When wandering through the streets of imperial China, amidst bazaars and teahouses, one might stumble across the figure of a storyteller. Crowds gather around this lone narrator, whose tales of mystical beasts, warriors, and immortals, infuse the air with enchantment. Yet in recent years Shuo Shu, or the art of storytelling, has become a dying tradition. Contemporary Chinese audiences have instead turned their attention to digital content.
The time between messages, the length between reunions, the distance between lovers – our intimate lives are filled with spaces. Whether they be passionate or painful, absences punctuate our daily routines with reminders of a beloved when they are no longer there. From heady first meetings to bittersweet goodbyes, throughout it all, love haunts us like a ghost.
Where have we looked for love? Within a humble bowl of rice or the fantasy of a boyband, either real or imagined, the artists in I Loved You search for the sites of our intimate lives. Qiu Jiongjiong leads us beneath the bustle of Beijing to a smoky underground bar echoing with songs of longing. Gao Rong recreates the warmth of her grandparents’ home with needle and thread, rendering brick as soft as a favourite sweater. For Hu Weiyi the trace of love lingers for a moment on his partner’s skin. For Jiang Zhi its memory burns brightly like a flower caught ablaze. From old rickshaws to abandoned playgrounds, love turns up in unexpected places.
Making it big in an Eastern country used to be a second choice for Western rockstars. Despite its multitude, the Chinese opinion was once considered inferior to established Western tastes. Yet China’s fast-paced transformation has turned the nation into a global powerhouse. These days companies, brands, and even nations from around the world all scramble to win the favour of Chinese consumers.
What does it mean to make it Big in China? It is no easy feat to captivate the attention of over a billion wandering eyes and minds. How do we draw the focus of so many unique individuals and make them move in unison?
From the glow which illuminates, to the glare that obscures, our understanding of the world is defined by light: what it shows us, and more importantly, what it does not. Delving beneath the surface of the visible, Lumen ventures into the darkness, revealing the objects and ideas that exist outside our line of vision. Because artists, more than most, know that mystery and insight lie in the transition of shadows.
Xu Zhen (b 1977, Shanghai) is a leading figure among China’s younger generation of artists. This is the first major solo exhibition of his work in Australia and brings together early videos with more recent works, including paintings, tapestries and monumental sculptures.
With a penchant for obscure metaphors and cryptic imagery, the “Misty Poets” were a little-known movement that flourished in China during the turbulent years between 1979 and 1989. Challenging Maoist artistic ideology, their poems, like the clouds themselves, were veiled and nebulous. Today, as creative restrictions continue to expand and contract in China, their legacy of ambiguity and oblique condemnation endures.
THEN celebrates the great adventure of White Rabbit’s first decade: ten exciting years of showcasing the creative energy, daring and technical accomplishment of Chinese contemporary art. The gallery’s tenth anniversary exhibition presents works by more than 60 artists, all produced during the first ten years of Judith Neilson’s private collection (2000-2010). Some were highlights of the very first White Rabbit exhibition, in 2009.
A Fairy Tale in Red Times: Works from the White Rabbit Collection presents works by 26 Chinese artists, an exciting collaboration between the NGV and arts patron and philanthropist Judith Neilson on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the White Rabbit Gallery.
Since Chinese contemporary art exploded onto the international stage in the 1990s, dramatic changes in Chinese society have, in turn, changed the nature of its art. HOT BLOOD presents a group of artists who confound outmoded expectations about China, reflecting unflinchingly on the most uncomfortable truths of our age.
Chinese artists depicted beautiful landscapes long before Renaissance painters in Europe considered it a legitimate subject. In imperial China scholars, painters and poets often retreated into the mountains in uncertain times, finding solace from political intrigue in the harmonious relationships of yin and yang in the natural world. The ancient Chinese believed that mountains were the home of the gods; a Chinese term for ‘landscape’ is shan shui – literally translated, it means mountains and water. Painters created images of mist-wreathed crags, vertiginous cliffs and waterfalls tumbling into pristine rivers. Today, mountains are bulldozed to make way for new roads and high-speed rail lines leading to mega-cities, rivers are polluted by chemicals, beautiful landscapes littered with paper and plastic, and the skies above too often choked with ‘fog and haze’. This is the world of the artists shown in SUPERNATURAL
In HG Wells’s novel “The Sleeper Awakes”, the hero emerges from a 200-year coma to find a world of brainwashed slaves ruled by a council of despots. “We were making the future,” he says, recalling his socialist youth, “and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making.”
Chinese art was once regarded as a gift from the gods. Artists were conduits between earth and heaven; their aim was not just to capture the beauty of nature but to convey its vital “breath”. Many were recluses or monks, for whom painting and calligraphy were spiritual exercises. But that was long ago, in a China where the “three teachings” of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism suffused every aspect of life.
The ancient Chinese got their ink from smoky oil lamps, brushing away deposited soot and mixing it into a paste that hardened into “stones”. This black was pure, indelible and did not fade, and they fell in love with it. They used it not only for writing but for painting, which they saw as just another way to express their thoughts.
Out in the wild lands beyond the Great Wall, there once roamed people with claws and blue skin, one-legged goblins, women with tigers’ teeth, and fish-men that walked on four fins. Such monsters and mutants posed a threat to the civilised order, so they had to be kept at a distance. Yet they were also enticing, alluring, impossible to ignore.
A metric ton of fake marble. Two tons of leather. Three tons of compressed paper. Five thousand porcelain leaves, 10,000 identical books, 130,000 minute photographs, 600,000 painted dots. In these artworks, mass and scale are as important as media.
Chinese Buddhists dreamed of a Pure Land. Taiping rebels fought for a “Heavenly Kingdom”. Communist revolutionaries proclaimed an ideal society. But visions of heaven on earth have a way of being scuppered by reality. China’s people have seen one promised paradise after another turned upside down or smashed into pieces.
Artistic experimentation flourishes in freedom; the freer artists feel, the more inclined they are to play.
China has always been a group-oriented society, in which individuals were expected to “sacrifice the ‘little me’ for the sake of the ‘big me’,” as an old proverb says. In Confucian culture, people were encouraged to develop their inner selves, but the family came first. Each member had a role to perform, and filial duty took precedence over personal desires. The Communists were determined to smash the old culture, but they shared its suspicion of individual freedom, which they saw as a threat not just to social unity but to their hold on power.
The story of modern China is one of reformations. Few nations have changed so much in so short a time, or been so traumatised in the process. In the 1890s, an emperor who ordered Western-style reforms was promptly overthrown by his courtiers. In the mid 20th century, the Maoists modernised China by force, killing all who stood in their way. When their Soviet-style reform program failed, in 1978 Deng Xiaoping launched a counter-reformation, easing the Party’s grip on people’s lives and ‘opening up’ China to the world.
A slogan of the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, “Serve the People” meant serving the great cause of socialism. Artists were crucial to that effort, but they had to make the right kinds of art: Soviet-style socialist realism or ink painting on revolutionary themes. All other art forms, Western or Chinese, were banned, and those who dared to practise them were vilified as capitalist-roaders and traitors.
In the metastasising mega-cities where more than half of China’s people live, change is the only constant. As residential districts make way for gleaming skyscrapers, social structures are being shaken by overcrowding, isolation, and the dog-eat-dog struggle to get ahead. As new possibilities emerge, old ways and old certainties are breaking down.
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, contains more surprises than ever. Spread over the Gallery’s four floors, the works in this new display show just part of the world-renowned collection of Judith Neilson- the largest private collection of Chinese contemporary art in the world.
BEYOND THE FRAME explores how some of leading art practitioners and innovators are taking their art beyond the framework of what is expected of Chinese artists.
The name, DECADE OF THE RABBIT, has a few auspicious associations. 2011 is the year of the rabbit and ten years ago the White Rabbit Collection was established.
The White Rabbit Collection aims to record the development of Chinese contemporary art in the 21st century. The works in THE BIG BANG exhibition have all emerged from a period of explosive change. Since the country joined the world economy in 2000, no area of life in China has remained the same.
Our second exhibition, THE TAO OF NOW, presents the works of more than 40 artists. Their themes are as up-to-the-minute as karaoke, land theft, the lust for luxury goods, and political power. But their art is also shaped by the oldest parts of Chinese culture: Taoism, Buddhism, martial arts and ancient legends.
The aim of the White Rabbit Gallery and Collection is to convey the evolution of Chinese contemporary art for at least the first decade of the 21st century: all the works have been produced since 2000. I hope viewers will enjoy what they discover and return to follow the unfolding of the collection.”
Judith Neilson, Founder and Director, White Rabbit Collection