White Rabbit: The Dark Matters

April 29, 2017
Tang Nannan, Billenium Waves (2015)
Tang Nannan, Billenium Waves (2015)

Contemporary culture puts a premium on instant gratification but ancient Chinese thinkers found the greatest value in the contemplation of eternal things. This was brought home to me by Tang Nannan’s Dao-inspired, wide-screen video, Billenium Waves (2015) at the White Rabbit Gallery. It’s nothing more than a four-minute close-up of waves lapping under a dark blue, cloudy sky, but it has a tremendous, glowering force. One thinks of Laozi’s description of the Dao – “darkness within darkness, the gate to all mystery.”

In Billenium Waves Tang has slowed down the film, making the water appear viscous and sluggish. The waves take on a monumental dimension, as if we are watching a primal scene of one element transforming itself into another. In his ink-on-paper paintings Tang creates ethereal, sea-themed pictures filled with swirls, speckles and blotches.

The Daoists coupled the element of water with the colour black, making Tang’s liquid, inky works a perfect fit for the exhibition, The Dark Matters. This is the most abstract display yet to be held at White Rabbit, but it may also be the most beautiful. It helps, of course, to limit one’s palette to shades of black and white, but a lot of thought has gone into this presentation, right down to the construction of a series of thin metal frames that hold works suspended in mid-air.

This may have been a perfect opportunity for White Rabbit to do a brush-and-ink show. The most traditional of Chinese mediums has seen some remarkable developments in recent years, in the works of artists such as Li Huasheng and Bingyi, but the sheer range of contemporary approaches is staggering.

Aside from Tang Nannan’s works, the most prominent example of brush-and-ink is Hsiao Cho-Yu’s Liquid Creation (2015), in which water has been used to manipulate the ink into a kind of action painting. Hsaio’s work doesn’t resemble a Jackson Pollock, which is essentially an arrangement of surface patterns. Instead, we seem to be watching a volcanic eruption under water, with hot bubbles of ink being propelled by explosive force, while daylight filters through from above.

Hsiao Cho-Yu, Liquid Creation (2015)

Hsiao Cho-Yu, Liquid Creation (2015)

Kong Chun-Hei’s Brick (2014) is both an ink painting and a sculpture – six humble bricks made from wood and paper, with delicate marbled surfaces. Kong may be thinking of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966), the Tate Gallery’s most notorious acquisition, which consists of 120 common bricks arranged on the floor. By contrast, Kong’s ‘bricks’ are the result of hours of stippling. They may seem minimalist, but have been intensively hand-crafted.

Kong Chun Hei, Brick (2014)

Kong Chun Hei, Brick (2014)

As we’ve seen in the past, White Rabbit favours broad rather than narrow themes, and The Dark Matters contains a typically diverse group of works by artists from China and Taiwan. Abstraction vies with painstaking realism, spontaneity is balanced by the most labour-intensive projects. Many artists aim for deliberate ambiguities – Kong’s bricks being one example, but also Hu Liu’s drawing, Grass (2015), which uses this humble subject as an excuse for a display of virtuosity with the pencil, in which we soon stop thinking of ‘grass’ and surrender to the play of light and rhythm.

Hu Liu, Grass (2015)

Hu Liu, Grass (2015)

The top floor at White Rabbit is always an eye-opener, and this time is no exception. Yang Mushi’s Grinding (2013-16) is a floor installation consisting of more than a thousand solid shapes – cubes, jagged shards, rounded lumps – all made from wood and coated in shiny black lacquer. It took the artist three years of unremitting toil to produce this piece, which is largely a memorial to its own creation. Yang’s labours symbolise the work ethic and social regimentation of contemporary China. It looks impressive when viewed in its totality, but each component is a meaningless fragment.

Yang Mushi, Grinding (2013-16)

Yang Mushi, Grinding (2013-16)

For Yang, the dark side of China is the human cost of progress. For an artist such as Tang Nannan, the dark element is a search for spiritual equilibrium. The entire exhibition exists within these two poles, veering between the mystical and the material.

The very first piece one encounters has something of both qualities. Lin Yan’s Sky 2 (2016), is an enormous, billowing cloud of ink-soaked paper hovering by the staircase in the entrance gallery.

We think of clouds as objects of idle meditation. Aristophanes satirised the philosophers of Athens in a play called The Clouds, (c. 480 BCE), and the association has stuck. In China clouds have been used as symbols of good luck, probably because they bring rain to thirsty crops. Yet there’s nothing lucky about Lin Yan’s cloud, steeped in dirt and pollution – a comment on the air quality of Chinese cities.

Lin Yan, Sky 2 (2016)

Lin Yan, Sky 2 (2016)

The mystical element returns with Nick Dong’s Cosmic Dance – Gravity (2015), featuring a cube hovering above a magnetised table top, in celebration of unseen forces. It’s also there in Gao Ge’s Trinity (2010-13), in which a passage from the Book of Revelation written in Chinese characters has been carved into a tree trunk that has been split in two and scorched.

Materialism reasserts itself in Li Xiaofei’s videos of grimy factories and coal trains that craft a visual poetry from scenes of industrial squalor. If Li’s work contains any kind of social critique it’s muted by the lyrical nature of his images, but he is equally far removed from those visions of heroic labour produced during the Maoist era. We’re looking a way of life, not a political tract.

In Yang Yongliang’s Infinite Landscape (2011), a thin vertical screen echoing the format of a traditional landscape painting has been transformed into a digital vista of relentless progress, with skyscrapers and freeways clustered on what was once a scene of tranquillity. The message is simple: there is no place for such inward-looking ideals in today’s China, rapt in a fever dream of economic and industrial growth.

The lament for what has been lost is continued in Shi Jinsong’s Design – Instruments of Torture (2007), which turns a flat TV screen and standing speakers into a guillotine and a set of stocks. In place of the cruel tortures of ancient China, or even the privations endured under Mao, today’s citizens are tortured by their fixation on consumer goods.

Shi Jinsong, Design - Instruments of Torture (2007)

Shi Jinsong, Design – Instruments of Torture (2007)

Another comment on our age is Sun Lei’s Clarity (2009), an arrangement of transparent objects laid out on a light box. It’s a reminder that we live within surveillance regimes that are rapidly eroding individual privacy in the name of public security. Such procedures also open the door to authoritarian forms of social control, and here China has more to be concerned about than many other countries.

The darkness in Sun Lei’s work is the sense of secrecy, indeed paranoia, that pervades our private and public spaces. Is your micro wave spying on you? Is your phone sending silent messages back to the manufacturer? For Shi Jinsong, the darkness is the cloud of consumerism that blinds us to the most fundamental necessities of life.

Sun Lei, Clarity (2009)

Sun Lei, Clarity (2009)

None of these ideas are revolutionary or hard to grasp. They are staples of a Chinese contemporary art scene that draws its inspiration from a society that is reinventing itself more efficiently than anywhere else in the world, in furious cycles of destruction and creation. The “darkness” in the title of this show could be seen as a reference to the moral chaos and social dysfunction that have taken such a grip on the modern world. It’s the antithesis of the values of Confucius, who believed in an ideal order in which every individual knew his or her place.

“Don’t curse the darkness,” says Confucius, “light a candle.” In other words, work to establish order and balance. This love of order found plenty of echoes in Mao’s regime, and it is still prevalent today. Perhaps the dark area that really matters in China is freedom – which remains a contentious concept for a government that keeps a close watch on its citizens’ extracurricular activities, exercises strict control over the Internet, and sees many tenets of Human Rights as a threat to social stability.

In any society artists are among those who defend their freedoms most jealously. Over the past 30 years Chinese artsts have enjoyed a loosening of restrictions, but still live with the constant threat of censorship. It’s not unusual for a artist to have a bland, public rationale for a work that permits a more radical, private reading.

As a communist country with a booming market economy China seems to thrive on the contradictions the Marxists once sought to resolve. With increasing affluence it’s impossible to prevent the spread of new ideas, with some looking towards spiritual or religious goals; others taking a political turn, expressing concern about the spread of pollution, the invasion of personal privacy or the implications of rampant consumerism.

In the so-called western world we’re familiar with all these ideas, although we rarely invest them with the sense of urgency one finds in China. Quite simply there’s not the same danger in expressing a divergent opinion or taking a non-conformist stance. Perhaps we also lack the drive and determination (let alone the historical background) that has fuelled China’s ongoing transformation and provides such hope for the future.

The Dark Matters
White Rabbit Gallery, 8 March-30 July, 2017

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 April, 2017