From Luise Guest…
The unveiling of a new exhibition at the White Rabbit Gallery is always an eagerly anticipated event. After the sombre mood of ‘Serve the People’, curated last year by Edmund Capon, and this year’s thought-provoking ‘Reformation’ the new show provides quite a different experience. Curator Bonnie Hudson has selected works which create a complex narrative about collectivism versus individualism; about the joys and sorrows of family; and about the ways in which the past pervades the present.
In the Imperial past, the Confucian ideal of filial piety placed family at the centre of Chinese life. Duty to family was far more important than the desires or freedoms of an individual. Under Mao, collectivism defined each person as a member of their group, whether that was a rural communal farm or an industrial “danwei” or work unit. From the cradle to the grave, the well-being of the group took precedence – people were told who to marry, what university course they were permitted to study and where they could work. Today, very few of those strictures remain. Even the much-hated “hukou” – the household registration system which dictates where people can live and work – is being dismantled, and so is the one-child policy.
Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010, ceramic, dimensions variable, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
Despite the greater freedom today it can sometimes appear as if the idealism of the revolutionary past has been replaced by a cynical belief in the inevitability of corruption; collectivism by a competitive culture of crass materialism. Young people have no experience of the hardships suffered by their parents and grandparents, and as a consequence there is more than the usual tension between generations. COMMUNE features twenty-three artists, from significant international figures now aged in their fifties, such as Ai Weiwei and Hu Jieming, to younger practitioners such as Gao Rong and Wang Cheng. Together, in clever curatorial juxtapositions, they explore some of the tensions and contradictions of contemporary China. Beyond that, though, the exhibition weaves a narrative about family, belonging, and connectedness. There is a bitter-sweet character to this show that I found immensely moving.
Bai Yiluo, Spring and Autumn 1, 2007, wood, metal, farm-tools, 400 x 350 x 350 cm, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
One of the first works you encounter when you enter the galleryis Bai Yiluo’s ‘Spring and Autumn’, a life-size tree in which the branches and leaves are made of old farm implements. Rakes, pitchforks and shovels are transformed into apparently living things, casting beautiful shifting shadows on the white walls. In contrast to the revolutionary past, in today’s get-rich-quick China there is little respect for rural labour; to be a peasant from the countryside is to be despised by the inhabitants of the big “first tier” cities. ‘Spring and Autumn’ suggests there is a quiet heroism in the backbreaking labour of farming, in lives dictated by the changing seasons and the pace and rhythms of the natural world. Bai Yiluo was Ai Weiwei’s studio assistant and we see a similar approach to the poetic use of the found object in this work. Like Ai’s iconoclastic transformations of Han Dynasty urns and Qing Dynasty furniture, Bai’s sculpture invites us to consider what we value, and why.
A new work in Judith Neilson’s collection was constructed by the young artist in the gallery, working against the clock to be ready for the opening of the exhibition. Wang Cheng used ten tonnes of old bricks dating from the Ming Dynasty, originally part of the Great Wall of China, to construct ‘Great Wall Plan’. Over time, especially during the ‘Smash the Four Olds’ campaign during the Cultural Revolution, these bricks had found their way into the homes, barns and animal pens of impoverished villagers. Wang found them, bought them from the farmers, and had them trucked to Beijing for his installation in the Central Academy of Fine Arts graduation exhibition, where his work caught Neilson’s eye. The artist says he was thinking of the decay of China’s past greatness, but the surprisingly surreal effect of seeing his reconstructed roadside shrine, communal oven and pigsty in the gallery space is to emphasise the continuity of history, and provide a sense of the interwoven lives of ordinary people. Wang says they represent “community, animals and God.”
This notion of connected communal fates is also seen in Ai Weiwei’s pile of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds. Seen here in more modest numbers than Tate Modern’s overwhelming 100 million, they are perhaps closer to the artist’s original intention of re-creating a humble snack from very lean times, a reflection on the ways in which people would share their meagre pleasures. In Ai’s sunflower seeds, Zhang Lidan’s ‘Old Lady Gao Comes Home’ and Lin Zhi’s ‘Afraid of Water’ – a squat toilet made, absurdly, of dried mud – the lives of ordinary people in humble circumstances are represented and remembered. Old Lady Gao, long departed and almost forgotten, is brought back to life in Zhang’s work. She has re-created her aunt’s mother-in-law by animating her traditional black jacket, cotton pants and hat. The resulting stooped figure appears surprisingly life-like and moves jerkily through her village in animated still photographs, interacting with family and neighbours in a work which is at once endearingly comic and sad.
Gao Rong, The Static Eternity, 2012, cloth, wire, sponge, cotton, steel support and board, 516 x 460 x 270 cm, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
A highlight of the exhibition is Gao Rong’s ‘The Static Eternity’, a life-size textile recreation of her grandparents’ traditional home in Inner Mongolia, seen previously in the 18th Biennale of Sydney. Gao learned the intricacies of Shaanxi embroidery from her mother and grandmother, and it has become her visual language. “I am a sculptor who uses embroidery, not an embroiderer,” she told me. In this, her most ambitious work to date, she creates a heartfelt memorial to a happy childhood and her beloved family. In an astonishing feat of trompe-l’oeil, everything in the work is embroidered fabric, stretched over a steel and foam armature. Ancestor portraits; enamel thermos flask and mugs; stove and furniture; even the rust stains on the apparently metal pipes: all have been stitched with painstaking exactitude by Gao, her mother, and a handful of assistants. Even the title of the work suggests Gao’s determination that despite the vicissitudes of time and change the bonds of family are forever indissoluble.
Walking through ‘The Static Eternity’ you discover the paintings of Huang Hua-Chen in her installation ‘Family Album: So See You Later.’ This is a meditation on family with a darker narrative at its heart. At the centre, in a black frame as if in memory of a dead ancestor, is the artist’s father. He abandoned his family when Huang was a child, and her work represents a grasping after an impossible, idealised parent and unbroken familial bonds. His features are indistinct, an acknowledgement that he could pass by the artist on the street, unrecognised, essentially a complete stranger. Around his portrait are arranged paintings which appear like blurred snapshots from an anonymous family album. These people could be anybody’s family. “We encounter each other and then we separate,” says the artist, acknowledging the fragmentary and fluxing nature of human connectedness.
Huang Hua-Chen, Family Album: So See You Later, 2010, oil on canvas x 43, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
Chen Mingqiang’s ‘A Pictorial Study of Marriage Certificates in the New China’ is displayed on the wall and in a vitrine, inviting audiences to pore over gorgeously illustrated relics of the past.Through 440 marriage certificates collected from flea markets, dating from 1949 to the present, Chen explores changes in the ways in which the Chinese state defined and represented love. These certificates – and they are beautiful – became a pictorial medium which also functioned as revolutionary propaganda. In the early 1950s a pair of peonies might be the visual code representing the betrothed couple, whilst during the Cultural Revolution images of Mao Zedong and happy workers and peasants dominated, in an unmistakeable statement of duty to country and collective nation-building. During China’s reform and opening period, after the death of Mao, marriage certificates became less decorative, a purely functional bureaucratic document. And now? “Marriage is a contract,” said the artist in an interview with the New York Times.
Hu Jieming, The Remnant of Images, 2013, cabinets, LED screens, photographs, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
On the top floor of the gallery, new media pioneer Hu Jieming’s ‘Remnant of Images’ fills the gallery space with the sound of filing cabinet drawers and doors sliding open and closed again, symbolising the selective and transient nature of memory. Institutional metal cabinets are filled with flickering animated photographs from China’s past and present. Hu Jieming uses new technologies and media to reveal how we are all now inter-connected in a digital world. “It’s like a socialism of the future,” he told me when we met in his Shanghai studio. His work often reflects China’s past and its uncomfortable and dramatic trajectory into an entirely new society. By combining his own photographs of friends and family with iconic Mao-era imagery, and adding random photographs found on the internet, Hu evokes the presence of history in the now, the interrelatedness of past and present.
What unites the diverse artists represented in this exhibition is an awareness that the past is not “another country” – although it often seems that way – in fact, it shapes our current reality and the ways in which we connect and re-connect with others. Whether you choose to interpret the title of the exhibition as a noun or a verb; as a reminder of the socialist past or as an exhortation, COMMUNE is profoundly moving. Don’t miss it!
COMMUNE opened at the White Rabbit Gallery on August 27 and continues until February 1, 2015