Lumens may sound like alien beings from a science fiction novel but they are units of measurement for “the total quantity of visible light emitted by a source per unit of time.” Any light source may be measured in this way but lumens are usually spoken about in relation to projectors. By titling its current exhibition, Lumen, the White Rabbit Gallery is telling viewers to expect a good deal of work that involves projection or other forms of artificial illumination.
It could be argued that every display of painting or sculpture is vitally influenced by the quality of lighting. The eye soon tires of looking at rooms full of works-on-paper exhibited at museologically-approved low light levels, but extra-bright spotlights can have a jarring effect. We tend to prefer the perpetual drama of darkness and light to be played out within a frame rather than as a function of the lights on the gallery ceiling.
There may be a natural level of light at which we feel comfortable viewing a work of art but this is exploded by contemporary experiments that promote a sense of disorientation. Where the technology exists to create a fully immersive environment there will always be artists who seek to induce both visual and visceral responses in their audiences.
Chinese artists have been exceptionally quick on the uptake. Even allowing for a political regime that appears increasingly nostalgic for the values of the Cultural Revolution it’s still impossible to name a country with greater reserves of creative energy or more ferocious competition among artists.
Judith Neilson’s White Rabbit collection, which excludes anything made before the year 2000, is the world’s greatest private repositary of contemporary Chinese art. While the gallery’s rate of acquisitions may have been slowed by the pandemic (and probably by politics) there is enough work in the vaults to create many years’ worth of exhibitions. Some of the pieces in Lumen have been seen before, others are on display for the first time, but as usual it’s a stimulating mix.
Two works, Li Hui’s Cage (2006-14) and Xu Zhongmin’s Egg Shape 1 + 2 (2007), are shown in closed rooms that admit only a few viewers at a time. The former features a network of ‘cages’ made from thin, green laser beams. One may walk right through the bars but most people will hesitate momentarily, as if encountering a solid obstacle or wondering if it might be dangerous. Like veteran light artist, Anthony McCall, Li Hui suspends particles in the atmosphere to heighten the effects.
Xu’s Egg Shape sculptures consist of two stainless steel globes split in two. Around one a procession of steel babies marches in frantic lockstep. The other features a horde of skeletons scrambling to get ahead of one another. The impression of movement is generated by strobe lighting. The imagery, with its obvious associations of the cycles of birth and death, relates to the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of walking clockwise around Mount Kailash, said to be the centre of the universe, or at least a convenient symbol thereof.
The major work on the third floor is Wei Wei’s Mood Machine (2009), an interactive installation that invites viewers to tap on a palette of colours, each segment representing a different ‘mood’: passion, brilliance, happiness, nature, peace, fear, evil, mystery. The payoff occurs on the other side of a thick pane of protective glass, where two large Tesla coils spurt bolts of lightning while making electronic farting sounds. It’s spectacular at first but the sounds are so arbitrary it’s hard to distinguish one “mood” from another. It’s more like a machine blowing gigantic raspberries at the pathetic humans who seek to control it.
Wei Wei’s creation is only the most brazen in a show full of machines and devices, including two installations by Taiwanese hi-tech collective, LuxuryLogico. The simplest of all the contraptions on display is Li Yongzheng’s Look! Look! (2013), a stainless steel tank filled with water that allows a single bubble of air to emerge from the base and rise to the surface at regular intervals. A very Zen experience. The strangest may be Shyu Ruey-Shiann’s Writer’s Vessel (1997-2012) which takes Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, sets it parallel to the floor, and adds feathery quill pens around the circumference. The entire ensemble moves gently, doing nothing much.
Shyu is Taiwanese, but it’s sobering to look at his work and think of the heroic propaganda art that was being made in China in the 1960s and 70s. One wonders if there’ll be any place for such odd, surreal, poetic pieces in a China where the authorities are again embracing Chairman Mao’s demand that art must serve the people. It’s another good reason for Taiwan to keep its distance from the mainland. Although the island has had its own political ups and downs it has evolved a distinctive national art scene that combines influences from east and west. Where Taiwan has enjoyed continuity, Chinese art has suffered from a continual boom and bust depending on the temper of the times.
According to Variety (in a 2 April report I originally thought was an April Fools hangover) Chinese cinemas are now obliged to show historic propaganda films at least twice a week. The aim is to promote “Xi Jinping Thought” and create the “grand, warm and festive atmosphere” appropriate for celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Party. Not only must cinemas screen movies from a list of twelve approved titles, they must make every effort to ensure these screenings are well-attended.
This is merely one of a host of cultural directives issued for the centenary, but it gives the general flavour of where China is heading. Despite the crudeness of the movie initiative one assumes the glory days of propaganda are over. Nowadays it’s a more a matter of not giving offence. So while there may still be room for innovative but politically neutral pieces such as Cong Linqi’s Dust 2 (2008), in which dozens of beautifully crafted, miniature household objects float like dust motes in a strong beam of light, one could see how Liu Zhuoquan’s Seven Sparrows (2011) might pose a problem.
Liu’s work features small pictures of dead birds painted on the inside of glass vessels, along with an image of a prisoner bound and doubled over after a beating by police. Not only would a portrayal of police brutality be deemed insufficiently “grand, warm and festive”, the dead birds are an unhappy reminder of one of Chairman Mao’s nost notorious follies: the war on the sparrows that helped bring about the Great Famine of 1959-61. Regardless of what we see in Lumen, in China, as the curtains start closing again, there will soon be no space for works of art that shed light on a less-than-glorious past.
White Rabbit Gallery, March – November, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May, 2021