This endless sea of cyan books represents a new horizon for China in a world of doctrine and censorship by the collaborative Polit-Sheer-Form Office; photo by ArtsHub.
I have seen this exhibition three times now, and that says far more than what I might write in this 900 words.
The introductory panel to Heavy Artillery at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery gives viewers a hint what to expect.
‘A metric ton of fake marble. Two tons of leather. Three tons of compressed paper. Five thousand porcelain leaves, 8,000 identical books, 130,000 minute photographs, 600,000 painted dots.’
Cheaper production costs in China have made it possible for artists to think big. Partner that with the idea that monumentalism delivers affirmation – an age-old formula well used in propaganda and heroic public sculptures – and these works start to become a little more layered then their initial "wow".
White Rabbit curator David Williams plays off Mao Zedong’s 1942 statement that artworks need to ‘operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy’.
Seven decades later, how does that political functionality and device of scale shift when placed within the realm of making today in China and Taiwan?
It is an interesting question posed by this exhibition, and the answers are far more than simply hard-hitting Heavy Artillery – the title of this show.
It posits a refreshing honesty that we are unaccustomed from the curatorium, one that plays the “sensationalism” gong unabashedly. The gallery explained: ‘Artists go big to grab the attention of fickle audiences and position themselves in a crowded marketplace.’
Guo Jian continued: ‘I wanted my picture to be huge to have an impact.’
The simple fact that today there is so much noise out there that “big” often cuts through is a practical, as well as aesthetic or conceptual device.
White Rabbit has never been shy in embracing challenging work, be it of scale or complex ideas and presentation, and this exhibition certainly has its moments.
Jian’s work in the exhibition is the embodiment of that philosophy of monumentalism leading to new thinking. Many would know the Chinese-born Australian from the media storm that surrounded his imprisonment in 2014 on the occasion of the Tiananmen Square anniversary.
Read: Australian artist Guo Jian detained in Beijing
He has turned to photography for Heavy Artillery, with the enormous 3 x 5 meter work, Picturesque Scenery 26 (2011-2012) comprised of thousands of images of rubbish that litters this tranquil, picturesque location of Guizhou – known as China’s “Garden of Eden” and Jian’s birthplace. Like billboard advertising, it is an illusion – a shimmering veil of the truth.
Equally punching the intimate and overlooked into macro visibility is Density 1-6 (2013) by artist Liu Wei. The standard cube, sphere and pyramid echo classic drawing exercises in Chinese art classes, and yet weighing in at 1.5 tonnes (the sphere alone) these massive forms speak to the oppressive density of urban structures.
Installation view of Liu Wei's huge paper forms in Heavy Artillery; photo by ArtsHub
The real wow moment comes when you realize these are not concrete, stone or fiberglass, but are made from paper; sawn up books.
Apparently, White Rabbit had to reinforce its industrial ceilings in order to shoulder the weight of this work, but then this gallery has a reputation of playing "TARDIS" for the sake of art.
Rising to a crescendo, viewers eventually arrive on the upper level of the gallery, emerging from the lift to wafts of new leather. A military tank fills the gallery, slightly slumped, but every so meticulous in its craftsmanship in the finest Italian handbag leather.
He Xiangyu’s Tank Project (2011-13) is a replica of a Soviet-Chinese tank made entirely from hand-stitched leather. While the aroma triggers memory that leads you in one direction of fine Italian goods, it is another memory that irrepressibly anchors this work to China – the media image of a line of tanks sent to Tiananmen Square to crush protestors. The artist, however, assiduously denies its massacre connection.
Installation view of He Xiangyus leather tank against a polished black floor is dramatic; photo by ArtsHub
Williams explained: ‘Today, the copying of designer products, or shanzhai, is a linchpin of the Chinese economy. In 2011 after finding an old T34 tank near the Korean boarder, He Ziangyu set up a full-scale shanzhai operation of his own ... The result is a two-ton handbag – an absurdly Brobdingnagian counterpart of the Channels and Versaces that crowd the markets of every Chinese city.’
Consumerism over military might!
He Xiangyu’s tank is a new acquisition to the White Rabbit Collection, as are the pieces by Liu Wei, Hsu Yung-Hsu, Geng Zue and Polit-Sheer-Form Office.
Most of the work in this exhibition was made in the last five years, which begs the question was there a kind of nostalgia at play through their heroic gestures of scale? Is it still about professing China’s might, or is there a level of wry "raised fingers" here?
An answer may be found on the ground floor level, with Xu Zhen’s work of 19 classical figures. From a Grecian Athena – the symbol of classical Greek civilization – to Jesus Christ, the Statue of Liberty and Mao, Xu Zhen seemingly concertinas the brokers of world history into a gesture reminiscent of a thousand-armed Guan Yin – the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. It is the affirmation of power and empathy in one; a melding of East and West doctrines.
Xu Zhen lines up 19 over-life sized figures from history and doctrine; photo by ArtsHub
The bravado and the gesture eloquently played out by Xu Zhen, however, is balanced across this exhibition with equally obsessive intimacy.
The delicacy of Hsu Yung-Hsu’s trilogy of ceramic forms that seemingly defy gravity is just as powerful; as is Shinji Ohmaki’s thin veils of topographic maps that from a structure of 283 cubes that seemingly float in space; the knitted pages of a Chinese-English dictionary by Wang Lei; and the 5,000 clay leaves by Liu Jianhu’s litters in a gallery corner, questioning tensions that surround the role of art today.
Hsu reflects on ‘the old Chinese ideal that art should seem, in appearance and essence, to be made by nature itself’.
The quality of shows presented by White Rabbit Gallery is consistently worthy of high praise. But there was something about this show that caught me – perhaps there was a softness in all that bravado that came a little closer to truth.
Heavy Artillery was able to find space and give weight to the craft and subtle nuances and conversations between works, between the virtual and the analogue, the play and the pun with political indoctrination and censorship.
The visitor walks away with less of a sledge-hammer wow and rather a soft permeation of wonder and great understanding that was unexpected.
It is like Leonard Cohen’s famous saying – it is through the crack that the light is let in.
Rating: 5 out of 5
White Rabbit Gallery
Showing through 7 August
The White Rabbit Gallery was established in 2009 to share Judith Neilson’s private collection of 21st-century Chinese art with the public.
First published on