Have you ever had flowering tea? Appearing at first like a tightly bound ball of chaff, it bursts open when steeped to reveal a beautiful floral bloom. Served in glass teapots so that you can appreciate the beauty unfolding, it really is one of life’s simple pleasures. I first tried one at White Rabbit Gallery’s tearoom, and it occurred to me at that time that it was the perfect analogy for the gallery itself. Not particularly exciting from the outside, but with an interior that gets more beautiful the further in to its layers you delve.
White Rabbit Gallery is one of the true cultural gems of Sydney, a gift of benefaction to the city from founder Judith Neilson, who opened the doors on her considerable collection of Chinese art in 2009. But the gallery is something of a gift to China as well.
It is easy to forget that China is a country capable of immense beauty. Red Guards and Communist manifestos, unfathomable population size and the ‘One Child’ policy, the world’s largest economy built on mass production and exploitation…it’s a disturbing history which makes it hard to appreciate the culture beyond the dodgy humanitarian record. The other China, the one of Confucian philosophy, music, language, martial arts, architecture, cuisine and visual arts is virtually drowned in the wake of its controversies. Yet China’s artisans have never lost sight of the long history that precedes them. They’ve outlasted both the Cultural Revolution’s destructive forces and the modern government’s form of repression by denial. Chinese art, the world’s oldest continuous tradition, has been reinvigorated by the country’s emerging artists being quick to adopt innovative and exciting new approaches to art practice. White Rabbit Gallery’s role in conveying this remarkable tenacity of spirit cannot be underestimated.
PARADI$E BITCH, the gallery’s latest exhibition, is heavily focused on the new and innovative. Neon, lasers, multimedia and kinetic art are all represented in a way that leaves your senses buzzing. Gangsta dwarves covered in bling compete for your attention with vintage porn movies and fully recreated niteclub scenes. Overstimulation is at the heart of this show, with the superficiality of 21st century life and where it’s leading us the primary focus.
As a result, the works in PARADI$E BITCH are more clinical and hardnosed than previous White Rabbit Gallery shows, with few moments for calm reflection – a bit like having a conversation with a hyperactive preteen. The messages are chaotic and urgently delivered, making notable exceptions like Zhang Dali’s melancholy tribute to the Tiananmen Square massacre all the more arresting.
In fact, that for me is the genius of this show’s curation – regardless of how much I enjoyed the laser beams and installations, it was the works ground in more traditional art forms that really moved me, and I was left pondering how much we lose in a world moving ever further away from tactile, unmediated experiences. This paradise we’re living in really is proving a bit of a bitch.
Back in the tearoom, where the focus is on the 3000 year old tradition of brewing cured leaves, I am free to contemplate China’s new position at the forefront of contemporary art. Much of the contemporary work emerging from China covers themes and ideas the art world has seen before, repeated across all genres, and some of it can seem a little reductive. But it is saved by a palpable sense of mischievous delight from the artists at finally being able to express themselves, experiment with external influences on their art practice and push the boundaries of authoritarian intervention. I wonder if part of the global appeal of contemporary Chinese art is in the voyeuristic element of watching a country’s people find their individual voices, and in seeing how much of what they have to say confirms or rejects our preconceptions.
White Rabbit Gallery provides an encouraging and inclusive space for both visitors and artists to reconsider that old cliché of East vs West, and remind us that China never lost its soul, the rest of the world just stopped searching a little deeper to find it.
PARADI$E BITCH until early February 2016
Images used with permission of White Rabbit Gallery