Sydney Morning Herald Column

White Rabbit: Ritual Spirit

Published October 6, 2017
Peng Hung-Chih, 'Farfur the Martyr' (2009)

Last week I was in China meeting artists from each end of the contemporary art spectrum. In Suzhou I saw a breathtaking show of brush-and-ink painting by Li Huayi (b.1948) an artist who has divided his life between China and San Francisco. In Shanghai I visited Xu Zhen (b.1977), one of the most successful artists of a new generation, whose monumental projects are created by assistants and shipped around the world.
Li Huayi paints in solitude in his Beijing studio, creating imaginary landscapes brushstroke by brushstroke. Xu Zhen (AKA. MadeIn Corporation) has 50 employees working in a multi-storey office building and a cavernous factory space. Between these two artists lies the glittering panorama of contemporary Chinese art: somewhere between the hand and the mind, tradition and innovation, meditation and spectacle.
In Sydney we’ve become accustomed to seeing such contrasts in successive exhibitions at the White Rabbit Gallery, the world’s largest private collection of 21st Chinese art. The works have been chosen exclusively by owner, Judith Neilson, whose taste tends towards the avant-garde fringe, but with great respect for detailed, labour-intensive pieces inconceivable for most western artists.
The new show, Ritual Spirit, is one of the gallery’s most sombre displays, dealing with questions of spirituality, belief and scepticism. Featuring works by 21 artists or groups of artists, it’s a mixture of new acquisitions and past favourites, including Xu Zhen’s Play (2012) – an enormous sculptural construction suspended from the ceiling, resembling a Gothic cathedral made from bondage gear.
The focus on spirituality made me realise that Xu Zhen and Li Huayi had more in common that I’d initially thought. The age-old practise of brush-and-ink painting is deeply connected with Daoism, the Chinese religious or philosophical tradition that asks its adherents to live in harmony with “the Way” (ie. Dao). As to what the Dao is, the more one attempts a definition the more elusive it becomes.
One might say it’s a matter of “living in harmony with Nature”, but for many people this will only conjure up thoughts of the hippy lifestyle. Daoists cultivate vagueness where the western empiricism values mathematical exactness. In Chinese painting Daoist thought finds expression in views of mountains that appear and disappear through wreaths of mist. The ‘not seen’ is just as important as the ‘seen’, and no less real.
This entails a close relationship between painting, philosophy and religion. Indeed, painting might be construed as a spiritual exercise, a search for enlightenment. The traditions of western painting, by contrast, are largely anecdotal. Until abstract art came along there was little interest in painting the “not seen”. Mythological figures, saints, heroes and monsters were given precise, concrete form.
The spiritual legacy of Daoism is a powerful undercurrent in the history of Chinese art. With China’s other great philosophical tradition, Confucianism, “the Way” is interpreted in terms of correct behaviour and ritual.
The question posed by Ritual Spirit, is: ‘What becomes of these religious traditions in an age of rampant progress and soaring materialism?’ In a nation that is still nominally Communist, with a government that distrusts organised religion and retains mixed feelings about the Mao era, it’s a volatile scenario.

Xu Zhen (MadeIn), Play (2013)
Xu Zhen (MadeIn), Play (2013)

Xu Zhen engages with these issues in a typically oblique, manner in Play. By making his floating cathedral out of leather gear and chains he draws attention to the patterns of dominance and submission demanded by both Church and the state. It’s a “play” in which roles are strictly defined. If we take the title to mean a game, it’s one of a distinctly sado-masochistic persuasion.
Peng Hung-Chih also looks at the violence that underlies so much religious sentiment. Farfur the Martyr (2008) is a stainless steel sculpture of a crucified figure with a Mickey Mouse head that bleeds from a series of wounds into a pool shaped like a Star of David. Farfur was an improbable Mickey Mouse clone used to teach children about jihad on a Palestinian TV progam called Tomorrow’s Pioneers. In this strange mash-up, Peng draws Christianity, Islam and Judaism into a single overarching critique.
A more positive, almost delirious, vision of religion comes from Tianzhuo Chen, whose long video, Ishvara (2016) combines figures from the Bhagavad Gita with electropop, jitterbugging dancers, Butoh actors, and a bewildering array of characters, in a nightclub setting that would have delighted Australia’s most notorious performance artist, the late Leigh Bowery.
Tianzhuo Chen, 'Ishvara' (2016)
Tianzhuo Chen, ‘Ishvara’ (2016)

Chen identifies as a Buddhist, albeit one of a highly unorthodox stripe. Still in his early thirties he exemplifies a growing trend among young Chinese, who feel their lives are empty without some kind of belief system. Mao Zedong is no longer the Supreme Being in China, but his departure has left ‘a God-shaped hole’ in the social fabric.
Over the past three decades the Chinese have embraced a range of religions, from Christianity to Buddhism. Even Mao made a return, ten years after his death, as as a surrogate God of Wealth. The rise and supression of the Falun Gong cult is a story that never goes away, while Confucianism has returned as an influential force.
Despite the urgency of this search for faith, for many Chinese people today the void left by the withdrawal of religion and doctrinaire communism is being filled by consumer goods. The new deities are those companies that make designer clothing, sportswear, cars, gadgets and watches. The deep hunger for objects is fulfilled momentarily by a purchase, but soon flares back up again.
Cheng Ran and Item Idem, 'Joss' (2013)
Cheng Ran and Item Idem, ‘Joss’ (2013)

This is the theme of the multi-channel video installation, Joss (2013), by Cheng Ran and Item Idem, that dominates the gallery’s third floor. It shows paper facsimiles of money, cigarettes and consumer goods being consigned to the flames. The Chinese burn these items at funerals and on days when the dead are to be remembered, transmitting a little luxury on to the afterlife.
The idea that there is a heaven beyond death that will compensate us for the privations of earthly life is a tenet of most religions. The tawdry aspect is that most people’s only way of envisaging this paradise is as a massive shopping emporium. One can almost hear the people’s chorus from all over China, as they sing: “Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”
Ritual Spirit
White Rabbit Gallery, 30 August – 28 January, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October, 2017