White Rabbit: Supernatural

October 20, 2018
Li Shan's 'Deviation'

At a time when the United Nations has just issued an alarming report about the impact of climate change a new show at the White Rabbit Gallery looks at the transformations of nature in contemporary Chinese art. It’s a subject that took a radical turn when the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Prior to that, Chinese artists had spent a thousand years extolling the beauty and harmony of the natural world.

Chairman’s Mao’s attitude to nature has been described as “Promethean” – meaning that he sought to wrest power over the environment from the Gods. Looking out over Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, Mao rhapsodised about the day when it would be surrounded by factories. This megalomaniac fantasy was never realised, but China’s rivers, fields, mountains and forests would all bend to the dictates of industrial progress at any cost.

In most instances that cost was massive pollution. In the industrial cities of the north chimneys pour toxic smoke into the atmosphere. Rivers such as the Yangtze, the Xi and the Huang are thoroughfares for rubbish, sewage, pesticides and industrial waste. The Chinese government doesn’t provide data on the health costs, but independent experts estimate that air pollution contributed to the deaths of more than 1.6 million people in 2015.

It is only in the past few years that China has begun to confront the pollution problem with new energy initiatives. Nowadays the country is in the paradoxical position of being simultaneously the world’s biggest polluter and the world’s biggest green economy.

Wang Julian, ‘Beijing Besieged by Waste’ (2009-10)

If White Rabbit had wanted to make an exhibition solely about pollution there are plenty of works in the collection that might have been included. Instead the gallery has opted to take a more broadranging approach to nature. For every piece such as Wang Juliang’s staggering photo sequence: Beijing Beseiged by Waste (2009-10), there are several works that adopt a more oblique, poetic stance.

Emily Shih-Chih Yang produces a modern variant on traditional Chinese brush-and-ink painting in a series of schematic landscapes that are anything but serene. Zhu Jinshi is even more extreme in a 4 panel, 6.4 metre-long painting called Spring Festival is Coming (2015). In his usual manner Zhu has piled on the oil paint so thickly he must have used a trowel, or perhaps a shovel. The juxtaposition of colours in these cascading, volcanic surfaces issues an ecstatic welcome to Spring. The work is so excessive it feels slightly menacing, as if nature has erupted in an almighty explosion.

Zhu Jinshi, ‘Spring Festival is Coming’ (2015)

Upon entering the gallery the first thing one sees is Li Shan’s Deviation: a squadron of creatures – half-man, half-dragon-fly – supended from the ceiling. The artist makes the same, rather predictable allusions to genetic engineering that we find with Patricia Piccinini’s work. I imagine, though, many viewers will think immediately of Kurt Neumann’s classic horror film, The Fly (1958).

The Fly, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’), was all about the folly of playing God. It’s a familiar trope of science fiction B movies, and Li’s creatures seem to have flown straight out of a Hollywood props department. At the very least it provides an eye-catching entry point to the exhibition.

If Deviation is pure spectacle, other works are so muted we are obliged to pause and question what is going on. Chen Wen-Chi isolates those elements in a photograph that denote a sense of authenticity, and proceeds to fabricate them. The grainy black-and-white photos in the series, Authenticity Temporal Memory: Shanghai (2015), have all been created in the studio.

The message may be that no image nowadays may be trusted, even those that appear to predate Photoshop. It’s old news in China, where disgraced heroes of the Party were routinely erased from official photos and paintings when they fell out of favour.

Huang Xiaoliang, the foggy streets of Hunan

Huang Xiaoliang makes no attempt to disguise his manipulations of the image in a pair of melancholy photos of his hometown in Hunan Province. These nondescript scenes come in tones of saturated blue, punctuated by the glow of light through windows. Figures in the street are nothing more than dark blurs.

Huang is practising an updated form of Pictorialism, the fin-de-siecle movement that tried to make photos look like paintings, partly as a way of championing the artistic aspirations of the medium. In this instance, the artist instills an eerie beauty into a dingy street scene.

Chen Wei takes illusion even further, photographing wilfully low-key scenes he has constructed in the studio. Chen is the antithesis of those Chinese propaganda artists of the Mao era, with their slogans and unmistakeable symbols. In his photo, Future and Modern, all we see is a a neon sign with characters proclaiming “Future Modern New City” that appears to sit on top of a row of buildings almost completely obscured by blue, foggy gloom.

The heroic sentiment is rendered faintly absurd by the obscurity of the image. It suggests the city of the future is no more than a mirage, or a dream, although there can never be a ‘correct’ interpretation of any of Chen’s images. His works seem to bubble up from the subconscious, bypassing all rational mechanisms by which we confer meaning.

Yan-Wei Ling’s ‘Ocean of Cloth Wheels and Floating Islands’ (2013-16)

Supernatural is not the most cohesive of White Rabbit shows, but no exhibition at this venue is ever devoid of something extraordinary. The big whammy is usually found on the top floor, but Yan-Wei Ling’s Ocean of Cloth Wheels and Floating Islands (2013-16) is impressive mainly because of the enormous investment of time the installation represents. Ling has produced a sewn seascape that fills the entire room, but after the obligatory “Wow”, there’s not a lot to think about.

The undoubted masterpiece of this exhibition is Qiu Anxiong’s animated video, New Classic of Mountains and Seas Part 3 (2013-17). This compelling 25 minute piece is the third installment of a project that has been underway since 2006. The original Classic of Mountains and Seas dates back to the 4th century BCE, but Qiu’s version acts as a long, fanciful allegory for the present, and a dark premonition of the future.

From Qiu Anxiong’s ‘New Classic of Mountains and Seas Part 3’

Technically, this is the most sophisticated of the three films, with Qiu’s ink drawings animated by new software, but it’s the imagery that stays in one’s mind: a cosmopolis reverting back to forest, deserted streets patrolled by vehicles that mimic living creatures, a man with an octopus plastered on his face like a mask. In Qiu’s dystopian vision nature has been subdued but is now reasserting itself in monstrous new ways, as the line between the natural and the artificial disintegrates.

Supernatural
White Rabbit Gallery, 7 September, 2018 – 3 February, 2019

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 October, 2018