In Sydney the word “event” is always an understatement. The calendar is packed with one event after another, most of them growing more extravagant with each passing year. The procession begins with the Sydney Festival in January and continues until Christmas sends everyone home for a few days before the streets are packed again for New Year’s Eve.
Chinese New Year is now officially one of these Sydney events, and the celebrations seem to get bigger every time. For the Year of the Goat – or the Sheep, as the City of Sydney Council has chosen to interpret this ambiguous sign of the zodiac, there is an entire booklet full of attractions. Most of them are rather small-scale but the Twilight Parade down George Street tomorrow night (22 February) promises to draw the crowds.
For Chinese art there is a new exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery, which I’ll be reviewing soon, and a solo show by Guan Wei at Martin Browne Contemporary, set to open on 5 March. The three major exhibitions associated with the Chinese New Year are the Yangjiang Group: Actions for Tomorrow at Gallery 4A, Centre for Contemporary Asian Art; Zhang Huan’s Sydney Buddha at Carriageworks; and the Lanterns of the Terracotta Warriors, which may be seen at Hickson Road Reserve, alongside the Park Hyatt, only until the end of this weekend. There is also a show of innovative brush and ink paintings by Lilian Lai, at Customs House Library, called Sydneyscapes (until 26 February).
The Lanterns are probably the biggest drawcard but they are little more than a photo-opportunity set against the backdrop of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from one angle, and the Opera House from another. It’s a spectacular installation that doesn’t sustain much discussion.
The Yangjiang Group presents a very different proposition, using traditional Chinese media to create outlandish, provocative works of art. The group was formed in the coastal city of Yangjian, Guangdong province, in 2002. There are three core members – Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan and Sun Qinglin, but their ranks are often swelled by the participation of other artists.
For their Gallery 4A exhibition, the Yangjiang Group has devised a diverse set of installations and actions. The simplest is Tea Office, which requires the gallery staff to prepare and drink a special selection of Chinese teas every morning. It’s not the most challenging of tasks, especially since the teas have been chosen for their healthy, therapeutic qualities.
The ground floor gallery has an installation called Final Days, a crude facsimile of a cheap retail store in which items of clothing are displayed on racks, on tables and mannequins, under a coating of white candle wax. All around the room there are roughly daubed messages, presumably intended to lure customers: “Boss ran away on a trip. The Workers don’t get paid. All on sale now,” or “Expropriation. Difficult business. Suicide after sale.”
These messages have allegedly been borrowed from Chinese street vendors. It’s hard to imagine them enticing Sydney shoppers, although “Mad prices. Crazy prices. Reduction and reduction again” is pretty close to some of the advertisements put out by the cheaper Aussie clothing stores. Perhaps the Yangjiang Group should devise some catchy slogans for other great Australian working class pastimes, such as on-line gambling.
The wax coating turns the entire installation into a retail museum, with everything frozen in place. There will be no purchases made in this store, regardless of the eager advertisements. The absurd combination of rabid enticement and impossible commerce is a portrait of an evolving consumer society in China. It made me think of art historian Benjamin Buchloh’s definition of the bourgeois state as one of “instant excitation and perpetually postponed gratification”.
There is more irreverent humour upstairs with a calligraphic wall painting that reads: God is Dead! Long Live the RMB! In the centre of the room there is a long table covered in thousands of ragged sheets of calligraphy, with television monitors at each end. There is something heaving up and down underneath the paper as if the table were breathing, or perhaps concealing some desperate sexual coupling.
This piece is titled Das Kapital Football (2009-15), and the 7,000 sheets of paper make up a complete calligraphic transcription of Karl Marx’s major work. If they look a little soiled and wrinkled that is because these bits of paper were laid down on a football field on which three different matches took place. The TV monitors show us the matches in progress.
This labour intensive work makes one small point: that Marx’s theoretical view of what the masses want and need is at odds with their genuine interests. As David Byrne put it in People Like Us: “We don’t want freedom. We don’t want justice. We just want someone to love.” Or better still, a football match.
The Yangjiang Group seems to sincerely believe that political theory provides a poor substitute for the everyday pleasures of eating, drinking and conversation. The work is all about positive energy, which is not so different from the traditional idea of the calligraphic artist getting his qi in place before he moves the brush. The literal translation of this word is “breath”, but in this context it is usually taken to mean “life force” or “vital energy”.
This mixture of cynicism and positive emphasis is very Chinese, perhaps as a legacy of the Maoist era, which put a relentlessly positive spin on the bleakest of social systems. The Yangjiang Group is representative of many Chinese who have come to believe that only those things that are most tangible are worth taking seriously. The way forward is not through theory or ideology, but through cultivating the art of living.
There is a similar emphasis in Zhang Huan’s Sydney Buddha, which has been resting serenely at Carriageworks since 8 January. The installation consists of a five metre-high seated Buddha made from 20 tonnes of compressed incense ash collected from temples in and around Shanghai, and the metallic mould used to create the sculpture. The piece was expected to start crumbling from the moment the cast was removed, but when I went along for another look last week the head and most of the body remained intact.
At the opening it felt like a miraculous experience when the face mould came off in front of a packed audience. This is the first time one of these Buddhas has lasted an entire month with only the loss of an arm. I don’t know whether it can be attributed to superior construction methods or Sydney’s summer humidity.
Zhang Huan, who is viewed as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists, sees the large Buddha as a reminder of the need to relinquish our anxieties and negative feelings if we are to get the most from life. That may sound a little glib coming from an artist who operates a factory employing more than 100 people and sells large-scale artworks for millions, but he is quietly convincing in a way that many of his commercially minded peers are not.
As opposed to an artist such as Jeff Koons, whose rhetoric is as kitsch and cheesy as his factory-made sculptures, Zhang Huan gives the impression of a man who thinks deeply about historical and spiritual matters. He believes that the ash he uses in such gargantuan quantities to make paintings and freestanding sculptures is saturated with the hopes, fears and dreams of those who have offered up their prayers to the Buddha.
The vast effigy at Carriageworks is not an overgrown piece of jewellery or a monument intended to outlast its audience, it is an ephemeral work that will soon return to dust. In true Buddhist fashion it spells out the futility of all our worldly strivings while holding out the promise of Enlightenment to those who can take this lesson to heart.
As a material artefact the Sydney Buddha may be an expensive work of contemporary art but in a deeper sense it is barely an artwork at all. It is a moral lesson in compressed ash, a slowly disintegrating riposte to a materialist society. It is a work that invites a cynical response but leaves us ashamed of our own shallowness.
Yangjiang Group: Actions for Tomorrow
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, until 7 March
Zhang Huan: Sydney Buddha
Carriageworks, until 15 March
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 21st February, 2015