Exploring China’s new creative energy

Image credit: White Rabbit Gallery

This story was first published on Open Journal on April 25, 2014. Image courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery.

Since opening in Sydney in 2009, the White Rabbit has not only introduced and showcased the works of many compelling Chinese contemporary artists; it has redefined their place in Australia and beyond.

Reformation is the Chippendale gallery’s latest show, and its biggest to date, featuring over 50 works spanning installations, painting-sculptures, mechanical art, sensor-linked videos and more. Bold and brilliant, the exhibition captures the creative reformation that is – and has been – occurring in modern China.

Judith Neilson, owner and founder of the White Rabbit Collection, shares how the exhibition came to be and what it explores.

Lisa Cugnetto: How would you describe Reformation for those who are yet to see it?

Judith Neilson: A blast! It is a big, bold, provocative and beautiful show and well worth a visit.

How did the theme of Reformation come about?

The theme arose from our two most recent trips to China, when we noticed a distinct difference in the energy and edginess of Chinese contemporary art.

Thinking about it, we concluded that there seemed to be a reformation, a real upheaval going on – so that gave us our theme. From there we proceeded to pull together not only works we acquired on those trips but others, mostly from 2012-13 that fitted in with the idea.

As its name suggests, the exhibition explores the creative reformation occurring within China. How have you found this to be reflected in the art being produced by its contemporary artists?

The best contemporary artists in China today are more confident than ever and far less inclined to identify themselves primarily as ‘Chinese’. They are also more experimental and adventurous than ever before, willing to consider any medium or form as long as it conveys their idea.

Reformation includes paintings that owe more to Renoir or Goya than to any Chinese predecessor, recastings of classical Chinese works or themes in formats their originators could never have imagined, and works that succeed solely because of the artist’s skill in implementing his conception.

Reformation features more than 50 works. How did you approach bringing together such a vast amount of pieces?

It got tense at times! It was a huge effort, and involved a lot of hard work by many people. In deciding what to include and how to combine the works, we were guided by themes, genre (in the sense of keeping works in the same genre separate), and in the salon hang, colour and form as well.

The exhibition features works from emerging, established and relatively unknown contemporary Chinese artists. Do you think this plays a role in how they come together?

The only criterion for inclusion in the Collection is that a work appeals to me. So the Collection has works from artists at all phases of their careers and at all levels of ‘fame’. I think all our exhibitions reflect that mix.

Do you think avant-garde exhibitions like Reformation – and White Rabbit as a gallery in general – have helped redefine the view of contemporary Chinese art in Australia?

This is undoubtedly so – the Sydney Biennale had a number of Chinese contemporary artworks in 2012 and this year. Some of the artists in the White Rabbit Collection—such as Gao Rong and Li Hongbo – were virtually unknown when the Collection first acquired their work, and are now widely acclaimed.

The works in Reformation are often brilliant and evocative. What has the response from visitors been so far?

This show has drawn larger audiences than any previous White Rabbit show, and it is shaping up to be our most successful yet. Visitors generally seem to like the fact that it is so diverse and has so many arresting works.

And finally, do you have any personal favourite or standout works?

It’s hard to choose, but among the standouts are MadeIn Company’s Play 201301, a gigantic castle-cathedral made of latex and black leather with studs and chains and other BDSM accessories, suspended from the ceiling with ropes using a Japanese bondage technique. And Yang Song’s Cat and Girl With a Smile, beautiful, meditative sculptures made from unfired clay, a medium the artist chose because it would ultimately crumble to dust.