As art in Sydney creeps back into the light, White Rabbit Gallery is embarking on its second decade. Over its first ten years, Judith Neilson’s private museum of contemporary Chinese art has charted the social, political and cultural changes in a turbulent country. The collection now includes more than 3,000 works by 700 artists, all made since the year 2000.
The artists in the collection have taken the temperature of their times in works that express varying degrees of optimism and caution. Few pieces express overt rebellion, but there is no shortage of oblique social criticism and black humour.
The gallery’s current show, And Now, features recent acquisitions. As usual the hang is full of surprises, and is easily the most engaging exhibition in Sydney. One of its keenest pleasures is a broad selection of paintings, often treated as a marginal artform in contemporary surveys. There are also three video works and large, impressive installations by Zhang Peili and Zhu Jinshi.
Be warned that access to the gallery’s fourth floor is limited by obligatory social distancing requirements. This means that only about 15 people at a time get to see Liu Chuang’s three-channel video, Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (2018).
You might imagine missing a work with such a title would be no great loss, but this is not the case. Liu’s video is a complex, multi-layered presentation that made me think of Chris Marker’s films. There is the same mix of the familiar and the exotic, the same attempt to stimulate new associations and trains of thought. The exotica in this piece are both technological and ethnographic, from the arcane practice of bitcoin mining to the lives of people in remote parts of western China. Included in the montage are extracts from movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), which show energy being transmuted into information.
The video runs for 40 minutes so it might be wise to go straight to Level 3 and get into the queue, as audience turnover is slow.
Liu’s work highlights the dramatic ways in which the old and the new co-exist in China today, flipping from the glowing circular dials of a bank of computers to a ring of people dancing on a hillside. With the advent of cryptocurrency we are watching the dematerialisation of money – one of the few gods the Chinese authorities seem willing to worship.
You Houng’s painting One Hundred Years of Repose (2011) meditates on the way the rush to get rich has shaped everyday lives. Borrowing the format of Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, Yu depicts people sleeping, against a background of gold leaf. The figures, mostly young people and children, are exhausted by the pace and pressures of life. The gold is literally the backdrop to their studies and their jobs in a system that makes Australia look like a perpetual picnic.
The sleepers in Yu’s picture are potential casualties of a competitive culture, the human price paid for China’s economic progress. Li Yongzheng provides a more dramatic angle on this theme with his video, Death Has Been My Dream for a Long Time (2015). The title comes from a note left by four children in a village in Guizhou who committed suicide after their parents departed to seek work in the city. Li spells out these words in blocks of salt by the sea shore. As the lapping tide comes in the characters are gradually dissolved.
There is an echo of this piece in Zhang Xiaogang’s painting, Bathtub (2017), which refers to a three year period in the artist’s childhood when he and his younger brothers were left home alone during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang’s parents had been sent to the countryside for re-education. They were not economic migrants, and presumably had no desire to desert their family.
In this mildly surreal painting the four children sit in a huge blue bathtub that resembles a boat. The strange costumes and details – including a realistic white rabbit mask – suggest a scene from a dream. For those such as Zhang who lived through those days, the Cultural Revolution must feel like a very bad dream that won’t go away.
Both Yu Hong and Zhang Xiaogang address us in an indirect manner. They play with allegory and symbolism, asking viewers to use their imaginations in reading a picture. In Diabetic, an 8.4 metre-high nude portrait of an elderly Chinese woman, Zhao Gang takes a more confrontational approach. The woman’s body has been disfigured by a lifetime of hard work and poor nutrition, but she stands like a monument, hands on hips, ready for anything.
It’s not coincidental that Zhao has spent the past ten years living in New York. For those artists based in China, it has become almost second nature to make works in which things are not always what they seem. One sees this tendency in two pieces by Zhao Zhao – a massive picture of bullet holes in glass made from silken embroidery, and a one-second squiggle that has been laboriously reproduced in the form of an oil painting.
There’s a similar ambiguity in the very first work one encounters upon entering the gallery. Stele, by Liu Jianhua, is a bright red column that appears to be made from some kind of smooth stone, although it’s actually glass and carbon fibre. In its shape and colour Liu’s stele is not at all like the stelae of the ancient world. The red, which we associate with communism, could be taken from the Chinese flag, making it tempting to read the piece as a memorial to a political concept.
In 1949 Arthur Koestler and others collaborated on a book of essays called The God that Failed, each writer saying their farewells to thwarted communist ideals. Ironically, this was the same year Mao Zedong proclaimed the victory of the Peoples Liberation Army, starting a whole new chapter of Chinese history.
In the post-Mao era China has remained nominally communist while embracing the global market. It’s only recently this romance has begun to sour, and one suspects there is a lot of pain ahead. All those Australian politicans crowing about “standing up to China” are setting the scene for further economic and political tensions that are not good for either country. Our leaders could take a lesson from the artists in the White Rabbit collection, who have obvious personal reasons for being opposed to the authoritarian turn in Chinese politics. They know that acting tough is too easily viewed as simple disrespect. Rather than crash or crash through, there are more subtle ways of making a critical point.
White Rabbit Gallery, 11 March – 2 August, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June, 2020