Sydney Morning Herald Column

White Rabbit: Shuo Shu

Published February 14, 2023
Sun Xun reminds us it's the Year of the Rabbit, or is it the March Hare?

In pre-literate societies the storyteller had everyone’s attention. The role grew in importance as communities became more cultivated, with public recitations being valued as forms of education and entertainment. The ancient Greeks, for instance, had their rhapsodes who would recite Homer to enthusiastic audiences. The Chinese have a long tradition of public storytelling, often accompanied by music.

Liu Wei, ‘Density 1-16’ (2013)

The new show at White Rabbit is called Shuo Shu, which translates loosely as “the art of storytelling”. It’s a title that will conjure memories for Chinese people of a certain age who once sat around listening to a storyteller going through his act, perhaps using dfferent voices for different characters. It was a time when everyone got together, eating, talking, and laughing.

Today the Chinese, like everybody else, get their entertainment from the TV, the laptop, or most likely, the mobile phone. There are still stories being consumed, but now they are mostly fast-moving video clips enjoyed by solitary viewers. Few young people would relish the idea of sitting in a room listening to someone read from The Dream of Red Mansions. Today’s audiences are looking for an instant hit, not a slowly unfolding epic. In an age of communications we are swiftly becoming illiterate.

Perhaps the alarming idea that many people no longer have the patience or application to read a book, is good news for the visual arts. Those who can’t imagine sitting down with a book find a different order of experience in an art gallery, where one is assailed by all types of visual stimulation. Reading requires an effort, but one can consume art passively or even interact with it. Those social media junkies who pose in front of artworks at White Rabbit don’t post selfies from the local library.

Li Chao, ‘Books’ (2011)

The works in Shuo Shu all relate to books, stories, and Chinese characters, but in ways that are ingenious and often spectacular. Visiting China has been virtually impossible for the past two years, but Judith Neilson has been acquiring new works throughout the pandemic with a determination that puts public collections to shame.

The first thing we see is Liu Wei’s Density 1-16 (2013), an imposing set of geometric solids that occupy the rooms on the ground floor. These forms appear to be carved from stone, but are in fact made from textbooks glued together, compressed, and sculpted. There is a metaphor here, but it’s an ambiguous one. We might marvel at the sheer density of knowledge that humanity has accumulated – or reflect on how simple it is to throw it all away. China had this experience during the Cultural Revolution, when books were burnt, and anyone possessing them treated as an enemy of the people.

The precise nature of Liu’s forms implies that knowledge may be used to construct a vision of perfection, a utopia or perhaps an uncompromising autocracy. The placement of the works is designed to make us perceive them as large and imposing. Imagine the same pieces in a cavernous space such as Carriageworks, and they would not have this physical presence.

Yao Peng, ‘Five Masterpieces’ (2011)

From Liu’s large-scale installation, one turns to Li Chao’s Books (2011), a painting of a stack of books with blank pastel covers. This picture gave me a depressing sense of déjà vu when I considered the volumes piling up around me at home, but also reminded me of why collecting books can become a compulsion. Is there another category of material object that holds so many possibilities? A book is a licence to dream, even when it spends years unopened and unread on a shelf.

Yao Peng gives us another book-related work in Five Masterpieces, which consists of a copy of Mao Zedong’s Five Essays on Philosophy, once an essential text for millions of students. Yao has treated these “masterpieces” rather disrespectfully by slicing out passages and compacting them into a small, solid cube of paper which sits next to the book. It’s a gesture that might have been a death sentence during the Cultural Revolution, when people were beaten, imprisoned, or executed for accidentally damaging an image of the Chairman. The so-called Little Red Book – otherwise known as Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung – was the Communist Party’s Holy of Holies, its Bible or Qu’ran. It is believed to be second only to the Bible in the number of copies that were printed, which runs to over a billion.

Yang Jiechang, ‘Tale of the 11th day’ (detail) (2012-14)

The Little Red Book was conceived by Mao’s deputy, Lin Biao, who wrote a suitably obsequious preface. When Lin fell out of favour and died mysteriously in a plane crash in 1971, millions of copies of the book were recalled and pulped. The preface was removed from the reissued version but may still be found in English-language editions.

Today Mao may no longer be regarded as a quasi-Divinity but China’s move to more hard-line policies makes it difficult to criticise the Party or its revered heroes. Yao is testing the political waters in a way that may only be possible when his work is exhibited in a foreign country.

Virtually every item in this impressive show could be discussed at length. Most pieces combine a high level of conceptual sophistication with an equally high skill factor, even when the manufacturing has been accomplished with industrial techniques, as in Liu Wei’s installation; or by teams of workers acting on an artist’s instructions, as we find with Gu Wenda’s Tian Xiang: Forest of Stone Steles (Sixth Series) (2017), which occupies the third floor gallery.

If there is one artist who dominates this exhibition it’s Sun Xun, represented by multiple works, some of them on a grand scale. Sun, who was the subject of a survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2018, has an imagination and level of productivity that seems superhuman. Although he employs assistants for labour-intensive tasks such as animation, his own distinctive drawing style is evident in every piece in Shuo Shu.

Gu Wenda, ‘Tian Xiang: Forest of Stone Steles (Sixth Series)’ (2017)

One could not find a more appropriate artist for an exhibition based on storytelling. Sun is a fabulist whose works may incorporate elaborate fictions with a teeming cast of characters. In this show the drawings, paintings, and wall-sized woodcuts (one of them, a five-panel piece, more than 4.5 metres in length), are components of a single project: a two-hour animated film called Magic of Atlas, which may be sampled in a 28-minute extract.

The characters are drawn from Chinese and world history, or from a private mythology Sun has explored in previous films. It’s an animistic realm in which humans, animals and magical beings compete and conspire in complex political dramas. It’s an allegory of the world today and a reflection on human nature. In Sun’s imaginary country “having a memory is illegal” – a state that is sounding less like a wild invention of science fiction than a description of the present. Sun is merely formalising a situation that many find entirely to their liking, preferring a world in which it’s cool to be a Nazi, a racist or a misogynist without having to dwell on the horrors of the past.

In 1956 Mao Zedong had the bright idea of Latinising Chinese characters, a tactic that would have rendered most of China’s history and literature unreadable to the next generation. It never happened, although the simplification of Chinese characters in 1952 has had a similar, albeit less drastic effect. This is the ostensible subject of Jia’s work in this exhibition, The Chinese Version – Untitled 7 (2015).

To block people’s free access to reading would go a long way towards destroying all sense of the past but it’s even scarier when millions of voluntarily give up on books. There’s probably no need to make memory illegal if everyone decides it’s a luxury they can’t afford.



Shuo Shu

White Rabbit Gallery, 17 December, 2022 – 14 May, 2023



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11  February, 2023