By Megan Hillyer
There has been no development in Australia’s art scene more exciting, or eagerly anticipated, than the recent emergence of privately funded, public art museums. In acts of philanthropy long overdue in Australia, a small group of private collectors have begun opening high-profile public spaces to display their very personal, much-loved art collections. Extravagant in nature and completely removed from the monetary limitations facing many of our state and public institutions, these spaces are continuing to astound gallery-goers with their novel approaches to thinking about and exhibiting art.
Sydney’s own White Rabbit Gallery, founded by Judith and Kerr Neilson, is no exception. Created out of Judith Nielson’s desire to share her 450+ collection of post-2000 contemporary Chinese art with all, the White Rabbit Gallery has quickly become one of Sydney’s most popular and lively art venues, celebrated for exhibitions that provide incredible insight into a very specific, relatively new area of contemporary art. In late August, they returned with another rehang, this time attempting to question and breakdown any sense of limits and boundaries in art.
Beyond the Frame, the fifth exhibition since opening in 2009, presents another diverse selection of thought-provoking, cutting-edge works drawn from the Neilson’s private collection. The exhibition revolves around a broad theme of transgression and transcendence — the word ‘frame’ having multiple connotations. It is intended literally, alluding to the transgression and transcendence of visual and artistic norms through choice of media and practice. It also refers to exploring and challenging conceptual frameworks and parameters of all kinds — social values, concepts of normality, the role and purpose of art, ideologies pertaining to Chinese culture, even the distinction between nature and man-made.
When it comes to contemporary Chinese art, a new generation of artists are indeed exploring and enjoying newfound artistic limitlessness. It was only thirty-five years ago that Mao Zedong’s death ended the Cultural Revolution. In the time since then, the cultural and artistic changes in China have been as dramatic as they have been rapid. Bouncing back in spectacular style from the global isolation and creative stagnation experienced under Mao, practicing artists concerned themselves with trying to establish new artistic paradigms that would restore a weakened nation and connect it to the West. Exposed to artistic and aesthetic styles occurring globally and fuelled with incredible cynicism over China’s political state, Chinese artists quickly began to test the boundaries of what was acceptable, both aesthetically and politically, in subtly subversive and disruptive ways.
Not much has changed when we consider the work of contemporary Chinese artists practicing today. As China continues to evolve as a commercial superpower, hurtling forward at a rate unparalleled by any other nation in the world, contemporary Chinese artists continue to do the same. In the process, they have captivated the international art world with daring works of art that respond to, and challenge, the rapid political and socioeconomic changes that have left the nation in a state of constant flux. The result? Visually innovative art that is more ambitious, subversive and thematically complex than anything else to emerge internationally in the last two decades.
It comes as no surprise then that an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art is held together by an overarching theme of transcendence of boundaries, or in this case, ‘frames and frameworks of all kinds’. Such ideas have become so synonymous with the vary nature of contemporary Chinese art that it is almost predictable.
Among the works exhibited, a standout piece thematically is Song Jianshu’s In the end, a mesmerising sculpture exhibited on the ground floor. In this work, Jianshu has subtly altered a large, uprooted tree by sanding and polishing the top of the trunk into a sharp point. In making slight interventions to its structure, Jianshu has removed the tree to a place where it is no longer identifiably part of or belonging to nature, yet neither a completely finished man-made work of art. This juxtaposition between untouched nature and human intervention is a conscious attempt to blur the boundary between nature and the built environment.
Works of art like In the end however, which have been created with the idea of blurring boundaries in mind, seem to be few and far between in this exhibition. With no real introduction to the theme aside from a brief statement that describes the works on display as thrilling demonstrations of how much more art can be than pretty pictures, Beyond the Frame as a concept is overly broad, non-specific, and above all, blatantly obvious. While the lack of definition around the idea of breaking down limits in art can be taken as a strategic move to demonstrate just how boundless art truly is, its complete lack of specificity makes it a fairly weak connecting theme to bring together nearly forty works of art which are all powerful and thematically complex in their own right.
Yet to base the value of Beyond the Frame solely on how well the works communicate the overall theme is to disregard the fact that first and foremost, this is an exhibition based on the display of works from a private collection.
At the very least, Beyond the Frame primarily revolves around the philosophy that drives White Rabbit Gallery as private art in a public art space. While the gallery was created based on Judith Neilson’s belief that art should be communally experienced and enjoyed, not bought and placed in storage, White Rabbit is fairly specific in its approach. Exclusively collecting contemporary Chinese art produced after 2000, the space operates on the idea of documenting and reflecting a new stage in contemporary Chinese art. Above all, the Neilsons want to change the way people think about this art. By continuing to provide visibility for lesser-known contemporary Chinese artists, White Rabbit displays its strength as a space committed to expanding perceptions of China’s art scene. Indeed, it is the impressive and unusual works of art selected for exhibition that has made White Rabbit such a popular venue, more so than any overruling theme put in place to make sense of them as a collective whole.
Beyond the Frame is no exception, an exhibition that presents another wide array of engaging works from both established and unknown contemporary Chinese artists, each reflecting just how dynamic and expansive the current practice of contemporary Chinese art actually is.
Typical of the awe-inspiring works often displayed at White Rabbit Gallery is the Madeln Company’s Calm, a hallucinatory installation piece composed of a waterbed, carpet and bricks. Originally exhibited as the work of an unknown Middle Eastern artist in an exhibition produced by the Madeln Company, Calm inspires contemplation of how prejudice is often manifested in the ways we think about the unrest in the Middle East. From afar, the work is deceivingly plain, nothing more than a large pile of dirt and rubble on the gallery floor. On closer inspection the work is visually astounding. The dirt is alive, appearing to breathe as the waterbed moves in waves beneath the rubble.
In the same vain is Peng Hungchih’s Farfur the Martyr, a politically charged water installation that explores the way cultural icons can become a tool for xenophobic sentiments. Visually spectacular, yet fairly unnerving in content, Hungchih has strangely placed a composite figure of Jesus Christ and Farfur — a famous Palestinian children’s TV show host who spread the word of jihad and was assassinated on live television by an Israeli — on top of the Star of David. Gushing water from various wounds and completely overwhelming in size, this work is a dark and absurd reflection on the many ways images and icons can have their meanings completely inverted in potentially destructive and subversive ways.
Farfur the Martyr is not the only work exhibited in Beyond the Frame truly unsettling in its questioning of sensitive and somber issues. In contrast to the flashy, technically impressive works displayed in previous exhibitions, the Neilson’s have chosen for Beyond the Frame a selection of works much more disturbing and serious in subject matter. Critical and reflective in nature, these works delve deep into uncomfortable truths and harrowing issues of both personal and communal importance. Illustrative of this is Cang Xin’s Sharmanism Series: Variation, exhibited on the second floor. Xin’s work presents pure carnage and butchery at its best. Demonstrating a cycle of sacrifice and subsequent regeneration, his drawings of life-sized dismembered male bodies with fresh wounds dripping blood, hooked by the ankle to a pulley system, are violent and visually shocking.
In the same space is Lu Zhengyuan’s Mental Patients and Lu Nan’s photographic documentation of Prison Camps in Northern Myanmar. Both works are concerned with telling the story of individuals on the margins of society — in the case of Zhengyuan, the mentally ill in China who have inadequate treatment options, overlooked as the nation forges forward without them. Nan alternatively explores the story and despondent experiences of the opium and heroin addicted prisoners in Myanmar.
Lu Zhengyuan’s Mental Patients was created from memory after spending two weeks in a mental institution caring for an ill friend. Composed of fibreglass and grey paint, Zhengyuan’s seven patients are realistic, life-size human figures. While visitors are able to wander among the bodies sparsely positioned in a corner of the second floor, it is difficult to connect with them. These figures stare out and beyond, unaware of another presence. Bleak and disheveled in appearance, it is impossible not to feel the hopelessness of their predicament. One of the less familiar contemporary Chinese artists to be featured at White Rabbit, Zhengyuan’s Mental Patients is a surprisingly emotive work of art from a rising star.
Also among those that are less familiar are Jin Nü, a twenty-seven year old artist from Hebei, and Guo Fei, a young artist from Shanxi. Jin Nü’s Exuviate II: Where Have All the Children Gone? and three works from Guo Fei’s Boxes series — Be Quiet, Autumn, and The Silence You Can Hear can be found on the first floor of White Rabbit. While visually distinct from each other and composed of varying media — installation and oil on wood respectively — the two works similarly consider the inevitable progression of life and societal development, commenting on the consequences such progression has had on their personal well-being and China’s ecological landscape.
In Jin Nü’s work, twenty small dresses of sheer starched silk hang unevenly from the gallery roof. While art critics interpreted the work to be a solemn comment on China’s one child policy, the translucent dresses functioning as a tribute to millions of female babies consequently killed or aborted, Jin Nü’s installation piece is really a meditation on her own lost childhood. Simultaneously nostalgic about the passing of time and unnerved by the harsh realities of adult life, Nü’s work represents her personal longing for the innocence and tenderness of young life, a stage she regretfully will never be able to return to.
Similary, Guo Fei returns to memories of his childhood in Be Quiet, Autumn, and The Silence You Can Hear. Using wooden boxes as a base, a nod to the Chinese pastime of placing collected items in square wooden boxes, Fei paints his recollections of childhood, creating an odd collection of personal memories in the process. For the three works featured in Beyond the Frame, Fei presents the sublime and idyllic scenes of insects, wildlife and nature he remembers from his childhood. However, the impetus behind the three works of art is to pay homage to places that no longer exist — the passing of time and rapid urbanisation have seen these scenes replaced with sprawling suburban landscapes and cities. While reflecting on the loss of personal history, the only lasting remnants being intangible and vague memories, Fei also cleverly comments on the potential ecological disaster and destruction of cultural heritage continued urban expansion would result in.
With four floors of contemporary Chinese art on display, all unique in style and content, White Rabbit’s Beyond the Frame is well worth a visit. There truly is no other venue in the country that provides such a comprehensive look into the phenomenon that is contemporary Chinese art. Indeed, Beyond the Frame is yet another spectacular White Rabbit exhibition that affirms how phenomenal and multifaceted contemporary Chinese art practice currently is. Beyond the Frame is on display until December 31st, 2011. Admission is free.
All images courtesy of the artists and White Rabbit Gallery