Australian artists tour China

October 9, 2010
The British pavilion at the Shanghai Expo
The British pavilion at the Shanghai Expo

With each year China is exerting a greater attraction for Australian artists. This is not simply a reflection of the country’s status as this century’s coming super power, or the fact that the Australian economy is riding on the back of China’s insatiable appetite for resources. There is a pervasive energy in contemporary Chinese art that sets it apart from anything else being made today. Beijing is the nerve centre for an art boom, with thousands of artists, massive complexes of studios and galleries, and a never-ending round of events. In Sydney, one may sample this vitality by visiting White Rabbit, the Neilsons’ privately funded gallery for contemporary Chinese art.

I’ve been in China for the past two weeks, travelling with a group of Australian artists who – with one notable exception – had never visited the country before. The exception was Zhou Xiaoping, who hails from Anhui province, but has spent the past twenty years dividing his time between Melbourne and Arnhem Land, where he works with Aboriginal artists.

The other members of the group included Fiona Foley and Frances Belle Parker, indigenous artists who work in a range of media; Newcastle painter, Peter Gardiner; sculptor and mixed media artist, China de la Vega; and Guy Maestri and Phil James, whom I first knew as students at the National Art School. Guy is a painter who had a moment of celebrity when he won the 2009 Archibald Prize, with a portrait of Gurrumul Yunipingu. Phil has become known for placing framed artworks in public places, and was recently plucked from the streets for a show at the Ray Hughes Gallery.

Since arriving in Beijing a month ago, this heterogeneous group has travelled to Pingyao, X’ian, Hua Shan, Chengdu and Chongqing, where I came on board. We drifted down the Yangtze River for four days, arriving in Wuhan. This was followed by six days in cosmopolitan Shanghai, then it was back to Beijing, where the artists will remain for the next month, making work for a show at Red Gate Gallery, opening on 30 October.

The trip was organized and ably led by artist Catherine Croll, on behalf of Red Gate, owned by Aussie expatriate Brian Wallace, who has lived in Beijing for thirty years. In that time Wallace has made huge efforts to cement cultural ties between Australia and China. His residency program has brought a succession of artists to Beijing, where they are given studios, an orientation kit and complete freedom. Artists of all types, of all levels of fame or obscurity, have benefited from this residency, which is not a money making exercise for the dealer.

The funding of the artists’ journey was cobbled together from the Australia International Cultural Council, the Australian Pavilion at Expo, and Asialink. My ticket was courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which was anxious that some of the events in their year-long “Imagine Australia” program do not go unchronicled at home. For the record, that program has generated visits by video artists; classical, experimental and jazz musicians; a National Boys Choir; dance companies and scholars. It has assisted participation in film and photography festivals, promoted conferences and ‘youth dialogues’. This unusual level of activity reflects DFAT’s recognition of the overwhelming strategic importance of China.

2011 is designated as China year in Australia, so we can expect to receive an equally large number of Chinese cultural projects.

If this sounds like an extraordinary series of junkets, consider that Australia spends comparatively much less on cultural events than nations such as France, Britain and Germany, who have long recognised that the arts are an effective way of making valuable contacts while increasing one’s status and visibility. Australians are still amateurs in this game.

Where the French or the Germans use the arts as a kind of spearhead that opens doors for business, Australia has always approached culture as an afterthought. There has been a degree of philistinism in this, and perhaps a lack of confidence that we have the goods to compete with the world’s best. More concerted efforts in China and Japan – our very big trading partners – suggest that we may be finally overcoming this syndrome.

While the artists’ trip sounds glamorous it was conducted in the most arduous circumstances: staying at youth hostels with share rooms, travelling on ‘hard sleepers’ and buses, and floating down the Yangtze on a boat so shabby that the carpet hadn’t been cleaned since the Qing dynasty. Everybody had already been ill by the time I arrived. This is not the way most tourists travel in China nowadays – only intrepid back packers and artists are prepared to suffer such indignities.

And yet, there is not one member of the group that regretted coming along. The culture shock of China has been incredibly stimulating, and everyone was desperate to put their impressions to work in the Beijing studios.

I could write a book about this trip, especially the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing, a monumental celebration of a cultural heritage now under 175 metres of muddy water. For the artists, the highlight came in Sichuan, which is still recovering from the devastation of the recent earthquake. The Australian firm, Bluescope Butler, has built a school, and asked the artists to spend a day with the children. Everyone was touched by the enthusiasm of the kids who all drew their versions of a kangaroo. This kind of intimate contact generates a form of good will that is more potent than a whole season of official receptions.

That brings me to Shanghai, and the Expo, where the Australian Pavilion currently stands as the fifth most popular attraction. The towering, rusty Cor-ten steel exterior designed by Wood Marsh, makes a striking impact, but the interior is a sausage factory, with crowds of people being hustled shoulder-to-shoulder past a display that can only be described as a cavalcade of kitsch.

I know from first-hand experience that this is a touchy subject. The mandarins behind the Pavilion are quick to remind us that it has cost $83 million, and has attracted seven million visitors. At the end of Expo, they will present an impressive set of statistics that put a dollar value on the whole shebang.

It’s clear that the main focus has been on business contacts and corporate hospitality, which accounts for a large percentage of the interior space and the budget. Virtually the only place one may see any Australian art is in a private reception area.

A display of ceremonial poles from Arnhem Land is used at the beginning to represent the ancient history of the continent. Next comes a truly awful cartoonish diorama; a room of photographs, showing the faces and stories of typical Aussies; and the pièce de résistance: a high tech presentation where three huge video screens rise from the floor, introducing us to a montage of images, including a lot of mining. Three animated children – blonde haired Anglo, Aboriginal and Chinese – proceed to tell us, at great length, how great it is to be Australian. I’m sorry, but this is K-I-T-S-C-H.

It will be objected that all Expo displays are unashamedly populist and propagandist, but I saw enough in other pavilions – notably Great Britain, Spain, Italy, France, and even Iceland, to know that there is a different, more engaging way of doing things. Spain, for instance, had footage of the Madrid railway station bombings included in their video montage – showing an utterly Spanish sense of tragedy: that we need to be touched by darkness in order to appreciate the light. Australia allowed nothing to disturb the relentless positivity.

I mention all this not for the mean pleasures of criticism but to open up discussion, because it’s important we do not take the success of the Australian Pavilion as a justification for the superficiality of the display. There is room to raise the game a very long way and still cuddle up to the corporates. Coming at the end of an artists’ tour conducted on a frayed shoestring, it was hard to arrive at the Expo and see the millions spent on a display strategy that made us all want to emigrate. Art, no less than business, is about imagination, risk-taking, innovation. We do not need to be so verbose, so cautious and self-justifying. It will be a great day when artists are allowed to take part in these massive international events not as part-time performers, but as partners. Policies may be moving in a more arts-friendly direction, but we still find it hard to accept that we have any national resource more fascinating than iron ore.

 

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 09, 2010