Anybody who has seen the Marriage Market in Shanghai’s People Park will never imagine the Chinese as a nation of desperate romantics. Every weekend the Market is swarming with parents eager secure an advantageous match for their son or daughter. One gets the impression that marriage is primarily an economic transaction, with love being a luxury few can afford. In China things have been this way for the past 5,000 years – which has not prevented love from being the subject of countless poems and songs.
The new exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery, I Loved You, explores the contemporary Chinese landscape of love. It suggests the Marriage Market is no longer representative of a society that is growing more individualistic and diverse, despite the best efforts of the government to impose the uniformity of Xi Jinping Thought.
I Loved You is not White Rabbit’s most spectacular exhibition but it’s an intimate and edgy collection of works that express many different aspects of “love”, from the romantic to the familial, to the downright perverse. There’s the love between friends, and nostalgia – a love of the past or perhaps our own memories.
The first work one encounters is Shi Yong’s A Bunch of Happy Fantasies (2009). A friend’s poem, transformed into rows of neon characters, glows yellow against a bright red background. It’s as if we were looking at closely planted flower beds charged with electricity. Because the characters have been flipped upside-down one assumes the artist is more concerned with the look of the installation than the sense of the text. The poem was allegedly written “in a drug haze”, and it’s that feeling of incohate happiness Shi is trying to capture – the artificially-induced glow that will inevitably fade.
Shi says his work is about “delusion”, but is it possible to be deluded about being in love? It’s as much a question for the philosophers as: “Can I be mistaken about being in pain?” It’s not uncommon to fall in love with the wrong person or for love to be one-sided, but it’s a state that short-circuits rationality. Even Shakespeare’s Romeo, seen by generations of literary critics as “in love with the idea of love”, would pursue his delusion unto death.
Stendhal, who wrote an entire book on the subject, discerned four types of love: passionate, mannered, physical, and that love which springs from our own vanity. These four categories don’t get close to exhausting the varieties of love in this exhibition, which go beyond the basic attraction one person feels for another.
There is perhaps a single trait that crosses all cultural boundaries: love hurts. Leaving aside pangs of jealousy and disappointment, there is the realisation that those we love may die and leave us with the most painful sense of grief. Several works in this show grapple with such feelings of loss. Hang Po-Chih makes artfully condensed videos of flowers as symbols of transient beauty. He admits to being drawn to the motif firstly by a lover’s desertion, then by the death of a friend or relation.
Jiang Zhi has created a series of photographs of burning orchids, in memory of his wife, who died at the age of 30. Her name was Lan, which means “orchid” in Mandarin. The flames signify both passion and death, the idea that all beauty must inevitably perish. Jiang goes on to photograph artificial flowers which aim to freeze and preserve beauty but have a chilling effect on us when we recognise their artificiality. If beauty is truth, truth beauty, as Keats said, an artificial flower can never make the grade, no matter how skilfully wrought.
Three pictures by Li Liang act as memorials to his father, who died in 2010. Li has photographed his father’s hat, his wristwatch, and a stack of banknotes representing the old man’s pension. Over each of these images he has placed a sheet of gauze upon which he has written the number of days of his father’s life – 30,219 – in tiny, repetitive handwriting. The laborious process of writing these numbers acts as a mantra or prayer. By isolating these three items, Li has invested them with a new importance, conferring a monumental status on the life of an ordinary man.
By far the most elaborate homage to lost loved ones is Gai Rong’s The Static Eternity (2012). Using needle and thread, the artist has reproduced the two rooms of her grandparents’ tiny home in Inner Mongolia in life-size, mind-boggling detail. Gai has embroidered everything: the furniture, the stove, the bricks on the floor, chests, windows, a poster, even the stains on the walls.
The skills Gao has used to produce this elaborate memorial were originally learned from her grandmother. The work is a time capsule, a museum-like reconstruction of a way of life invested with a depth of personal feeling that justifies the hours of painstaking labour required.
The anthesis of these love letters to the dead are those works devoted to personal desire – whether it be Pixy Liao’s quirky photos that reverse conventional gender roles, or Qiu Jiongjiong’s two-hour video of his transvestite cabaret performances. In Zhu Jia’s video, Waltz (2013), we see a couple dancing a slow, awkward waltz in the era of the Cultural Revolution, when such harmless pasttimes were forbidden. The moral is that individual desire cannot be extinguished by ideology, no matter how pervasive.
In Wu Junyong’s Uncle series (2012-15), there’s a decidedly creepy turn, in a succession of repetitive images of a dirty old “uncle” cradling a young girl on his knee. As social commentary goes, it’s a rather unedifying specimen.
A more complex example of perverse desire is played out in Geng Xue’s video, The Poetry of Michelangelo (2015). I’ve seen this work several times but it has the makings of a classic in that it always seems to be revealing some new aspect. We watch the artist moulding the body of a man from clay, while excerpts from Michelangelo’s poetry appear at the bottom of the screen. Geng clambers all over the torso, skilfully smoothing the limbs, adding features to the head, before finally giving her clay man the kiss of life. It’s a gender-reversed version of the story of Pygmalion, an ironic homage by a female artist to the hyper-masculine aesthetic of Michelangelo, in which she moulds with her hands rather than carves.
Geng’s film is also a parable about the artist and her immersion in the creative process, which is akin to the deep, irrational euphoria of falling in love. Although the film may resemble an instructional video about how to make a sculpture, the kiss she confers on the figure conveys a heart-felt need to transform this inanimate lump of earth into flesh. There are stages of passion in this video, at first cautious and careful, building to a trance-like absorption, then returning at the end to cold deliberation. For the artist, a work may become obsessive and all-consuming, but when it’s done, the spell is broken. Time to find a new love object and start again.
White Rabbit: I Loved You
White Rabbit Gallery
2 July – 21 November, 2022
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July, 2022