White Rabbit: The Sleeper Awakes

June 8, 2018
Sun Xun, from 'Time Spy' (2016)

H.G.Wells published his novel, The Sleeper Awakes, in 1910. The Russian uprising of 1905 had been put down, and the Revolution of 1917 was but a rumble on the horizon. It’s the story of a sleeper who wakes 200 years into the future – in 2100 to be precise – to find a world ruled by a powerful totalitarian oligarchy.

The conceit behind the latest show at the White Rabbit Gallery, which takes its title from Wells’s novel, is: “What would Mao Zedong and his comrades make of China today if they were to rise from their slumbers?”

One assumes the Great Helmsman would be horrified at the degree of freedom his countrymen enjoy, including the freedom from forced ideological indoctrination. On the other hand he might be impressed by the prosperity of the new China, and the amazing level of social control retained by the ruling Party.

In this the Chinese leaders have refuted the received theoretical wisdom that one cannot have a market economy without concurrent political freedoms. Today’s China is the ultimate political paradox: a communist-capitalist state in which power remains in the hands of a single party while private wealth has spread throughout the country.

There may be a much greater level of personal freedom than during the Mao era but the grip of the Party is as firm as ever. This is due to a regime of surveillance and censorship that permeates Chinese society, and a legal system obedient to the dictates of power in apportioning innocence and guilt.

In an environment in which a constant sense of possibility is held in check by niggling insecurity China has more than its share of ambitious, highly creative artists constantly probing the boundaries of what is permissable. Many works are imbued with a social criticism so oblique that it requires a good deal of decoding. Others use humour as a shield, or simply take a chance, knowing their work is never likely to stir trouble with a mass audience.

There’s a pronounced theatricality about The Sleeper Awakes, which begins with Peng Hung-Chih’s The Deluge-Noah’s Ark (2014), an 8 metre-long sculpture created with a 3D printer, of an ocean liner that looks like it’s been wrung out like a dish rag.

Peng Hung-Chih, ‘The Deluge – Noah’s Ark’ (2014)

The drama continues on the first floor which is devoted to a work by Sun Xun, who dominates this show in a way that no single artist has previously dominated a White Rabbit display. Ten years ago Sun Xun was virtually unknown. Today, at the age of 37, with a booming international reputation, he is considered one of China’s brightest talents,. Next month the Museum of Contemporary Art will hold a solo exhibition of his work.

Like so many of the artists Judith Neilson has included in the White Rabbit collection, Sun Xun has a relentless work ethic, a fertile imagination, and a taste for grand scale projects.

Sun Xun, from ‘The Republic of Jin Bang’ (2013)

His multi-media installation, Republic of Jing Bang, takes up the entire first floor. By way of a summary, I’ll quote from the catalogue: “Jin Bang, the Whale State, is an ephemeral nation. It appears for a few weeks or months and then, like its leviathan namesake, vanishes beneath the ocean. It is, Sun Xun says, a real country, with a constitution, a flag, a one-party government, citizenship, visas and passports, native flora and fauna. But it is also a fantastical place, whose people feed on starlight and dew and have no need for cities, commerce or industry.”

Jin Bang stands stands at the end of a long line of imaginary states created by artists and writers. Alberto Manguel and Gianni Gaudalupi have compiled a bulky dictionary of these literary fantasies, which are usually intended as veiled critiques of existing societies and political systems.

Sun Xun’s imaginary nation is not exactly identifiable as China or Russia or the United States. The installation is filled with cryptic, personal symbols such as a magician with a tall top hat, and various animals that recur in work after work. Sun Xun says that magicians are society’s only “legal liars” as it is their role to create illusions. But when his magicians become the rulers of a country does that mean all lies are legitimised? Can an entire state be founded on lies and illusions? This may be a question for Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

Sun Xun, from ‘The Republic of Jin Bang’ (2013)

Most viewers won’t dwell too long on these questions. They are more likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale and virtuosity of the work, which features a 31-metre-long scroll painting that curls around in a slow spiral – an apocalyptic vista of dragons, mountains, whales and surging waves. Ink on paper is an unforgiving medium, but Sun Xun draws with extraordinary fluency.

Sun Xun is also featured on the top floor with a nine minute 3D animation called Time Spy (2016). There is a family resemblance to some of the works of William Kentridge and Qui Anxiong, but the imagery, based on 10,000 hand-carved woodcuts, is saturated with Sun Xun trademarks.

With the other artists in The Sleeper Awakes one persistent theme is surveillance. Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes (2016) is an 80-minute film that draws on hundreds of hours of footage recorded on surveillance cameras. Too much reality ultimately turns into unreality, as if we have crossed an invisible line.

Feng Mengbo ‘Long March – Restart’ (2008)

Xu Qu makes sculptures out of old cameras, giving them new, metaphorical identities. Liu Xiadong has contributed a robot painting device producing a view of Circular Quay from a live transmission. Feng Mengbo’s Long March – Restart (2008) is a gigantic double projection of a video game, in an antiquated 8-bit format, that features a soldier from the Red Army fighting his way through a cast of monsters, robots and cartoon characters. His weapon of choice is a grenade that resembles a Coke can.

Wang Ningde, from ‘Some Days’ (2009)

After all this action, and Sun Xun’s avalanche of imagery, one turns with a certain relief to Wang Ningde’s photo series, Some Days. It features figures dressed in the familiar Mao suits of days-gone-by. They turn their backs to us, or keep their eyes closed, as if trying to block out reality. When they open up perhaps they’ll find it was all a dream. One thinks of those famous lines from James Joyce: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

The Sleeper Awakes
White Rabbit Gallery, 9 March – 28 July, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June, 2018