June 2014

Arts & Letters

‘Reformation’ at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery

Judith Neilson’s groundbreaking collection of contemporary Chinese art

Stand back and the Chinese artist Zhou Zixi’s Dawn – Light Fog (2009) appears to be a monochromatic, minimalist work. But draw closer to his painting at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery and you’ll discern the faint ranks of armoured tanks and students in Tiananmen Square.

Zhou was 19 when he joined the pro-democracy movement at that fatal standoff in 1989. The mesmerising Dawn – Light Fog illustrates how censorship and fear have corroded the collective memory of the protest.

In Shanghai, where he lives now, Zhou told White Rabbit’s director, Judith Neilson, that the work was too dangerous for him to keep. When Neilson bought it, he cried.

Dawn – Light Fog is sombre and politically sensitive, but it by no means represents the range of style, content and tone in Reformation (until 3 August). The gallery’s tenth exhibition showcases the technically accomplished and conceptually innovative work of Chinese contemporary artists, some too young to have experienced China’s more violent political upheavals.

“I don’t see any strong movement,” Neilson says of the art scene in China, which she visits up to four times a year to buy work. You could once pick the nation’s new art by the recycled propaganda of Mao Pop or the satirical Cynical Realism of the late ’80s. But globalisation, the rise of materialism and greater access to the internet have resulted in work that isn’t recognisably “Chinese”. One of the world’s leading collectors of this new art, the Swiss Uli Sigg, once asked, “Chineseness – is there such a thing?” A kōan-ish response came from artist Xu Zhen: what role does Sigg’s “Swissness” play in collecting work?

 “If you look at this collection, you’ve never seen a pattern,” Neilson says. She’s referring to the nearly 1000 works she’s amassed since 2000. Everything, including the gallery building, is privately funded, and White Rabbit is run as a charitable institution.

Neilson is 67, with silver hair and dark, sculpted brows. Now and then, her vowels betray her Zimbabwean childhood. It was there, in Bulawayo, that she first collected Chinese art: “Kewpie dolls,” she laughs. Later, it was Chinese fabrics. Today she wears an understated grey tunic and the practical flats of a woman on the move. She’s just returned from China, and she’s off again soon – to Moscow, to perform in a Russian art video.

Blue CJ750 (2008), Shi Jindian

It took just one day in 2006 to find the former knitting factory that would become the gallery. It was on a backstreet in grimy Chippendale. “It was meant to be,” says Neilson. On the gallery website she hints at a “story of chance encounters and almost magical surprises” that began in 1999 when she saw a wall sculpture by Wang Zhiyuan, who became her art tutor and friend. At that time Neilson, married to Kerr Neilson, one of Australia’s wealthiest businessmen, was raising her daughters, Paris and Beau. Now they too work in the gallery, with Neilson’s sister, Phyllis Rowlinson, who runs the education program.

Neilson once quipped that she and a friend photographed attending a fundraiser were “not women of achievement. We’re just a rent-a-crowd.” That was before she launched White Rabbit, but she still downplays her part in its success. The Chinese art specialist and former Art Gallery of New South Wales director Edmund Capon has called the gallery an “extraordinary addition” to Sydney. For Neilson’s fellow philanthropist David Walsh, owner of Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art, it’s “a triumph”.

“I’ve got the art,” says Neilson, “and I’m here, but literally I’m almost the smallest part of it.”

After a $10 million refurbishment, the elegant four-level building opened in 2009. Neilson envisioned an unintimidating venue for the “fabulous artists” she’d found in China, most still largely unknown in the West. She wanted a place “where your opinion [of the art] is correct”, and the free entry is part of this egalitarian ethos. Attendants seem unperturbed by kids tottering around delicate plant–animal hybrids and making grabs at minuscule household goods or animatronic skeletons. (Even the bathrooms are inclusive. When an older man puzzling at the unisex sign was told he could go right in, he shook his head in jocular shock, exclaiming, “I’m from the country!”)

Chippendale was once a dank, industrial area dominated by the Kent Brewery on Broadway. But after recent renewal it has a manicured park where students play quidditch plus a high-rise boasting the world’s tallest vertical garden and a cantilevered platform that trains sunlight onto the lanes below. A redevelopment of Kensington Street will see old terraces preserved among new boutique hotels and noodle bars to become, according to one of the project’s architects, “Singapore meets Shanghai meets Sydney meets Melbourne”.

It feels as if this development with its promised “artist precinct” is just catching up with the nearby gallery, where post-revolutionary Chinese artists grapple with entirely other orders of reform. The works in Reformation are inspired by diverse local and global sources – from Taoism and calligraphy to the internet and European masters. Many use satirical wit to explore the shadow side of China’s surging materialism.

Tu Wei-Cheng adds a vintage patina to contemporary footage of Shanghai skylines, Taipei performers and members of the Gwangju Democratisation Movement. In Optical Trick visitors watch the scenes through impeccable wooden replicas of 19th-century viewing devices that use hidden digital technology to highlight the way museums “direct our view of the past”.

Zhou Xiaohu casts a cool eye over the clones of global business in You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know. Two life-size businessmen peer at screens that project their animated likenesses. Gallery visitors will politely queue behind these silicon suits until they eventually twig: the men aren’t budging.

Clarity (2009), Sun Lei

Follow You, Wang Qingsong’s huge photograph of Chinese students expiring among textbooks and energy drinks, critiques Mao-era ideology. Scrawled on the classroom walls are Mao’s imperatives: “Study Well”, “Progress Everyday”. Mid-shot, there’s one last man standing – well, sitting – attached to a drip. It’s Wang himself, in fake beard and glasses: Eastern sage, or Einstein in an ideology sweatshop. Wang once told the Economist that it’s “tricky” to be an artist in China, a place where “the best student is the best follower”.

Reformation also reprises 37 works from the gallery’s previous exhibitions in a towering salon hang. Chen Chun-Hao’s Imitating Travellers Among Mountains and Streams sits at eye level. To reproduce the Song Dynasty landscape, with its intricate gradations of light and shadow, Chen fired 750,000 tiny headless pins at the canvas with a nail gun. Breathing new life into a Chinese classic, the artist prompts us to consider the overlooked art of manual labour.

Despite funding the entire venture, and buying art that she loves, Neilson stresses, “I don’t consider this mine.” Her collection is “a document” and she its “guardian”. With the coolly acquisitive eye of the seasoned collector, Neilson chooses work by sight and without emotional engagement with the artist’s story.

Her travels to Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu to buy for the biannual shows “are not fun at all”, she says.

 “Nothing is close by. If you’re lucky you find a compound where there are three artists. You’re not getting welcomed into a lovely home with fresh flowers … You go to humble places, or smart places, or artists’ studios, standing around, sitting around, getting lost – nothing goes to plan.

“I don’t speak one word of Mandarin … I never meet another English-speaking person. I survive. I don’t know how.”

In the past she travelled with Wang Zhiyuan, who introduced her to art schools and galleries. After visiting these, “the lady with the white hair”, as she’s known by some in China, heads for the artists’ studios.

Once, on a “terrible trip”, Neilson and Wang spent ten freezing days searching the 798 Art Zone, a sprawling hub of studios and galleries in Beijing’s former military factories. They found nothing of interest. But as they left, Neilson says, “we saw this funny little place … next to a fishing supply shop … It was gloomy and filthy. In the corner there was this beautiful piece.”

That transparent suitcase, displayed “very crudely”, was by Sun Lei. Inside were perspex replicas of items prohibited onboard a plane, including a gun, scissors and masses of cash. Backlit, these impeccably crafted objects resemble security X-rays at airport customs.

Neilson bought the work, aptly named Clarity. “To find such a lovely thing! Wang said to me, ‘It’s like being constipated for a long time and finally getting relief.’”

For Neilson, who will bowl up to gallery patrons to ask their impressions of a show, art and its meaning are in a constantly evolving conversation. Once, a visiting pilot commented on the engine valves used to prop up Shi Jindian’s full-scale crocheted wire motorbike. Suddenly “those little white things” on Blue CJ750 that had puzzled Neilson for weeks made sense. It’s this convivial spirit and Neilson’s philanthropy that have made the gallery, as someone has written in the visitors’ book, “a splendid gift to the people”.

Follow You (detail), 2013, Wang Qingsong. Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery.

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