Sydney Morning Herald Column

Chinese New Year Lunar Lanterns & In Your Dreams

Published February 23, 2018
Happy Year of the Dog! Song Ling's canine contribution guards the Opera House

Bread and circuses was the classical world’s formula for keeping the population happy. The famous phrase originates in Juvenal’s 10th Satire, when the poet laments that Romans have become so blasé about the political process they are happy to sell their votes for grain handouts and lavish public entertainments.
With the NSW Government proposing to spend more than $2 billion demolishing and rebuilding two sports stadia, we can see the old Roman cynicism still applies – even if this time the tactic is set to backfire disastrously.
No-one could live in Sydney and be unaware of the power of spectacle. The New Year’s fireworks are world famous, and the routine is repeated on a smaller scale for Australia Day and now for Chinese New Year. The annual Vivid Festival draws huge crowds with a sophisticated light show.
Of all these events, Australia Day is probably the most dubious, too prone to brainless nationalism. Why anybody would want to drape themselves in a national flag that carries a large Union Jack in the corner is a mystery to me. It seems to be a good indicator of how far we haven’t come since 1788.
The Chinese New Year has a more light-hearted ambience. Unlike Australia Day, which has become a politically contested event, there is nothing at stake in the Chinese celebrations. The Chinese typically see the extended New Year as a time for feasting, partying and exchanging wishes for prosperity and longevity. What could be more appropriate for Sydney than a party that lasts for a week?
This year’s spectacle consists of a bright red Harbour Bridge, and a series of giant-size Lunar Lanterns representing the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. By night, the luridly-coloured Lanterns are selfie magnets, although by daylight they look a little drab. Guan Wei’s Dragon is the most imposing sight, standing 13 metres tall in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art, yet Song Ling has captured top billing, with a huge dog plonked alongside the Opera House, complete with lolling tongue and wagging tail.

Guo Jian's Mardi Gras rats
Guo Jian’s Mardi Gras rats

Others who have attempted something a little different include John Deng, with a spiralling enclosure made up of pig’s heads; Tianli Zu, whose ox is made from over-sized mahjong tiles; and Guo Jian, whose rats appear to have strayed from the Mardi Gras celebrations. Curator, Claudia Chan Shaw, has included her own entry of a group of rabbits practising Tai Chi. It may not be the aesthetic highlight, but it’s a firm favourite for the social media snapshots.
Leaving the circus let’s proceed to the UNSW Galleries in Paddington, for a show called In Your Dreams, which takes a sober look at poverty and inequality, as portrayed by artists largely outside of the mainstream. I say “largely” because the first thing one sees upon entering the gallery is a series of photos of beggars, snapped on the streets of New York and Brussels by Andres Serrano, who is very much an artworld insider.
Over the years Serrano has systematically done death, sex and religion, and has now found his way to ‘poverty’. He is known in Australia for the photo, Piss Christ (1987), which shows a plastic crucifix immersed in a jar of pee. It caused a great, absurd ruckus when exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997.
There is not a trace of spontaneity in Serrano’s very slick front-on portraits of the homeless, which may as well have been made by an advertising agency. They cannot be compared to works such as Sebastiao Salgado’s breathtaking images of workers, refugees and war zones.
It may be that Serrano’s photos help draw attention to a significant social problem, but such gestures from celebrity artists always have a slightly hollow feeling. The assumption is that whatever is good for Serrano’s career and personal fame is necessarily good for the causes he supports. It’s a bit like earning a multi-million dollar salary as head of a leading charity.
Samuel Gratacap.. Coke refreshes! in a Tunisian refugee camp
Samuel Gratacap.. Coke refreshes! in a Tunisian refugee camp

The other 13 artists in this show, which has been put together by Felicity Fenner and Cherie McNair, are from places such as Bangladesh, China, France, Jordan, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and Australia. They bring us images of ecological despoliation, refugee camps, poorly paid workers, and other signs of an age in which half of the world’s wealth belongs to one percent of the population, while more than 70 percent are worth less than US$10,000.
This is obviously a ticking time bomb, and almost inarguably the major driver of terrorism, right-wing populism, and looming ecological disaster. A certain breed of artist has always believed it is their role to act as society’s conscience, helping raise awareness of injustices that are too easily ignored.
Sim Chi Yim, the joys of tin mining in Indonesia
Sim Chi Yim, the joys of tin mining in Indonesia

The big question is: “Do these artists make a difference?” The most optimistic answer would be: “In a very small way”.
I can’t pretend that In Your Dreams is the best entertainment in town, but that’s hardly the point. One may still be struck by the graphic illustration of inequality found in Johnny Miller’s aerial photos of South African cities, where the affluent suburbs and the shanty towns are separated by no more than a road or a small strip of wasteland.
Johnny Miller's view of Cape Town from the air
Johnny Miller’s view of Cape Town from the air

When we look at Samuel Gratacap’s pictures of a desolate, windswept refugee camp in the Tunisian desert, we get a clear idea of the daily struggle for survival faced by displaced people. It’s a long way from the bigoted rhetoric peddled by some of our politicians.
With Sim Chi Yin’s images of tin mining in Indonesia we see the first brutal stage of a journey that ends with our mobile phone or laptap. Like many of the artists in this show (Serrano is an exception) Sim Chi Yin is devoted to the traditions of reportage – or ‘telling it like it is’.
The aim of such work is to provide a powerful counter-current to the ‘bread and circuses’ model of culture. This ambition finds its best expression in the quality of contemporary documentary film-making. For with art and film one cannot expect the public to happily bear witness to aspects of life it would rather not think about. What’s essential is to present such material in a broadly accessible manner. In this sphere, success is not based on the gravity of an issue, or on theory, but on an artist’s ability to tell a story.
Chinese New Year Lunar Lanterns,
Circular Quay, 16 – 25 February, 2018

In Your Dreams
UNSW Galleries, Paddington
9 January – 7 April, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February, 2018