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

Saturday, September 6, 2014

COMMUNE-ing at the White Rabbit Gallery

人民 公社 (Renmin Gongshe) is what my Chinese dictionary suggests as the most appropriate translation for the word "Commune". A "People's Collective" of the kind introduced in China in the later 1950s as amalgamations of collective farms. This is the title of the new exhibition at Sydney's White Rabbit Gallery, although the curator is playing her cards close to her chest about whether her intention was to think of the term as a noun or a verb, or possibly both. As is usual with shows at this Sydney gallery, a museum privately funded by the Neilson Foundation and exhibiting works drawn from Judith Neilson's impressive (and growing) collection of contemporary Chinese art, the works and their juxtapositions have much to tell us about China.

Here is an excerpt of my review of the show, published in The Art Life yesterday:
The unveiling of a new exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery is always an eagerly anticipated event. After the sombre mood of ‘Serve the People’, curated last year by Edmund Capon, and this year’s thought-provoking ‘Reformation’ the new show provides quite a different experience. Curator Bonnie Hudson has selected works which create a complex narrative about collectivism versus individualism; about the joys and sorrows of family; and about the ways in which the past pervades the present.
In the Imperial past, the Confucian ideal of filial piety placed family at the centre of Chinese life. Duty to family was far more important than the desires or freedoms of an individual. Under Mao, collectivism defined each person as a member of their group, whether that was a rural communal farm or an industrial “danwei” or work unit. From the cradle to the grave, the well-being of the group took precedence – people were told who to marry, what university course they were permitted to study and where they could work. Today, very few of those strictures remain. Even the much-hated “hukou” - the household registration system which dictates where people can live and work - is being dismantled, and so is the one-child policy.
1. Ai-Weiwei-Sunflower-Seeds-2010-ceramic-dimensions-variable
Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010, ceramic, dimensions variable, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
Despite the greater freedom today it can sometimes appear as if the idealism of the revolutionary past has been replaced by a cynical belief in the inevitability of corruption; collectivism by a competitive culture of crass materialism. Young people have no experience of the hardships suffered by their parents and grandparents, and as a consequence there is more than the usual tension between generations. COMMUNE features twenty-three artists, from significant international figures now aged in their fifties, such as Ai Weiwei and Hu Jieming, to younger practitioners such as Gao Rong and Wang Cheng. Together, in clever curatorial juxtapositions, they explore some of the tensions and contradictions of contemporary China. Beyond that, though, the exhibition weaves a narrative about family, belonging, and connectedness. There is a bitter-sweet character to this show that I found immensely moving.
2, Bai-Yiluo-Spring-and-Autumn-1-2007-wood-metal-farm-tools-400-x-350-x-350-cm
Bai Yiluo, Spring and Autumn 1, 2007, wood, metal, farm-tools, 400 x 350 x 350 cm, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
On the top floor of the gallery, new media pioneer Hu Jieming’s ‘Remnant of Images’ fills the gallery space with the sound of filing cabinet drawers and doors sliding open and closed again, symbolising the selective and transient nature of memory. Institutional metal cabinets are filled with flickering animated photographs from China’s past and present. Hu Jieming uses new technologies and media to reveal how we are all now inter-connected in a digital world. “It’s like a socialism of the future,” he told me when we met in his Shanghai studio. His work often reflects China’s past and its uncomfortable and dramatic trajectory into an entirely new society. By combining his own photographs of friends and family with iconic Mao-era imagery, and adding random photographs found on the internet, Hu evokes the presence of history in the now, the interrelatedness of past and present.
5. Hu-Jieming-The-Remnant-of-Images-2013-cabinets-LED-screens-photographs (1)
Hu Jieming, The Remnant of Images, 2013, cabinets, LED screens, photographs, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
What unites the diverse artists represented in this exhibition is an awareness that the past is not “another country” - although it often seems that way – in fact, it shapes our current reality and the ways in which we connect and re-connect with others. Whether you choose to interpret the title of the exhibition as a noun or a verb; as a reminder of the socialist past or as an exhortation, COMMUNE is profoundly moving. Don’t miss it!
To read the whole review, click HERE!
The show includes one of my current favourite artists, Gao Rong, and a beautifully elegiac video by Zhu Jia entitled 'Waltz', embodying in one clever, absorbing and beautifully cinematic work so many of the themes I find in contemporary art from China: a pervasive melancholy, a layering of  past and present, a mixture of nostalgia with an acknowledgement of the betrayal of idealism, a deep cynicism.  There is joy too of course, and it is present here in many works. But 'Waltz' is just beautiful and it haunted me long after I had left the gallery and was walking the currently bleakly rainswept Sydney streets.