living as the United States.
In most of the previous White Rabbit exhibitions the third floor has been the place where one expects to find something really spectacular and surprising. This time the surprise is a muted one, with a large series of photographs of transvestites by Zhang Dali. The catalogue tells us Zhang sees these transvestites as “courageous” in “exposing their desires and fantasies at the price of social rejection.”
Although China has a tradition of men playing female roles at the opera, it must require some bravery to frock up in a society that only declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 2001. However there is nothing especially glamorous about Zhang’s photos, which are dark, dingy and sordid. His subjects disport themselves in camp, sometimes explicit poses. It feels desperate, and – given the theme of this show – anything but playful. Can one be playful without being happy? To be engaged in play is to be more fully alive, but these trannies seem far too self-conscious to ever surrender themselves to the moment.
State of Play
White Rabbit Gallery, Until 2 August
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 20th June, 2015