The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Friday, September 13, 2013

Fear, Anarchy and Hope: Art Serves the People at the White Rabbit Gallery

You Si, 'Transforming', Acrylic Ink on Ricepaper, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
I have now seen 'Serve the People' at White Rabbit Gallery four times and have found new details in familar works and new ideas to think about each time. The exhibition provides a fantastic insight into the diversity of practice and the multitude of ideas preoccupying Chinese artists right now, and in the last few years. With works ranging from video, to installation, to painting, to ink-on-paper, to sculpture, to digital media, to a form of wet-plate collodion print photography there is pretty much no stone left unturned. 

Chen Wenling, 'Happy Family', bronze, car duco, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
(background image: Gonkar Gyatso, 'Buddha for Our Time', stickers on paper,
 image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery)
My two favourite works in the exhibition are Sun Furong's 'Nibbling Up' series of Mao suits that appear to have been shredded by a giant vindictive pair of scissors, and Jin Feng's brave and politically charged installation of carved 'chops' and the resulting prints, telling the story of China's cruel and dramatic 20th century history. But I also have a very soft spot for Chen Hangfeng's video installation of vegetables in crazy conversation; and Wang Zhiyuan's ginormous pair of pink fibreglass knickers, with all their promise of desire assuaged that a consumerist pop culture can offer.

Jin Feng , A History of China’s Modernisation Volumes 1 and 2, 2011, rubber, marble, rice paper installation,
 image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
In my review of the show for The Art Life, I focused on only a few works - there is a wealth of riches here to be discovered anew on each visit. Here is my take on the exhibition:

"In Mao Zedong’s famous exhortation to the Red Army at the 1942 Yenan Forum on Art and Literature, he emphasised the close relationship between art and revolution, stressing that art must ‘serve the masses’. He probably wasn’t envisaging a gigantic pair of gaudy pink knickers made of fibreglass and car duco; a three-headed conjoined baby skeleton in a scientific bell jar; vegetables growing in an illicit Shanghai garden engaged in a sexually explicit conversation courtesy of Chen Hangfeng’s video installation; or a baby stroller customised with spikes on the wheels, symbolising the fierce struggle for success that characterises parenthood in today’s China. Imagine the bewilderment of Mao and his revolutionary comrades in an encounter with these works and others in the new exhibition at White Rabbit Gallery. ‘Serve the People’ has been curated by former director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Edmund Capon, from Judith Neilson’s impressive collection of contemporary Chinese art."
Edmund Capon with Judith Neilson celebrate the opening of 'Serve the People',
 image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
The notion of how art might “serve the people” has an entirely different resonance in today’s China. Artists born before Mao’s death in 1976 cannot help but look back and attempt to reconcile their life experience with the strangeness of the present day. The dislocations of social transformation, globalisation, demolition and urbanisation which have swept away the revolutionary past, ushering in a world filled with uncertainty, have rendered many of the tropes of the first 1990s wave of contemporary Chinese art passé. A new visual language is emerging, with which artists can respond to the strangeness of their contemporary world, in which enormous disparities of wealth, education and personal freedom are creating new schisms in the social fabric. It is in reflecting this 21st century world back to audiences, both within China and in the West, that artists ‘serve the people’ today.

When Neilson asked Capon to curate the second White Rabbit exhibition for 2013, Capon says that he didn’t hesitate for a moment before he enthusiastically agreed. When he began to select the works for the show, he was irresistibly reminded of his first visit to China in the early 1970s, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. He saw the slogan “Serve the People” everywhere; on posters, on exercise books and calendars, and graffitied in large letters onto walls all over Beijing. In the context of art, serving the people meant, of course, Socialist Realism. All other art forms were banned. One of the great stories of contemporary culture is the extraordinary flourishing of art in China since the ‘opening up’ period. Innovative, technically accomplished and, unsurprisingly, highly adept at creating many layers of complex (and sometimes well-hidden) meanings, Chinese artists are responding to a society in great flux. Capon believes the artists of today “serve the people” by liberating their spirits and giving shape to their anxieties, confusion and ambitions. Three threads run through this show, he says: fear, anarchy, and hope. In fact, I found more hope than fear; a healthy thread of cynicism and doubt; as well as the delightful sense of the ridiculous which is such a characteristic feature of Chinese art..... 
To read on, click HERE
Wang Zhiyuan ‘Object of Desire’, 2008, fibreglass, lights, sound, 363 x 355 x 70 cm
 image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery