The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

北京日记: Beijing nights, Beijing days

Beijing, such a grey, grey city by day becomes a fairyland at night. Red lanterns swing in the breeze at every tiny restaurant - a cab ride across the city is a blur of neon and red. Last night I walked home by a circuitous route down unfamiliar back lanes and through hutongs and found a different world behind the big roads with their clogged traffic. Hundreds of people sat at makeshift tables on small chairs and stools, eating in happy, noisy "renao" family groups - pavement hot pot, pavement barbeque, food of every description being cooked and consumed outdoors in the warm evening air. Inside the steamy windows of small local restaurants were more big groups. Children chased each other up and down the street between the tables, one of them calling, "Watch out for the 'waiguoren' (foreigner)" - me! From the moment I left my apartment and encountered the busy mobile bicycle repair man and felt the breeze, walking behind laughing, chattering girls arm-in-arm as they left the subway, I was in a good mood.

And tonight again, waiting for my cappuccino in a Costa Coffee before meeting an artist friend for a walk in Ditan Park, I stood next to a Buddhist Monk from the Lama Temple who was perusing French mineral water at 50 kuai per bottle, and watching an old man with a waist-length grey ponytail carry his birds in their bamboo cages for a stroll along the busy road. A cyclist cut across his path, another elderly man with a small poodle in the basket of his bike, the ends of its ears dyed bright green. Beijing, where cognitive dissonance is everywhere. You've got to love this city! After dinner in a vegetarian restaurant near the Confucius Temple we walk to visit another artist, and music emanates from every quarter - the shops selling Buddhist paraphernalia, a group of women dancing in unison to a disco track on the footpath outside KFC and then a much bigger group of women dancing in the pitch dark of Ditan Park. In my taxi back to Tuanjiehu, stopped at lights next to a small park in the centre of the city, I hear a clashing of cymbals and drums, and massed voices singing revolutionary songs from the past - in complete darkness, with barely even a streetlight.

In fact, I could have been singing James Brown to myself - "I feel GOOD!" Or perhaps more appropriately, Pharrell Williams' "Happy". If I stay here any longer I might actually catch the habit of many Beijingers of singing in public, Imagine the horror of my daughters - and my students! I have emerged from a few days of feeling sick with flu and constant coughing, not helped at all by the legendary Beijing air pollution, feeling anxious about why on earth I am here at the other side of the earth, away from my family and engaged on this quixotic enterprise of writing a book about people whose language I don't speak, indulging in self-doubt.

But I have had a (small) breakthrough - a tipping point if you like - with the language. After the usual first few days of feeling as if my tongue had been cut out, I have been navigating the city in Chinese, and felt very smug yesterday after two days of negotiating with a non-English speaking driver, arranging times and places for pick up and drop off, prices, and general conversation about weather, traffic, artists being famous or not, and what he sees as the hopeless inadequacy of Australian medecine to cure my cold and cough. It has of course helped that he is an immensely patient young man, who simply keeps repeating everything over and over again until he thinks I have probably understood most of it. We have had a few comic set pieces where I constantly misunderstood "houtian" (the day after tomorrow) as "the day before yesterday" which did not help the fine-tuning of my complex arrangements. He was no doubt relieved that today I had a young translator with me so he could impress upon her the necessity for me to get myself to a Chinese doctor to get the right herbs for my cough. I imagine that to him I am a venerable grandma and he wonders what on earth I am doing gallivanting around Beijing on my own.

The other factor causing my more optimistic view of the world and my place within it is the three interviews I have completed in the last three days. Bingyi, with her complete radicalisation of ink painting conventions, and her refreshing and somewhat weird take on the world, is always a delight. She thinks the notion of gender is utterly insignificant, as we are all nothing but specks in the universe. However, she did tell me that feminism makes her a little bored, as she likes to have men around "for my amusement."
Bingyi, "The Shape of the Wind: Fuchun Mountains" image courtesy the artist

Bingyi writing calligraphy, photo Luise Guest, reproduced with permission of the artist
Yesterday I had a second conversation with the young and very successful painter, Han Yajuan, who told me that after our first meeting last October she has been reconsidering the notion of gender in her work, especially as it has played out for her generation, born in the 80s and coming to adulthood in the 90s, heirs to a completely transformed China. She thinks they had no education about gender, raised at the end of the Maoist period, and hence have struggled to form an identity and to find values. A searching, confused generation. Her new work returns to memories of childhood, creating allegories on circular and oval canvases which are both nostalgic and disturbing.
Han Yajuan in her studio, Photo Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
Han Yajuan, Cashmere Mafia, Image courtesy the artist
From Han Yajuan's studio on the 21st floor of an apartment building in Wangjing, looking over freeways, overpasses and more concrete towers, we drove to 798 and a studio at the back of this complex of galleries, shops and studios - once an East-German designed factory "work unit" where people lived, worked, went to school, gave birth, and spent their entire productive lives - now more often given over to fashion shows, wedding shoots, TV commercials and wandering tourists than to the business of serious art. Here the wonderful painter Yu Hong has her studio.

She found time for me amidst the apparent chaos of a fashion shoot for Tiffany, who have asked her to paint the tennis star Li Na and the most famous movie stars in China. I asked her if she saw any tension or conflict with her serious practice as one of China's best known figurative painters, and she seemed a little bemused. This willingness to challenge the conventional boundaries between fine art and design (or, the more cynical might say, between art and branding)  links her with other, younger artists such as Han Yajuan and Bu Hua, both of whom are interested in "derivatives" - product designs based on their works.  No different to Tracey Emin or Yayoi Kusama working with Louis Vuitton I guess. Interesting times, where boundaries are blurred. In fact Han Yajuan tells me that she thinks this is actually a Buddhist concept as it challenges the authority of the art masterpiece.
Yu Hong with her work in the studio, photo Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
I have long admired Yu Hong's work - and that of her husband, the great Liu Xiaodong - and the way in which she is able to meld Western and Eastern influences so seamlessly. The gold backgrounds in her paintings refer explicitly to Song Dynasty masterpieces but also to the canon of western Renaissance imagery and to notions of the sacred and sublime. Yu Hong tells me that, growing up during a period of great privation and austerity, she was lucky to have access to books with art images and to the Soviet tradition of painting, as her mother was a successful painter and professor. She felt she was on a pre-destined path to become an artist.

Today I went to see work in the Today Art Museum - some good, some not so very. And then to Vitamin Creative Space to watch Cao Fei's latest work, completed last year and collected by the Pompidou Centre, a 45 minute epic narrative video work called "Haze and Fog". It should be no surprise that this artist, with her love of popular culture, has been drawn to horror, and this, of all things, a zombie movie set in north east Beijing, with a large cast of characters including housewives, real estate agents, cleaners, security guards, a prostitute, a peacock and a tiger - and zombies! Ava Gardner once said that Melbourne was a great place to make a movie about the end of the world. Much as I love Beijing, there are days in the apocalyptic dust and smog haze when I think the same applies, But not tonight. Tonight I am "Happy in Beijing"

Sunday, April 20, 2014

北京日记: Nothing and Everything - Three Days in Beijing

Here is a list of all the things that I could have bought from carts, trucks, three-wheeled bicycles or directly from the pavement as I walked home today:

  • underpants with slogans in gold lame embroidered on the bum
  • pineapples carved into beautiful sculptured shapes - in one instance by a very small boy wielding a very sharp knife
  • socks
  • balloons
  • strange white cakes from a woman who only seems to have a small boxful each day - is it her hobby? How on earth can she make a living?
  • American tights and "spanx" shapewear laid out straight onto the dust, spit (and worse) of the road
  • Sausages and pancakes cooked on a griddle on a three-wheeled cart
  • jewellery and textiles - supposedly Tibetan, but quite possibly from a factory in the Pearl River Delta
  • interesting notebooks from a man who sells them from the back of a cart
  • mysteriously, a small selection of frilly pink and white hats, again laid on the filthy ground

Needless to say, many of these people vanish quickly into the shadows when the police appear. You can walk down a road filled with these vendors, go and buy a coffee and when you emerge they are all gone. Later at night, you see carts with all their pineapples covered with a blanket, under the overpass of the Third Ring Road, just waiting.

And here are some of my questions about daily life in this city:
  • Why is it that everything sort of works but nothing quite works? Every tap in China is apparently not quite connected to its sink so they are always wobbly and appear about to break entirely. Beijing plumbing is not designed to take toilet paper so you cannot actually flush it down the toilet without risking something truly appalling in the way of a sewer catastrophe. Electric lights are flaky. The heating in Beijing goes on on a certain date each year and off on another, never mind the weather. I am walking around my apartment wearing multiple sweaters and several pairs of socks. 
  • The light in my pitch dark apartment block hallway goes on automatically only after I have finally - by a Braille method of feeling my way along the wall, then feeling all around the door, and eventually finding the lock - somehow blindly managed to insert the key. At that moment, hey presto, the light goes on. WHY?
Whether one is charmed or annoyed by these things depends on what kind of day you are having. And today I was noticing the beauty of the willow trees and the blossoms, and less aware of the dust, noise, polluted air, spitting and smoking that surrounds me every time I venture out.

Beijing continues to delight, intrigue, amuse and infuriate in equal measures. Today, in the end, delight won out as I came home from interviewing the absolutely extroardinary artist Bingyi, in her studio in a converted Yuan Dynasty temple, in the hutongs right near the Drum and Bell Towers. Two hours hearing about Bingyi's ambitious projects - for example the 160 metre long ink painting to be exhibited in Essen, Germany and then (maybe) buried in a mineshaft - quite restored my equilibrium after a few days of being a bit defeated by big bad Beijing. Bingyi's work is part 'shui mo' scholarly ink painting, part performance art, part land art and part installation. She has been described as a postmodern literati painter, a description she quite likes. She paints, writes calligraphy, writes poems and libretti for opera, composes music, designs and makes incredible costumes and plans ambitious projects and exhibitions which take place across the world. Do you ever sleep? I ask her. "Not much," she says, "I am always working!" An artist with a global practice, yet absolutely grounded in Chinese history and tradition - her Yale PhD thesis, after all, immersed her in a study of the Han Dynasty for seven years - she has reinvented ink painting for a new age.
Bingyi writes calligraphy in her studio, photograph Luise Guest

Bingyi, ink on Chinese paper, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
Bingyi, Cascade, installation and performance, image courtesy the artist
Yesterday I was thrilled to meet a true legend of the Beijing artworld, Meg Maggio of Pekin Fine Arts, who deftly skewered many of the preconceptions that I and other westerners may have about Chinese art, the artworld and the market. I enjoyed her direct and down-to-earth attitude and the opportunity to hear at first hand some of her stories - and I like to question my own assumptions, testing for traces of chinoiserie and romanticism that we are all a little prone to. The exhibition currently showing, of work by Xie Qi in her first solo show with the gallery, is wonderful, and I will be looking forward to meeting and interviewing this artist. From Pekin Fine Arts at Caochangdi, in its beautiful Ai Weiwei designed courtyard, I spent an hour travelling across the city in apocalyptic traffic jams to Redgate Gallery in the Ming Dynasty watchtower and an exhibition by painter Zhang Yajie. I particularly loved his tough, expressive paintings of electric sockets, sinks and taps, perhaps partly due to my own Beijing plumbing adventures.

Zhang Yajie at Redgate Gallery, images courtesy the artist and Redgate Gallery
The previous day I had been absolutely bowled over by two exhibitions in 798. The first, Xu Zhen (Madein Company) at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art - well, at the moment I have no words. I shall have to think of some, given that I plan to write about the show, but I am still absorbing it as spectacle. 
The Goddess of Mercy at the entry to Xu Zhen's Art Supermarket, filled with bags and packs of - nothing
The entrance to the Xu Zhen exhbition at Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art Beijing
Inside the "ShanghArt Art Supermarket at Ullens

The second, entirely different, Xiao Yu's "Earth" at Pace Beijing. Literally that. A vast space filled with earth, the smell of rich loam and the earthiness of the farmyard. During the installation it had been ploughed by farmers with cattle, but only the earth remains. Nothing and everything. And all I can think, at the end of three days such as these is, "How incredibly lucky am I, to be here, in this place, at this particular moment in history."

Xiao Yu, "Earth" at Pace Beijing

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spring in the 'Jing

Classic Beijing wiring
How to describe Beijing in Spring? I have just walked home to the apartment where I am staying in Tuanjiehu in the late evening light, pondering just why it is that I love this city. It's filthy - and I mean really filthy. It's pretty ugly, let's be honest. The razing of the old courtyards and lanes has resulted in a city of enormous 8-lane highways lined by pink apartment blocks and the occasional "statement" building, which is often either unfinished or in a state of collapse. Everything is covered with dust. The air is foul, with many days of particulate pollution beyond actual measuring. People can be pretty rude and brusque in a way with which New Yorkers would be familiar. Some westerners find this hard to take, but I tend to like Chinese directness. There is no bullshit and no beating around the bush. There certainly are many things that are disconcerting, for example the constant public hawking and spitting, the piles and piles of rubbish around the roads of the villages where the artists have their studios - and the tendency for women of a certain age to see no necessity to close public toilet doors whilst squatting. This disconcerts me every time I come here. Public toilets in China are much improved even in the few years that I have been visiting, but the traditional style ones do take some getting used to - one moment of absent-mindedness and you forget that there is step down outside the door and fall embarrassingly into the arms of a startled cleaner. Beijing traffic jams are also legendary. The words for "traffic jam" and "air pollution" are now in all Chinese language textbooks. So, what's to like?

Well, here are a few things:
A girl just sailed past me on her bicycle, dressed entirely in gold lame including her Roman sandals, her waist-length black hair flying behind her as she effortlessly threaded her way through the cacophony of honking, swearing taxi drivers, BMWs and Mercs with tinted windows, three-wheeled carts laden with enormous piles of mattresses; recycled cardboard; stacks of timber; watermelons and, in one case an entire family and a refrigerator. Bicycles of every possible shape, size and degree of decrepitude ridden by people of every age, shape (and degree of decrepitude) followed random paths across the 8 lanes of the intersection, taking no apparent notice of the kamikaze taxis and trucks. I have never seen a helmet on anyone riding a bicycle or a motor bike. Most have several passengers riding side-saddle. Pedestrians dart into the middle of all of this chaos whenever there is the most minute gap in the traffic, holding up one hand like King Canute parting the waves. And it works! I take my life in my hands and stick close to old ladies and people carrying children, hoping that the magic talisman of holding up one hand against the streams of traffic will work for me too. So far so good, but I had better not try it in Sydney!

Towards me along Gongti Beilu come hordes of walkers in the late evening light. Hipsters in weird matching skin-tight suits with digital prints and geometric haircuts; a girl wearing a Union Jack poncho with a Louis Vuitton - maybe - bag dangling with Hello Kitty accessories; and tiny old ladies and men wearing cloth shoes. The sellers of "Tibetan" jewellery are out in force. A snack cart is selling pineapples scored into beautiful swirling shapes and weird sausages on sticks. A family group sits on stools around a brazier next to the subway entrance eating chuan'r (lamb - maybe - grilled on a skewer) and squid. A young woman in head-to-toe pink throws a massive hissy fit and storms away from her sullenly resigned boyfriend, throwing invective back over her shoulder. He trudges behind, carrying her shopping bags. In the park the older women - aunties and grandmas - are dancing in unison in the fading light and the water calligraphers are intent on their beautiful transient characters. There is pink blossom on the trees, musicians playing in all the pavilions - some beautiful and skilful, some not so very - and tiny children are everywhere.
Solitary Musician in Tuanjiehu Park
Evening in the Park
Really - what's NOT to like? It's endlessly fascinating, amusing and intriguing, despite all the very real issues and concerns, and despite the fact that it's a tough, tough city to live in. An old man in a blue suit followed the girl in gold lame across the intersection and rode his bike up along the sidewalk, singing loudly to himself. All humanity is here, in all its guises. Such a cliche, I know, to talk about contrasts and juxtapositions but this is what makes Beijing fascinating - it's a place in flux, reinventing itself constantly.On the one hand, Tuanjiehu Park and its "renao" frenetic activity, and on the other hand, the new suburbs on the outskirts where I met artist Dong Yuan today. In one block I saw a mock Tudor half timbered complex of houses and apartments, a grandiose and enormous building under construction - part ancient Rome and part Las Vegas - called the Hot Springs Resort, and an apartment complex called Hawaiian Hacienda. Talk about postmodern pastiche!

And - there's the art! I have seen an exhibition of Ma Yanling at 798 - an unexpected discovery. You can find my previous article about her work on Creative Asia here:

Ma Yanling exhibition "Ethereal Conclusions"

So far I have spent time with artists Lin Jingjing, Hu Qinwu, Tony Scott, and Gao Ping and today I drove so far out of Beijing that we were actually in Hebei Province to see the extraordinary Dong Yuan. Her new work to be shown at Art Basel Hong Kong next month continues her elegiac memorialisation of her grandmother's house beside the sea near  Dalian. She told me she is too sad to return - the sea is polluted - even the groundwater in her home village is polluted and toxic and all the landscapes that she loved have gone. Her new paintings are constructed like cabinets of curiosity, with doors and drawers that open, revealing paintings within the painting. A world of secrets.

More about these artists later, but here are some links to my previous writings about their work.
Hu Qinwu in his Beijing studio, photo Luise Guest April 2014
Lin Jingjing in her studio, Photo Luise Guest April 2014
Hu Qinwu
Gao Ping
Lin Jingjing
Dong Yuan:
Dong Yuan with her work 'Grandmother's Cupboard', photo Luise Guest April 2014
The extraordinary trompe l'oeil of Dong Yuan's painting (detail)
photo Luise Guest reproduced with the permission of the artist
The work in progress on the easel in the artist's studio, reproduced with permission of Dong Yuan
Meanwhile, pink is the colour du jour: on the shoes of an extraordinarily dolled up middle-aged woman in the park, worn with electric blue tights - she was ballroom dancing with another woman wearing a saggy tracksuit - and on the handbags of numerous women seen in Sanlitun, and pretty much everywhere I look. Tomorrow, I meet Li Tingting, who does some surprising things with pink ink. Watch this space.
Snack window in Caochangdi

Sunday, April 6, 2014

China Syndrome: just what is it that makes Chinese contemporary art so different, so appealing?

Yang Yongliang, A Bowl of Taipei, Digital Image
With apologies to Richard Hamilton's iconic Pop Art image and its highly memorable title, I have been pondering this question over the course of the last (long) school term. In the last few months back in Sydney, teaching students aged 12 to 18, after an extended stay in China, I've been struck anew by what I am calling 'The China Syndrome': the way in which kids are so instantly fully engaged with, and fascinated by, contemporary Chinese art. My Year 8 students are incorporating Wang Guangyi, the Luo Brothers, Pu Jie and Feng Zhengjie into their investigation of how the Pop art of the '50s and '60s has continued to play out in the work of artists in every subsequent decade, in the process discovering what the Cultural Revolution was and (hopefully) learning just a little about the wider world beyond their immediate teenage horizons.
Luo Brothers, Welcome Famous Brand Pepsi, image courtesy Hughes Gallery
Pu Jie ,’Feeding’, 2010, oil on canvas, 200 x 250cm, image reproduced courtesy of Ausin Tung Gallery.
Year 11 loved 'Waste Not' by Song Dong and were able to connect its nostalgic memorial atmosphere to their own family's memories. And (thank goodness - what a relief!) - my Year 12 students have written some very insightful essays about the way in which Xu Bing's 'Phoenix' installation, currently installed in Manhattan's St John the Divine Cathedral, uses the materials he collected on Beijing construction sites to make a profoundly humanist statement about the way in which China's shiny new cities are built on the backs of migrant labourers who live and work in pretty appalling conditions. In the process they, too, have learned about a part of the world that most of them previously had no knowledge of. and have also discovered the way in which artists can cleverly embed layers of meaning into the very materiality of their work.

Song Dong, Waste Not, image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Carriageworks
Next up - Gao Rong's fabulous fake designer handbags, embroidered with stains and filled with surprising sculptured objects will be an interesting comparison for Year 8 with Japanese Yuken Teruya's exquisite tiny worlds created by cutting into shopping bags.
Gao Rong, Designer Bag, Image Courtesy the artist
Year 10 will find out about the painter Han Yajuan and sculptor Li Hongbo, Year 11 will discover Liu Zhuoquan and his fabulous "neihua" inside bottle painting installations, comparing his practice with that of Cai Guo-qiang and his use of gunpowder as an art material, and Year 12 are taking flight and selecting their own contemporary artists for a major research project,from a list including Liang Yuanwei, Lin Tianmiao, Li Hongbo, Gu Wenda and Cao Fei, among others.

Liu Zhuoquan, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist and China Art Projects
I have been pondering anew just why it is that my students are so enthused and engaged with this material. Partly, of course, it is because I am so passionately interested and my enthusiasm is a little bit infectious! But more importantly, I think it's that contemporary art in China - and, more broadly, the Asian region in general - is like nothing else anywhere in the world. Artists who in many cases came late to modernism, and to postmodernism as well, have been freely inventive, applying (particularly in the case of the Chinese) their extraordinary technical skills to make work on a scale of ambition that just doesn't happen in the same way elsewhere. Labour and materials are cheap, spaces are available that artists here in Australia would kill for. And, just perhaps, the necessity over many years of dealing with, shall we say, a level of political scrutiny, has made artists very adept at creating works embedded with subtle coded layers of meaning. Whatever the combination of reasons, it makes for an exciting classroom full of animated discussion and engaged students - and that's got to be a good thing.
Liu Zhuoquan, image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects
Meanwhile, I'm about to get on a plane and head back to Beijing. On my agenda: interviews with 13 artists in 13 days. Am I insane? Quite possibly, but I am incredibly excited to be meeting Cao Fei, Yu Hong, Li Shi Rui and Shen Shaomin as well as re-interviewing a number of the fabulous artists that I met on my previous three visits to this extraordinary city. So- watch this space!
Li Hongbo, 'Paper Man', image from
And meanwhile - check this out!

Friday, March 21, 2014

改良: Reformation at White Rabbit Gallery

The wonderful White Rabbit Gallery has done it again!

For an account of their new show - more than 50 new works and an eccentrically wonderful curatorial decision to create a "salon hang" of 37 paintings from the collection (a Great Wall of China!) - you can read my review at The Art Life. And I did get it in a week before the esteemed SMH critic, John McDonald. Just saying!

Michael Lin, Deng Pao, 2011, acrylic on canvas, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
Here is my review - "Chinese Dream"
If you go along to the White Rabbit Gallery expecting Chinese contemporary art to consist of Pop-inspired Mao imagery or Cultural Revolution horror, you are in for quite a surprise. The new exhibition, the gallery’s tenth, is “Reformation”, which my dictionary defines as “the act or process of improving something or someone by removing or correcting faults, or problems.” In a Chinese context there are some dark connotations here – people with inconvenient opinions may find themselves sent away to be “reformed” in deeply unpleasant ways, for example. However, what we see in many works in this show is post “reform and opening” China in all its infuriatingly contradictory complexity, its joyfully creative inventiveness, and its manic energy. Optimism and confidence; urban decay and reconstruction; business deals and the 21st century language of globalisation; sex and commerce; the role of religious belief; and the courage to speak uncomfortable truths: all these are here. But so too is an appreciation of the fragile beauty of nature, the humour and pathos of desire, and the malleability of language.
#1 MadeIn-Company-Play-201301-2013-leather-foam-rope-wire-dimensions-variable
Madein Company, Play 201301, 2013, genuine and artificial leather, BDSM accessories, foam, metal, wood 545 (L) x 300 (W) x 330cm (H) image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
Eminent Chinese artist Xu Bing, speaking about his “Phoenix” project - two monumental suspended birds made from Beijing construction site debris, currently installed in the nave of Manhattan’s St John the Divine Cathedral – said, “China is an incredibly experimental place. China’s methods, its momentum, and its vitality, all these things – no-one in the world understands. Not even the Chinese.” ( ) It is precisely this hyper-drive vitality, fast-forward momentum and restless creativity that is revealed once again at White Rabbit. More than 50 new works, together with a number of old favourites from Judith Nielson’s impressive collection, create a narrative that has much to tell us about contemporary China.
The first thing you see is a dramatic “salon hang” of 37 paintings from the collection, a visual feast hanging ceiling to (almost) floor in the atrium. Wang Luyan’s Global Watch is a giant’s timepiece bearing the flags of China, the United States, Iran, Korea and other nations in a wry comment on the inevitability of global conflict. Above this hangs a 2006 work by his wife, Qin FenglingRed, with her characteristic technique of tiny sculpted figures covering the entire surface, referencing submerging of individual desires to the collective, the overwhelming mass of the Chinese population. Lu Xinjian’s City DNA Beijing, part of a larger series representing numerous world cities, emerges from an examination of aerial views from Google Earth, revealing the sameness of the contemporary urban hub. A seemingly flat pictorial space, and a surface that appears to be an impenetrable code, or a diagrammatic representation of a flickering electrical charge, on closer examination reveals some of the distinguishing features of each singular place. In this work, the grid of Beijing, with the Forbidden City at its central meridian, merges into an incoherent jumble like every other place in the developed and developing world. Mondrian’s Modernist grid has become the language with which to expose the homogenising impact of globalisation.
#2  Shi Zhiying High Seas 2008, oil on canvas, 200 x 800 (sml)
Shi Zhiying, High Seas, 2008, oil on canvas, 200 x 800, shown here in an earlier exhibition at White Rabbit, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.
As an antidote to works exploring the stresses and strains of the contemporary world, Shi Zhiying’s glorious monochrome ocean vastness, her sea sutra, evokes the sublime, a meditation upon Buddhist notions of emptiness. Ma Yanling’s delicate portraits of Shanghai actresses of the 1930s, including Jiang Qing (Madam Mao) reveal her interest in the hidden history of women in China. Other works are more personal. Bingyi’I Watch Myself Dying, painted after the artist suffered an appalling accident resulting in serious burns and multiple surgeries, is a compelling, raw work which reveals her interest in European painters such as the Symbolist Odilon Redon as well as Chinese ink painting masters. Bingyi described her painting practice to me as “Intensely primal. It raises questions about our fundamental being – what is pain, what is suffering, what is loneliness?”
Strangely, this visual tapestry of paintings is not incoherent. Somehow it is still possible to appreciate each individual painting, just as on a Beijing street, amongst the kamikaze traffic and advertising signage one can still notice the ancient surface of the hutong doorway, or the birdcage hanging on the power-lines. It’s a clever way to incorporate old favourites from the collection in an exhibition that presents so much that is completely new.
#3 Shy-Ruey-Shiann-Eight-Drunken-Immortals-2012-metal-wheels-electronics
Shyu Ruey-Shiann (Taiwan) Eight Drunken Immortals, 2012, metal, wheels, wires, ink, motors, transformers, sensors 480 (L) x 240 (W) x 250cm (H) image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
On the first floor there is great humour in Shyu Ruey-Shiann’s Eight Drunken Immortals, a set of small, busy robots zooming about erratically on shopping trolley wheels, inspired by the apparently intoxicated moves of certain martial arts disciplines, and the Taoist story of the immortals who defeated their enemies in unarmed combat whilst staggering about as if drunk. As they move around the floor they “draw” with ink on sheets of paper, in an entertaining parody of the art of calligraphy. In contrast to the whimsical nature of these drunken immortals, powerful works on this level including Wang Zhiyuan’s Close to the Warm, an installation of Chinese characters on tiny strips of paper attached to the wall, swarming like little insects around an incandescent light bulb. It’s a reflection on the malleability of meaning and the ways in which language can be distorted and corrupted by authority, and a far cry from Wang’s huge fibreglass pink knickers in the previous show, although both works have something to say about the state of the contemporary world. Wang Qingsong’s enormous staged photographFollow You is the kind of HSC exam nightmare that haunts the dreams of many of us well into adulthood. Hundreds of students sit at tiny desks behind stacks of textbooks in both Chinese and English, the walls of the vast space papered with Mao-era quotations exhorting hard work and study – “Progress Every Day!” They are all fast asleep, as if a spell has been cast over the entire nation. In the centre the artist sits, wearing a fake grey beard and long hair like an ancient scholar, the only figure awake in the slumbering masses. Then we realise it is because he is connected to an IV line, hooked up to goodness knows what stimulant. Wang Qingsong specialises in large-scale ambitious allegories, commenting on the most pressing issues facing contemporary China. Here, he makes a wry comment about the factory assembly-line that is the education system, a grind of rote-learning with no incentive for independent thought, a highly stressful “gaokao” examination at the end of the line, and the very real prospect of unemployment unless you have family connections - the all-important “good guanxi”.
He Yunchang’s One Metre of Democracy is a challenge for audiences. Not for the fainthearted, the video records surgery carried out (without anaesthesia) on the artist – a metre-long cut from his shoulder to his knee. He asked 25 “voters” to make a democratic decision about whether he should go ahead with this bloody and painful event. They are photographed with the artist before and afterwards, looking decidedly less carefree in the latter images. In previous works this artist has cast himself inside concrete for 24 hours, and has had a rib surgically removed and made into a piece of jewellery with the addition of 400 grams of gold. This kind of ‘endurance’ performance emerged in China in the late 1980s and 1990s as artists explored new freedoms and responded to artworld events such as the Sensation Exhibition. Damien Hirst has a lot to answer for, some might say. In “Performance Art in China” Thomas Berghuis proposes that Chinese performance artists have "acted out" their art, often in opposition to the principles governing correct behaviour in the public domain. The use of the artist’s own body, sometimes in extreme ways, has numerous precedents, from the ‘Fuck Off’ exhibition in 2000 to the work of Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan. In a Chinese context in which artists are reflecting on bitter and tragic events, ‘endurance performance’ practice such as this has a particularity and resonance that it lacks in other contexts. It was after all a young Mao Zedong who said, “In order to civilize the mind one must first make savage the body.” (Although performance art was probably not exactly what Mao had in mind.)
Wang Qingsong, ‘Follow You’, 2013, C-print, 180 x 300cm, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.
MadeIn Company’s Play 201301 is a Gothic cathedral, all flying buttresses and gargoyles, squeezed into black leather and zippers like an architectural Madam Lash, suspended from the ceiling by bondage ropes. The challenge posed for audiences by “the artist formerly known as Xu Zhen” (now reinvented as a corporation rather than an individual) is the myriad interpretations that can be applied to works which emerge from a setting not unlike Warhol’s “Factory”.  Reminiscent of Brook Andrew’s Wiradjuri zig-zag patterned jumping castles, the work is at once playful and deeply sinister, and is already proving a big attraction for audiences at the gallery. Faith tethered to the earthly realm by human desire? Spiritual elevation corrupted? Perhaps the work is about religion as yet another “brand” in the modern world, another marker of identity and tribe. However one may interpret this work its physical presence is undeniable – it seems to hover above the floor as if the ropes are holding it down rather than supporting it, as if it might float away, defying gravity like Magritte’Castle of the Pyrenees.
#5 Huang-Jingyuan-I-Am-Your-Agency-No.-22-2013-oil-on-canvas-73-x-107.5-cm
Huang Jingyuan, ‘I Am Your Agency No 22’ 2013, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.
I last saw Huang Jingyuan’s paintings in Beijing, in the artist’s studio and later, in her solo show in the 798 art district. Her series I Am Your Agency, five of which are shown here next to her earlier series Gossip from Confucius City, reflects her interest in the role of photography as an instrument of both social control and self-actualisation. She creates her meticulous oil paintings by selecting random amateur photographs from websites – a plate of somebody’s dumplings, a cheesy photograph of a government official, a still from a movie, an advertisement for chairs, somebody else’s chicken. Random, poorly composed, these vernacular photographs provide a rich source of images which can be juxtaposed to create new and surprising meanings, satirising Chinese society no less than an artist such as Wang Qingsong. “I am definitely someone very interested in the logic of how governments want to be seen and how individuals want to be seen,” she told me. Another painter of great technical virtuosity with a unique approach to adapting western painting conventions is Dong Yuan. We have seen her paintings of her entire apartment, with each object on a single small canvas, at White Rabbit in previous shows. This time she is represented by Repeated Illusion, a series of works on canvas inspired by old master paintings. Repeated Illusion Number 1, for example is the vase of a 17th century still life painting, in all its trompe l’oeil hyper-realism. The flowers have been removed, however, and they hang pegged whimsically on a line above, flat cut-outs which entirely defeat the intention of the original and add a quirky humour to the weight of the western canon. When we spoke at her studio in Beijing in late 2012, Dong Yuan told me that when she was studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts she became obsessed by the skills of old master painting, including the tiny, incidental details in the backgrounds of such works, always painted with extraordinary clarity and precision. She felt that these Renaissance and 17th century paintings elevated the mundane to something of great significance. Beside her painted vase in this show, instead of the cut flowers and fruits of the traditional still life, a tiny seed is sprouting.
Another work which speaks powerfully of “reform” is a large, almost white painting by Zhou ZixiDawn – Light Fog 09. At first it seems to be an abstract work, perhaps a reference to Malevich, or to Rauschenberg’s “white” series – after all his 1985 exhibition in Beijing was one of the most significant in the history of contemporary art in China. Look more closely and it begins to look familiar. Recognisable shapes emerge from the mist. The iconic vista of Tiananmen Square is slowly revealed, shrouded in fog. For a moment you wonder if it is a reference to the terrible air pollution which has left the streets of the capital in a Dickensian gloom. Then you see the rows of tanks. It’s about the way in which recent history has been “reformed”. Erased, wiped away. The artist wants the events of June 4 1989, at which he himself was present, remembered. I recommend standing in front of this work for a while – for me it is the highlight of the exhibition.
A lyrical video work by Yi LianUndercurrent, Is likewise strangely compelling. A young child sleepwalks through a night landscape. Water in brooks and ponds flows rhythmically, eddying around rocks, rippling over stones, inhabited by foraging ducks and turtles. Small, cold-looking naked children lie half submerged in shallow water running over pebbles. The sound of the water creates a trance-like state in the viewer. Suddenly the camera shifts and we see a row of men, roped together, eyes closed, stumbling through the darkness. They enter the water and are quickly submerged. In another sequence they float – fast – downstream, their white shirts billowing under the water. In fact, the young child is the artist’s nephew, who sleepwalks regularly. But perhaps, beyond any literal reading, sleepwalking is a metaphor for living in today’s China. The world you see when you wake is not the world you knew when you fell asleep. Everything is different, and continually changing, in ways that alter everything and challenge every assumption. What dream is this? Every billboard on every construction site in Beijing proclaims, “This is my Chinese dream.”
Wang Zhiyuan, Close to the Warm, lightbulb, electric wire, paper stickers, dimensions variable,
 image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
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Later, on another visit to the gallery, I took more notice of some subtle works which I had not included in my account.
Yang Zhenzhong, whom I met in Shanghai in 2011 is perhaps most famous for his massive video project I Will Die, in which he asked people in Shanghai, New York, Rome, Tokyo, Seoul, Beirut and beyond to speak those words into the camera. Watching this, seeing his subjects giggle and shuffle, one sees the dawning reality hit them as they speak. Here he is represented by Exam, a video which one views through a long tunnel in the wall, like a voyeur. Two girls loll about in a teenage bedroom in their nighties, rote learning a Marxist text. “Proletarian revolution is socialist revolution aimed at the abolition of private property,” they intone in bored voices, leaning on each other in a tangle of long legs and sweeping hair. I was initially tempted to dismiss the work as a tired lesbian fantasy cliché, but I decided it actually is very funny. It certainly speaks of the cynicism of large sections of the Chinese population and the tired exasperation with which they view the Communist Party. It is juxtaposed with a series of wistful and subtle photographs by Hu Weyi of the marks left his girlfriend’s body by the elastic of her underwear, jewellery, stockings and bra straps. Traces on the skin are like a text which reveals enormous vulnerability. Flesh inscribed by social convention. Nearby Li Ming’s video XX shows two boys in a forest setting attempting to exchange singlets without their torsos losing contact. They do not speak but silently writhe and wriggle in an exquisite agony of self-consciousness, the awkwardness of male friendship which verges on desire. In China homosexuality is still by and large a shameful secret – there are many marriages of convenience between gay men and lesbians to avoid bringing disgrace to families. As an aside, though, and an indication of the rapid social change this exhibition reveals, the term “comrade” is now a slang term for gay men. “Reform” in this area is overdue, one might think.

As usual the exhibition is cleverly curated, exciting, thought-provoking and highly recommended!

Tu Wei-Cheng, Optical Trick, 2011, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery