Down the Rabbit Hole

June 9, 2012
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Last year, according to The New York Times, 395 museums were built across China. As with most things in this vast, mysterious country, the statistics give only a superficial glimpse of the complexities involved. Firstly one might question the Chinese definition of “museum”, which may be a grandiose word for a lot of small-scale enterprises. Secondly, one can only wonder how many of these museums have actually opened? How many are adequately staffed and equipped? What sort of collections do they have? What percentage will still exist in a year or two?

Some explain the epidemic of new museums in slightly cynical terms: people believe that museums are a way of making money, whereas they are really a way of spending money. If this is true, the craze is destined to end in tears.

Many of the new institutions are historical museums, but a large number are art galleries. These may be divided into public and private enterprises, with only the former having an assured future. In October, Shanghai will open a new Museum of Art in the former Chinese Pavilion for Expo 2010. A few hundred metres away will be a new Museum of Contemporary Art, housed, like Tate Modern, in a converted power station. Both of these venues are conceived on a scale commensurate with China’s ambitions to be a world leader in the economic and cultural spheres.

Beijing has risen to the challenge with a proposal to build a new National Art Museum on the site of the 2008 Olympics. The building will cover some 427,000 square metres, with the architect chosen from a shortlist of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel.

There are also ambitious plans for a US$279 million museum in the northwestern city of Yinchuan, due to open in 2014. Plans for The Yellow River Arts Centre include a building of 15,000 square metres, and 80 hectares devoted to an Art History Park featuring 604 reproductions covering the entire history of Chinese sculpture. This represents a conspicuous demonstration of China’s cultural heritage in a largely Muslim area.

Alongside these huge projects the private art museums appear to be built on sand. In China it seems that everyone who buys art needs a museum to display his or her collection. The success or failure of these institutions hinges on the vision of the collector and their willingness to keep supporting the project. In many instances there is a show-off aspect that undermines any philanthropic pretentions.

“The Chinese don’t want the best quality,” a Chinese friend told me. “They want to pay the highest price.” This insight applies to the visual arts, furniture and ceramics, no less than to designer label clothing. This is a luxurious position, and even though one reads daily stories about the Chinese economy slowing, there seems to be no end to the spending.

As I write, I’m returning from China, my head whirling with all the things I’ve just seen in galleries and studios. The sheer scale and ambition of Chinese contemporary art only becomes apparent when one visits factory-sized studios such as those of sculptors, Chen Wenling or Gao Xiaowu; let alone Shen Shaomin’s studio complex of 3,000 square metres, to which the artist is adding spaces for artists-in-residence furnished with Qing dynasty antiques. He is also constructing an open-air opera venue.

None of this would be possible – or even conceivable – in Australia. This is not simply because of China’s relatively low costs for labour and materials, it is because the best Chinese artists have become players on the world stage, holding exhibitions in many different counties; having their works collected by museums; making regular appearances in Biennales and other big international exhibitions.

Australian artists can learn a lot from their Chinese counterparts, and a good place to begin is with the most recent exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery, titled Down the Rabbit Hole. To recap: White Rabbit is a private museum owned and operated by the Neilson family, with a collection of more than 600 works of contemporary Chinese art by some 250 artists. In world terms the White Rabbit collection is second only to the holdings of the legendary Swiss collector, Uli Sigg, who had at least twenty years’ start. One important difference is that almost everything in the White Rabbit Collection was made after the year 2000.

With free entry and increasingly large attendances, White Rabbit has made a significant impression on the cultural life of Sydney since its inception in 2009. It has created a sense of excitement about contemporary Chinese art that should be good news for those dealers who are trying to sell the stuff, and for everybody who feels that so much western art has become stale and predictable.

Down the Rabbit Hole is the gallery’s fifth collection-based show. Like its predecessors it is a mixture of old and new work, with the usual surprises. It’s worth noting that the Neilsons refer to White Rabbit as a gallery rather than a museum. In contrast to their new Chinese counterparts, the venue is run in a professional manner, although acquisitions are largely a matter of Judith Neilson’s personal taste.

This inspired amateurism has resulted in a much stronger, more original collection than any of Australia’s public galleries, hampered as they are by lack of funds, lack of knowledge, and the vice of hyper-conformism. I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating: to spend one’s own money is a great incentive to connoisseurship.

With the current exhibition, echoes of Alice in Wonderland are not misleading. So much of this collection is outlandish in its scale, its exquisite technique, or the level of detail. In every White Rabbit exhibition there have been pieces that stop viewers in their tracks, and this show is no exception. One rarely encounters that museum staple: the dull work by a well-known artist, bought out of a sense of obligation. (“We had to have something by X…”).

 

In this gallery viewers always remember the work, even if they forget the name of the artist. Song Hongchuan (b.1977) is not one of the celebrities of contemporary art, but his installation After the Stone Age is an astonishing piece. It consists of 75 traditional stone mason’s tools carved from granite. Apart from the conceptual conundrum of the sculptor’s tools becoming the sculpture, the detail is staggering. Song comes from a family of stonecarvers in Hebei province, and has no formal training. The work took three years to complete, during which time the artist had plenty of time to contemplate the role tools have played in human civilisation. His work acts as a monument to this process.

Hardly less amazing is Imitating Fan Kuan’s Travellers Among Mountains and Streams by Taiwanese artist, Chen Chun-hao (b.1971). At first glance this picture resembles a classic Chinese landscape of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE.), but close examination reveals it to be made up of tiny metal pins – allegedly no fewer than 750,000. But who’s counting?

Then there is Wu Jian’an Gazing at the Moon (2011), a series of schematic mountains, made up of thousands of individual papercuts of tiny figures piled one on top of the other. If such works were simply exercises in patience and perseverance, they could be admired in a limited manner. Instead, both Chen and Wu engage with the ancient traditions of Chinese culture, recapturing the spirit of the past in a contemporary idiom.

Even the work of the Taiwanese collective LuxuryLogico has lingering affinities with the flowing lines of Chinese calligraphy. But where the calligrapher’s art disrupts the white of the paper with expressive dashes of black ink, in Scripting, we watch a dance of white fluorescent lines in a darkened room. Beams of light twist before our eyes creating shapes and patterns in mesmeric fashion.

The pièce de résistance on the top floor is a room-sized installation by Michael Lin (b. 1980), one of the rising stars of Asian art. It features the vivid red, floral decoration that is a familiar feature of many of Lin’s works. This time the pattern is printed on the flat surfaces of dozens of small stools, which fit together like a puzzle. This is a large, elegant display, although it doesn’t have the jaw-dropping force of some of the other pieces I’ve mentioned.

What’s finally so impressive about this show is that almost every work is deeply embedded within Chinese culture, yet never seems merely provincial. It lends weight to the idea that the best Chinese art of the past and present speaks a language that is truly universal. No wonder they’re building so many museums.

 

Down the Rabbit Hole (no closing date): White Rabbit Gallery

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 09, 2012