There has never been a centralised, authoritarian form of government that encourages diversity. This is why alarm bells should start ringing when our own leaders want to keep centralising power – amalgamating local councils under the leadership of unelected administrators; putting a town’s art gallery, museum and theatre under the jurisdiction of a single “cultural services manager”. When anybody objects, just shout them down and call them “elitists”.
The rationale, of course, is increased efficiencies, but the outcome is a dilution of democracy and a trashing of culture. The next stage is the erection of monuments to oneself. Perhaps a new trimline version of the Powerhouse Museum in Parramatta? How about a billion dollars’ worth of footy grounds?
It’s marvellous how governments devoted to free enterprise impose policies that are reminiscent of Communism. Meanwhile, in ostensibly Communist China, the free market creates its own forms of ecstasy and despair. For those who have got rich, as Deng Xiaoping famously recommended, life is sweet. But the Chinese economic miracle has been accomplished at the cost of environmental degradation, voracious urban redevelopment, and a disregard for basic human rights.
This is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, one of the great human disasters of the twentieth century. The decade-long campaign is now officially viewed as a “mistake”, but there are no commemorations, conferences or exhibitions being held in China. The prevailing feeling – at least in government circles – is that it’s better to look to the future than dwell on the bad ole days. They obviously don’t accept George Santayana’s observation that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
The new exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery, once again curated by David Williams, is called Heavy Artillery. It draws on Mao Zedong’s pronouncement at the Yenan Forum of 1942 that works of art must “operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy.”
This is a severe definition of art-as-propaganda, but the works in this exhibition turn Mao’s proscription on its head. The underlying theme is ‘monumentalism’ but most pieces are ironic rather than heroic. Not only does the show include works on a monumental scale, it interrogates the state of mind that has produced the complete makeover of Beijing and the creation of the Three Gorges Dam. Perhaps as a legacy of the impossible demands of the Mao era no project seems to be too outlandish for the Chinese.
They would laugh at the protracted wrangles over the Art Gallery of NSW’s Sydney Modern scheme – which is one area where Mike Baird hasn’t emulated Chairman Mao. In China the extension would have been announced, built and opened within a year.
Most White Rabbit shows have been a mixture of new and familiar works, but it seems that nothing in Heavy Artillery has previously been exhibited in Sydney. Judith Neilson’s taste for acquisitions has not diminished, although it has diversified a little, as demonstrated by the inclusion of a piece by a Japanese artist – Shinji Ohmaki’s Flotage – Tectonics (2014). In its seven year life-span this is the first time the gallery has shown a non-Chinese work. Ohmaki has hand-copied a series of elevation maps, made digital scans of the drawings, and silk-screened the images onto 283 acrylic cubes, arranged architectonically. It’s a piece that contrives to look as imposing as a brick wall, but also light and diagrammatic – a combination of thought and substance.
This elegant installation may have been slightly less time-consuming than Song Hongquan’s After the Stone Age (2011), which features 77 implements from a stone carver’s studio, themselves carved out of solid granite. As is so often the case at White Rabbit, this is one of those mind boggling achievements that defies description.
Two artists have made monumental sculpture from paper that has been shredded, pulped, or compressed into a building material. Liu Wei’s Density 1-6 (2013) is a collection of large-scale geometric solids that appear to be made from stone or concrete. It’s only as we get closer that it becomes apparent the beige colour comes from an untold number of books. It is as if the combined knowledge found in those pages has been recast in these massive but lightweight forms.
From shredded newspapers Wang Lei has knitted a facsimile of a suit of armour belonging to the Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-722). Hundreds of minuscule faces remain visible, like Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece for Thomas Hobbes’s book, Leviathan (1651) which showed the body of the monarch composed of the tiny figures of his subjects. Another piece, A Ribbon of Dictionary (2102) converts two hefty volumes of a Chinese-English dictionary into a long knitted scroll.
There is a subtle social critique in these pieces, the first suggesting that the state is not as monolithic as it appears. The dictionary-scroll demonstrates that the worldviews of East and West defy perfect translation.
The book theme is continued by the group, Polit-Sheer-Form Office, whose installation, Library (2008) consists of a large blue room lined with book shelves, stocked with books of the same monochrome blue. Inevitably one thinks of Mao’s little red book, which was required reading for millions. In this new age, the books are blue, their pages are blank. This may be a rebuttal of the ideological strictures of the past, but it’s not clear whether the blue room represents infinite possibilities or the silence of omnipresent censorship.
There is no ambiguity about a video such as Liu Chengrui’s Guazi Moves Earth (2008), which shows the artist crawling on his belly, filling his mouth with dirt and then depositing it in orderly fashion on a bare concrete floor. This record of a brutal, eight-hour performance is a comment on China’s mania for development and the upheavals it generates.
For a few seconds it might be possible to misinterpret Guo Jian’s Picturesque Scenery 26 (2011-12), until one gets close enough to see that a large photograph of a lake in Guizhou is actually made up of many thousands of micro-photos of rubbish and the faces of celebrities. This is the landscape of the new propaganda, made to sell products to millions of eager consumers.
The top floor at White Rabbit is always a highlight, and He Xiangyu’s Tank Project (2011-13) is a show-stopper. It features a full-sized collapsed tank, made from the pale brown leather used for Italian designer-label handbags. In one image He has created an emblem for China’s transition from the devastation of Tiananmen Square to a society obsessed with luxury goods, status and labels. It shows how an increasing number of Chinese have put their political hopes on hold and devoted themselves to the joys of shopping. In the transition from the vast, collective aspirations of Communist state to the self-obsession of the consumer society we see how the stony monuments of the past have been superseded by the monumental presence of global brands.
Since October, Yeqin Zuo has been operating Australia’s first commercial gallery devoted exclusively to Chinese contemporary art. Vermilion Art is not to be found in Paddington or Waterloo, but in Hickson Road, near the Sydney Theatre Company. It’s an innovative location for the most innovative artists in the world.
The current show, Something from Nothing, features paintings, sculptures and video by Cang Xin, whom readers may remember as the artist who went around the world licking famous monuments. He was also part of the mound of naked flesh called To add one metre to an anonymous mountain (1995) that has become an iconic image for the new Chinese art.
Cang Xin is a philosophical artist with a longstanding interest in Shamanism, which posits underlying relationships between all life forms. This has resulted in a series in which the artist has painted himself into copies of Old Master paintings, along with overscaled seeds and plants. These are highly eccentric exercises to both western and Chinese eyes, but Cang Xin has never aspired to be part of the mainstream. His work is a personal quest that has taken him far away from the monumental ambitions of Chinese communism or capitalism. Who needs Mao or designer labels when you’re searching for the origins of life?
White Rabbit Gallery, until 7 August
Cang Xin: Something From Nothing
Vermilion Art, until 28 May
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 21st May, 2016