White Rabbit: Vile BodiesNovember 11, 2016
Vile Bodies is a catchy title but there are very few points of comparison between Evelyn Waugh’s novel about the party-going lifestyles of young Londoners in the 1920s, and the current exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery. In a Chinese context the word “party” takes on an entirely different connotation, and unless you’re on the Central Committee it’s not conducive to having fun.
White Rabbit’s 15th exhibition of contemporary Chinese art doesn’t present a particularly tight argument or theme. After a brief discussion of mythical monsters and our own implicit monstrosity, the catalogue launches into a defence of ‘vileness’. The anonymous writer assures us: “the vile in us is not always evil, it can be beautiful, even glorious.”
This is a little hard to follow. If we consult the demure definitions of “vile” given by the Oxford English Dictionary, we get “extremely unpleasant” and “morally bad; wicked”. Merriam Webster is more forthright, using terms such as foul, common, mean, obnoxious and contemptible.
I don’t want to dwell pedantically on the dictionaries, but words have to mean something rather than anything-at-all, and I can’t see how “vile” can be either beautiful or glorious. It’s an irredeemably negative concept. Not even the hipsters have been able to reclaim it, as they have “bad”, “sick”, “deadly” and “wicked”.
As for monsters, western popular culture has a notorious soft spot for these creatures. Maybe it would’ve been more appropriate to borrow the English-language title of a famous book by dissident writer, Liu Binyan – People or Monsters (1979). In China, Liu was a pioneer of the kind of gritty, extended reportage that we know from magazines such as New Yorker. Taking advantage of Deng’s era of reforms he wrote about a corrupt official in Heilongjiang who used his position to exploit the people in his charge. It struck a chord with a mass audience because almost everybody had suffered under corrupt officialdom.
Liu was a dedicated socialist but he stirred up feelings in the Chinese people that would get him expelled from the party, and exiled to the United States. Today the old problem of corruption continues apace, notwithstanding President Xi’s public image as a model of Confucian virtue.
This means there is still plenty to make Chinese artists depressed, frustrated and angry, although they’ve become practised in producing work that is open to a variety of interpretations. Such precautions might even be beneficial, rendering Chinese artists less prone to the banal political generalisations of their western counterparts who gain kudos for merely adopting the correct stance on issues such as racism, sexism or climate change.
Ai Weiwei has occasionally used art as a blunt weapon, but most of his work is steeped in irony. Other artists strive to be both savage and oblique at the same time. Take for example, Chen Dapeng’s massive tabletop sculpture, Wonderful City (2011-12) which was first shown at White Rabbit three years ago. Cheng is an architect by profession. His work is a scale model of Beijing made by a 3D printer, but this minature city is overrun with monsters that might have been borrowed from Hieronymus Bosch. For this second showing the piece has been installed in a room decorated in smoky brown swirls, giving it an even more infernal appearance. What looks like a fantasy scenario is really a hell of greed and overdevelopment.
The same might be said of an enormous installation by Zhang Dali (no relation to Salvador), which dominates the ground floor gallery. Chinese Offspring (2005) features 30 life-sized figures cast in resin, shown dangling upside down, tethered by their feet. It could be a scene of mass torture from ancient times, but the figures are those of the ming gong – the migrant workers who come from the provinces to the city, where they toil as builders’ labourers and in other low-paid jobs. Zhang portrays these workers as sacrificial victims upon which the wealth of the new China has been built.
Even more oblique is Lam Tung-pang’s Where is the White Crow? (2009-10), a wall-sized piece consisting of 50 separate ink drawings of crows. It’s a melancholy work that echoes the artist’s melancholy reflections on human nature, wherein he despairs of finding true goodness.
Two more works returning for a second viewing are Cang Xin’s Exotic Flowers and Rare Herbs, and Xia Xiaowan’s Man and Woman (both 2007). The latter shows two grotesque figures painted on sheets of glass arranged in tight rows, making it seem as if three-dimensional forms are floating like specimens in a jar.
There’s a sadness about Xia’s grey monsters, but Cang Xin’s wooden sculptures are a riot of fecundity, with plants sprouting from the backs of gigantic insects, and even from a baby’s navel. It reflects the artist’s shamanistic belief in the interrelationship – and fundamental equivalence – of all life forms. I thought for a moment of John Olsen’s mantra: “I am in the landscape and the landscape is in me.” Cang Xin’s personal variation on this idea is a state “where heaven and man are as one.”
Cang Xin’s mysticism puts him in the minority in an exhibition in which artists seem more preoccupied with the dreams of science. Li Shan’s Recombitant (2002-06) presents a series of brightly coloured photographs of frogs and insects. It’s only upon closer inspection we realise that parts of these creatures are made from the pink flesh of human lips and tongues – a mad scientist experiment conducted entirely by means of Photoshop.
There are more insects in the work of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu; and shape-shifting graphics in Hou Chun-Ming’s Eight Immortals Crossing the sea (2008), and Qiu Anxiong’s magnificent animation, New Book of Mountains and Seas Part 2 (2006-09), which combines legendary and contemporary imagery.
In Krafttremor (2011), Lu Yang uses video footage of Parkinsons’ patients who have been given Deep Brain Stimulation, making them dance and shake in time to electronic music. It sounds alarming, but having just written a piece for the current issue of Artist Profile magazine, about a Parkinsons sufferer who was transformed into an artist by DBS, I can see what she’s getting at. It seems this is one disease where you have to cling on to your sense of humour.
The third floor showpiece in this exhibition is Luxury Logico’s Wandering (2016) a gigantic kinetic sculpture that the group is happy for us to view as bird, insect or dragon. With oar-like spines that ripple as they move, the piece also resembles one of those Roman triremes where Ben-Hur found himself enslaved. The sheer amount of effort that has gone into the construction of this work might have sent a rocket to the moon. It’s a feat of engineering with artistic overtones.
As is often the case with White Rabbit the mind-boggling scale and ambition of the large works makes one feel more appreciative of those pieces with relatively modest intentions. Wei Rong’s Poor Goddess (2013) and Artist and Model (2014), are exercises in photorealism that pose all sorts of questions about the depiction of the nude. Aside from Wei’s technical skills, which allow her to make an oil painting look exactly like a photograph, it is the way she has posed her models that creates an unsettling element.
In Poor Goddess, a woman holds a green plastic tub above her head in the manner of the idealised nude with a pitcher in Ingres’s The Source (1820-56). She is standing in an ordinary apartment where a light switch is clearly visible on the wall. Although this is a work of art the woman is naked rather than nude, to invoke Kenneth Clark’s famous distinction. The same is true of the less-than-ideal nude in Artist and Model, who stands in a sun-filled room playing with a dog, while the artist sits in a chair looking on. This time it’s Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec who are being evoked and slyly parodied. Wei shows that the bombshell Manet dropped in Olympia (1863), which put a modern women in the pose of a classical nude, can still give us pause in an age when bodies – vile or otherwise – are chronically overexposed.
White Rabbit Gallery, until 5 February 2017
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 12th November, 2016