China has been a global wonder since ancient times. Though its influences in culture and other aspects are widespread, the land remains discreet and autonomous, seemingly detached from the world’s curious eyes. For people who are not living in The Mainland, gaining an insight of the current issues and social scenes could be challenging, and without the proper resources and networking, sorting out art pieces would be like digging for a needle among stacks of hay. Luckily for Sydneysiders, art collector and philanthropist Judith Neilsen together with her former husband Kerr Neilsen established The White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale, which up to date serves to share the pair’s private collections of contemporary Chinese art for public viewings, regularly changed twice a year.
Gallantly titled Heavy Artillery, every piece in this exhibition is expected to be colossal in terms of effort, proficiency, resources, and size. It featured a total of 24 artworks from 20 artists, all were born no longer than 1970, yet each bringing their own strikingly different mediums and ideologies. Many of the works took years to make, one of them being the only work the artist had produced in his lifetime; at least two were made in tribute to personal, irreversible loss or change; and the rest serve to showcase impressive techniques, generous use of resources, and meticulous dedication to details.
Upon entering the space, visitors would be greeted with European Thousand Armed Classical Structure by Shanghai-born artist Xu Zhen as the only piece displayed on the ground floor.
Xu Zhen. European Thousand-Armed Classical Sculpture. 2013-2014. Glass-fibre-reinforced concrete, marble grains, marble, metal. The White Rabbit Gallery. 200 x 250 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.
Eight titanic figures of the Western civilizations, among them Christ, the Statue of Liberty, and icons of classical Greece and Rome were duplicated in mirroring image of each other, stripped of their attributes, and arranged in line behind the classical Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena. The front view of this installation would present her in the thousand-armed figurine mainly reserved to the Chinese goddess of benevolence, Guan Yin.
Ascending to the First Floor, Chou Chu-Wang’s meticulous paintings, The Hours and Four Bliss Stones only show a glimpse of his rural upbringing, which required a great deal of patience in daily basis and, according to him, had eventually taught him to appreciate beauty within humble objects found in his countryside hometown. Painting in details as precise as hundreds of thousands of dots per square meter, the practice has also meant to him as a meditative implementation of the Buddhist teaching called vipassana.
Chou Chu-Wang. The Hours (reverse, cropped). 2015. Oil on canvas. 155 x 112 cm. Four Bliss Stones (one of four). 2014. Oil on canvas. 4 pieces. 41 x 27 cm.Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.
Facing the paintings was an installation made of what used to be two English-Chinese dictionaries. Titled A Ribbon of Dictionary, the artist Wang Lei removed their contents one by one, each page carefully divided into thin strands, which were processed to form a long yarn made of papers, then knitted to a large roll, interweaving two of the most powerful languages into a single object.
Wang Lei. A Ribbon of Dictionary. 2012. paper, covers of two dictionary volumes. 26 x 2000 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.
Originally a tribute to his deceased wife Lan – whose name means Orchid, Jiang Zhi had been setting flowers ablaze and captured them in pictures, at the precise moment when both the flower and flame were in their full “bloom”. Though it is certain that these flowers would turn to ash soon after they were photographed, the state in which they were immortalized in still imageries may suggest alternate outcomes, such as the flowers rising from flame, both aspects coexisting in an otherworldly union.
Jiang Zhi. Love Letters. 2014. Archival inkjet prints. 14 pcs each 106 x 80 cm, 1 pc 70 x 138 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.
A large, rectangular room occupied the center of Second Level, and entering it had brought us to an entirely foreign space. Library, a collective work by Polit-Sheer-Form-Office, is an installation which took form as 10,000 identical blank books, neatly arranged in identical shelves in a room – where everything had the color of an identical hue of blue. If its creators intentionally put their work up for interpretations, they succeeded. Different speculations have arisen, including that the color is a metaphor to civilizations outside China and across the oceans, and that a library, being a space to seek new knowledge, correlates to this concept, nevertheless the pages remain blank everywhere; another attempted to incorporate the exhibition’s very title, “Heavy Artillery”, which recognizes the books as modern weapons, as associated with the phrase “Knowledge is Power”.
Polit-Sheer-Form-Office (Hong Hao, Xiao Yu, Song Dong, Liu Jianhua, Leng Lin). Library. 2008. shelves, books. 447 x 732 x 300 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.
The monumental star of the show was displayed in a specifically designed space on the Third Level. It is indeed fitting for an exhibition titled “Heavy Artillery” to be completed with a tank, thus a life-sized one was featured. Tank Project was designed and directed by He Xiangyu, whom remanufactured the object completely using fine Italian leather. Noting that the tanks sent against the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were modeled after a Soviet product, the choice of material could possibly link to Chinese current obsession in copying modern European products, especially leather bags.
He Xiangyu. Tank Project. 2011. Leather. 150 x 890 x 600 cm. Image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.
The room in which Tank Project was placed featured a black, glossy floor made of vinyl, upon the artist’s request to illustrate spilled oil. The walls were painted and textured such as rusted iron, possibly to resemble a very old military warehouse. The flaccid disposition of the tank rendered it in useless state, which raised assumption which suggests a metaphor towards China’s current military power.
Interviewing several visitors, it is safe to conclude that the exhibition had been enjoyable both for general public viewers as well as to people who had more experience in the field. Those who had never or not seen many art exhibitions, or delved into the scene before, still found the pieces appreciable and often thought-provoking. Yet on the other hand, people who had more extensive knowledge or interest in art scenes, histories, and culture could still find it exciting as the pieces still conceive subtler hints which did not immediately come to the senses. Guided tours which commence twice a day would introduce, describe, and explain notable pieces to the group according to their “preferred” interpretations which attempted to be politically and culturally neutral; However, audiences of more intimate background with the subject – e.g. Chinese citizens – might relate to the artworks differently; at the same time, a different reaction might as well occur to third person viewer who had never lived in China.