An investment in cultural capital

Art Life , Op-ed Jun 11, 2010 2 Comments

Carrie Miller visits White Rabbit gallery and discovers that clean surfaces makes her twitchy…

According to Oscar Wilde “it’s only superficial people that think surfaces don’t matter”. This exceptionally deep thought could be a slogan for Judith Neilson’s White Rabbit gallery in Sydney’s Chippendale.

The very thing that will probably frustrate some in the contemporary art world about this place is also its consolation: its obsession with surfaces. From the appropriately renovated space, to the particular shade of lipstick favoured by the pretty, knowledgeable floor staff who are not too pushy, not too indifferent to a visitor’s needs, to the simple tea house with its delicate assortment of sweet and savoury snacks.

It’s a calm yet colourful place, so I decide to take a 10 year old relative on a trip to this shrine to what a taste for taste and money can achieve. I assure him it will appeal to both his fascination with art as well as with how things are made.

I was wrong.

He has to be half-dragged, kicking and screaming, through four levels of contemporary Chinese art – just a sample of Nielson’s extensive collection which is concentrated on work made post-2000. Apparently kids get given lollipops and free wind-up toys unprompted here – probably the polite ones.

Wandering the space as calmly as I can with a belligerent child in toe, I wonder what I’d do if I had a truckload of money and an investment in cultural capital. It may not be this, but I’m glad someone in Sydney has made such a commitment – art as a form of free entertainment is a good thing.

My young relation yelling that he wants to go home is distracting but I try to concentrate on what the staff member is helpfully telling me about the portable karaoke machine hitched to the back of a bicycle; the ones that travel through townships in rural China, impressing out-of-touch peasants with entertainment technology from the future.

I stare at the cut-out magazine images pasted to the interior of the wagon that houses the singing device; the collage reminds me of the decorated folders that girls who read Dolly had when I went to school.

I didn’t like the way they continued to infantilise themselves as adults with stuffed toys on their beds and their ongoing obsession with celebrities.

A lot of Chinese popular culture has this same quality and I’m not keen on its fondness for cute culture either. What is problematic about some of the art at White Rabbit is its tendency to uncritically reflect this quality. Moreover, it’s the very work that attempts to comment on the consumer culture that has allowed it to snap, crackle and pop on the global art market that’s particularly facile.

The photographs are often the worst culprits. The series depicting mass weddings in shopping centres would be more interesting if you stumbled upon them in a Google image search.

Perhaps the reason Nielson’s collection is concentrated on works executed over the past decade is because that’s the period that represents a conceptual shift from earlier work preoccupied with Mao and the cultural revolution, to a focus on issues that are considered universal. But, from the perspective of someone schooled in Western art history and theory, it’s even easier to spot a lack of criticality about common subject matter, particularly that trading in the politics of mass culture – something thoroughly mined in the West for at least the last 50 years.

The question of why this is so is an interesting one. Is it merely a function of the difficulty of making art with a critical relationship to its subject matter inside the constraints of a repressive regime? Or is it more a reflection on the fact that the idea of contemporary art as we understand it is in its conceptual infancy in China and so the work being produced is less likely to take a critical relationship to itself as art? Or is it, as some have argued, the quality of the collection itself?

I don’t feel qualified to answer. Regardless, it’s hard not to admire such a well-executed display of an individual’s collection and their desire to share it so comprehensively. I bet it’s a great place to take well-behaved kids.

Carrie Miller


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  2. NBL All Star

    It’s good to know when you’re wrong Ms. Miller.

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