The White Rabbit must be one of the most interesting galleries in Australia.
It’s private. It’s free. It used to be a Rolls Royce showroom. It has a tea house attached which has recently extended itself to serving scones besides boa (dumplings). And it only exhibits contemporary Chinese art — in most instances owned by the proprietors of the gallery, Kerr and Judith Neilson, now divorced but still hopelessly rich (think billions).
I only mention this because the strong implication of many of the pieces we saw was that this might not be such a good idea.
Entry point. A bronze, covered in car duco, four metres high: Red Memory — Asking God. Tagline: ‘The pig symbolises the speed of growth of China today with its raw gluttony, greed and avarice.’ (Chen Wenling still lives in Fujian and he can still/ is allowed still make sculptures like that.)
Superfluity — having too much, abandoning traditional values, becoming immersed in materialism and commerce and the rapacity that engenders — was a recurring theme in this massive retrospective of the owner’s favourite works.
But it wasn’t all consumed with consumption. Some of it was simply strange.
These are two separate works, but the combination adds a certain frisson. The balloon inhaled till it was fully inflated and then exhaled before inhaling again. A near life-size taxi nearby did something similar.
In a lot of the work there was an undercurrent of … what? Threat? Something to knock you off balance certainly.
Even in pieces as apparently anodyne as this.
The conventions of the portraiture are venerable, hundreds of years old: pale, calm, settled, face slightly tilted, expression only to be found in the half open mouth and the way her hands are clasped — perhaps a certain wistfulness. But her uniform indicates that she is a member of the Red Guard which, during the Cultural Revolution, was responsible for all manner of unspeakable violence. That might or might not be the point.
Life is considered a tangle where at least some of the threads will be unknown quantities. This is only a small portion of the work. And yes, they’re people — in the work as a whole perhaps several thousand. Wherever one can see an expression it is the surprised fear of calamity.
Perhaps this wonderful calamity …
A coloured bronze casting. Interest wherever you choose to look. Every face, every posture, contains a story, even that of the bloke we can’t see over the back having a pee. This is awash in circumstance: full of aspects, full of responses, full of well understood and imagined humanity. There it is — don’t shy away — that’s what life is.
Or this sculpture, a three-dimensional rendering of a school photograph. The artist is the woman far right third row. Is it the fact that it is drained of colour that makes it unsettling? White is the Chinese colour of death.
You look at it once and think, oh yeah. Wow. Very smart. Mmm actually so clever. Beautiful work. So smart. In fact how the hell did she do that? Then you look at it again … and you’re unsettled. And you look again to try to work out why. You peer closer. But they are looking at you with their blind eyes just as hard as you’re looking at them. They’re silent. But they’ve started whispering to you. And what is it they’re whispering? They’re saying you think you know what this is, but actually you’ve got no idea. Better go look at something else before you start freaking out.
* * * * *
My companions found these works generally ‘hard’ and ‘bloodless’, with little sign of the artist and their feelings. I don’t know that I disagree with that. But I felt far more positively about them.
One thing shrieking from each work is the quality of the craft. On the top floor there was a pile of stones about 3m. wide adjusting itself with occasional heaving motions. Not a great work, but you couldn’t argue with the capability and thoroughness of the construction. And the taxi crash is a bronze! From memory it is about a metre and a half wide, and yet all that detail has been captured in a casting.
They were remarkably inventive — although perhaps it might seem like that because they are generated from another culture — and there was very little cheap about any of them.
This might have been the most obvious of them all.
‘W’ Bush and Wen Jiabao, ‘vulgar officials who pretend to be refined and cultured’, surrounded by icons of China’s rural past (the flowers) and grand cars suggesting the industrial cashed-up present. But even these are stunning embroideries and there’s something rather remarkable about the cast and pattern of highlights in the faces.
But I look at the whole and think that these are works that have been done by grown-ups.
They seem to be built on vast mounds of digested experience of humanity, not simple, not clear, but digested with heedless Chinese juices. This is not the art of comfort or fellow feeling or admiration. There is a toughness about it all that separates it from easy looking. This is art where the nerve endings have been tempered, possibly quite harshly. (One formidable example, an installation with ‘slave workers’ hanging upside down as slabs of meat waiting to be butchered.)
Finally, there is the weird fact that these exist at all, that they can exist, and in such a sophisticated form.
The first time we went to China 32 years ago, we went looking for art in Beijing and found it, on the customary overwhelming scale — a national competition with 1000s of contributors from all over the country. There were lots of nods to scroll art: waterfalls, exotic rock formations, teeny-tiny old people with a wooden staff and a conical hat and loads of this or that, mist, cloud, a dragon. But really most of the pieces would not have looked out of place at the Camberwell Rotary Art Show. Horses, pretty girls, land and sea scapes, boats at anchor, wizened relatives or just random old people. (Not babies. Why don’t people do babies?)
Then six years ago we found 798, the new arts precinct in a middle ring suburb of Beijing — and the revolution had occurred.
This is party members holding up a huge bundle of yuan, renmimbi, ‘the people’s money’. That’s what makes a party! And there was this utterly memorable tank made out of leather …
It’s the fearlessness of the work that’s so surprising. The sedition in 798 — and at White Rabbit — was more trenchant and more obvious than the crowd behaviour in Xinjiang. But somehow, who knows how, they get away with it.
Maybe that’s what we are looking at. That’s the grown-up edge, the constant awareness that art really can be a very serious and adult business indeed.
That is the question; how do these artists get away with such work? Perhaps the image of China portrayed in the Murdoch press (which seems so influential in Australia) is not accurate. Who would have thought?