Monday, September 16, 2013

Serving the People

My friend Barbara and I have been to visit the White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale. Australia doesn't have a great tradition of private support for the arts. I imagine this results from a combination of our history as a social welfare society where we have looked to public sources of support for education and the arts, and the relatively recent growth in the number of Very Rich People with the taste and wherewithal to support the arts. The White Rabbit Gallery is one of the few examples of exceedingly generous private support for art and its public promotion.

The Gallery and its collection of contemporary Chinese art since 2000 is the achievement of Judith Nielson. She began collecting in the early 2000s and now has such an extensive collection that the large spaces of the beautiful Gallery are rehung twice a year to display the diversity, richness and contemporaneity of the collection. The current exhibition has been curated by Edmund Capon, who for many years was Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and is renowned for his knowledge of Asian art. He's titled it 'Serve the People' in an ironic acknowledgment of art of the Cultural Revolution period when all art necessarily supported the state, and the transformation of artistic expression since the 1980s. Absolute freedom of expression is still not possible in China, but artists are now able to subvert and explore their history and social values in ways that were unthinkable in the recent past.

Barbara and I are both textile tragics, so it's no wonder we are often attracted to the same works. This was our favourite:

Wang Lei 1
Wang Lei 4

Wang Lei has recreated the robes traditionally associated with Chinese Emperors - not from silk and rich embroidery but from pages of a Chinese-English dictionary that are cut into narrow strips, dampened, spun, and then knitted up into the finely detailed robes. He says of his work that it reminds us that the excesses of imperial political power have long since come to an end (and perhaps implies that the present centralised regime will share the same fate). He also says that by knitting together Chinese and English he reflects an emerging contest of a different kind - between China and the West. Maybe such 'meanings' enrich the work for the viewers, but I think this is one of the works in the exhibition that is beautiful in itself. For me, it doesn't need a 'meaning'.

Wang Lei 3

I revisited Sun Furong's 'Tomb Figures' - 100 Mao suits she's attacked with scissors so they're tattered and 'nibbled up' - to use her words.

Sun Furong

I remembered I'd already blogged about these suits after a previous visit to this gallery in 2009. One of the things I'm increasingly realising about blogging is that it doesn't always have to be about discovering new things - sometimes it can just be about the continuities in your life. But to return to this evocative work... since I saw this work in 2009 new technologies have enriched the ways the viewer can interact with the works. Nowadays the White Rabbit Gallery, like almost all the galleries I visited in the Netherlands earlier this year, allows photography as long as you don't use a flash. I like having these visual reminders of my visit. More recently, I've discovered the usefulness of the QRReader. For this exhibition the QRReader gives access to most thoughtful commentaries on the works. So I've discovered that Sun Furong worked as a seamstress during the long, hard struggle she had to survive as an artist. Eventually she used clothing and scissors to to express her lifelong 'sense of bleakness and desolation'.
Stabbing [the Mao suits] Sun Furong said she felt as if she was attacking herself; later 'it was as if I were cutting someone else'. Finally, she says, she became calm, 'quite pleased and cheerful', her forty years of tribulations, and those of her country, exorcised at last.

Sun Furong 2

There are paintings, installations, video art, photography, tiny and massive works. The Gallery is a great insight to modern Chinese art, but it's also entertaining and thought-provoking. And it's free - part of Judith Nielson's generous philosophy about making the works accessible to all. There's a teahouse with a selection of Chinese teas served in pretty pots and tiny cups and snacks and Chinese dumplings for lunch. All in all, several hours of pleasure.

White Rabbit teahouse

By the way, the White Rabbit Gallery has one of the best websites I've encountered. It both informs and entertains and captures the mix of seriousness of purpose and whimsy that characterises the Gallery.


Brendaknits said...

Those pieces of fibre art are stunning, Lyn. Thanks for the tour. Interesting comments about the dependency on government money.

DrK said...

What a fantastic space, and those robes are fantastic. I really like textile art too especially when it said something important like these works. Thanks for the tip!