Art

In Supernatural, the latest exhibition from Judith Neilson’s monumental collection of contemporary Chinese art, works about nature are, like their subject, informed by tradition but transformed into wholly modern visions. By Lauren Carroll Harris.

Supernatural, White Rabbit Gallery

Li Shan’s ’Deviation‘, from ‘Supernatural’ at White Rabbit Gallery
Credit: Elin Bandmann

Think of a classical Chinese ink wash painting – a vertical, monochrome vision of natural harmony. Mountains, symbolising chi and life force, are stacked in ascendance, and seas, symbolising death, remain outside the picture frame. These sorts of works are very often the first thing Westerners think of when they contemplate Chinese landscape art. There is not one such artwork in Supernatural, the new exhibition at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, which takes nature, reshaped and bullied in the 21st century, as its subject.

Even if you are aware that Chinese art is undergoing an astonishing stage of development, there’s a good chance you don’t know the breadth and depth of the work artists are making in the great, warm, soft, rotting belly of Chinese communism – an ideology that now includes an ever-exploding free market. From this super-moneyed, super-dynamic art world, Supernatural takes a fragment of works that are “veering from the natural”, curator David Williams tells me. “It’s not just landscape, but pushing nature to its extreme, this idea of nature being pushed and pulled and tweaked,” he says.

White Rabbit Gallery opened in 2009, and every six months a new show opens another small portal into philanthropist Judith Neilson’s extensive collection of new Chinese art. Neilson, who has been travelling to China for more than 20 years, buys art “on instinct”, says Williams. The resulting collection takes just a fraction of post-1989 dreaming – art made since 2000 – seen through the eyes of a Western outsider.

Williams’ background as a graphic designer is evident in the way he curates; his shows often begin with a visual trigger – one was entirely in black and white, another was paper-based. But Supernatural’s genesis, two-and-a-half years ago, was more conceptual than visual. He settled on “the idea of the landscape through time” – how artists are thinking about the built environment of today and relating it to ancient Chinese texts such as The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Williams says the exhibition design, comprising 31 works, allows audiences to wander through a new landscape: “The first floor is a series of caves, the second is a mountainscape, and on the top floor is the ocean.”

The first work I encounter is a supremely unearthly vision: a swarm of flying beasts, life-sized men from the waist down and dragonflies from the waist up, made of silicone. This is Li Shan’s Deviation (2017). The artist is a major figure with a sci-fi-ish interest in bioengineering. He has previously genetically modified plants in gallery environments. Here, his hovering humanoid sculptures cast slender grey shadows on the gallery-goers. Fantastical and in flux, this is a warped view of how the natural has been augmented and almost eclipsed, or as Williams says, “how we’re trying to evolutionise ourselves. It’s happening with plastic surgery and eugenics and the one-child policy. We’re trying to force evolution.”

A gallery attendant tells me Supernatural has already surpassed previous attendance records for any other White Rabbit exhibition. It is worth considering what lies behind this popularity. Australia – with its puny art market and scant line of buyers – has few private art institutions and few deviations from the usual model of museums. David Walsh, that other art plutocrat of the southern hemisphere, has built the notoriety of his Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart by cohering an ecstatic, surprising collection themed loosely around sex and death. But beyond the perversity of his collection, Walsh’s art brand thrives on trashing the stale museological notions of how galleries can be organised. By dispensing with the pristine white walls, the signage alongside works – accurately named “didactic panels” – and what MONA calls the “art wank” of regular museumspeak, Walsh has employed a gonzo approach of presenting art to the masses. His rule-breaking museum appeals partly, I think, to Australia’s anti-intellectualism, but it also cuts through the fact that many people evidently find the hushed sanctity of galleries and museums – and their invisible rules – inaccessible, deadening and, well, just boring.

So why, if White Rabbit sticks to the conventional operations of a museum, does it feel so different? Perhaps it is simply that the art itself is universes away from what the West has been primed to expect from a big institution. Since the democracy movement of 1989, the decline of the Cultural Revolution brought an artistic surge in China as political freedoms opened up in small but significant ways and the free market erupted. After that big bang, Chinese contemporary art has been wrought in the contradictory tyrannies of life under late capitalism, such as social-media surveillance and aspirational class pressure, without all of capitalism’s democratic aspects, and it bears those traces. It’s something of a cliché that Chinese contemporary art is born of political catastrophe and made in opposition to the country’s authorities. But many of the works in Supernatural go beyond politics in their attunement to the ecological, the spiritual and the intangible.

The new millennium sparked a gold rush for global collectors and investors, who have become new players in China’s still-forming art market. Neilson is one of them, and she sponsored the creation of five works in the present exhibition, including Deviation. In terms of extravagance of finance, Chinese artists are often freer than Australian artists to make work of real scale, spectacle, ambition and technological complexity. And so by a strange alchemy of Western endowment and historical chance, these high-tech works of colossal scale travel from Warhol-like factories in China, across the seas to this inner-city art bunker.

In Supernatural, there are ink drawings by Qiu Zhijie that assume the visual language of cartography to critique China’s new colonial activities. There are paintings by Zhao Xuebing that refer obliquely to nature with abstract, impasto fields bursting with vivid spring-flower colour. There are photographs of tiny dioramas of artificial urban environments by Chen Wen-Chi – crumbling new empires discernible through dense mist, or perhaps pollution – that are indistinguishable from actual landscape photographs. Across these different works, there is so much more than the word landscape suggests, as ancient techniques and ideas trickle through new ways of thinking and making.

Outside a dark cave of video art is a spread of large digital inkjet photographs by Wang Jiuliang. They appear at first as pastoral idylls, like those ancient mountainscapes, yet horizontal – pockets of mist collecting in valleys and sheep and cattle grazing beneath soft skies. The vision is a lie. “The images are so beautiful,” says Williams. “But they are of illegal rubbish dumps in Beijing on the ring road. The sheep are grazing on rubbish. The shepherds have to inject them with antibiotics so they don’t get sick.” The series is called Beijing Besieged by Waste (2008–10). An artwork is only ever completed by the context of its presentation and the interpretations of its viewers. Here in Sydney, I wonder: is this also the West’s future?

The work of China’s most famous dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, is nearby. Twelve squid-black discs with a sinister shine form a perfect, giant, porcelain oil spill. “It holds the environmental idea of human failure,” says Williams, and the way that petroleum forms “a pathway to money and power”. It has been exhibited before on the ground, but now Oil Spill (2006) is spattered vertically across the wall. Ai is not known for deep abstraction or nuance – mostly he works with monumental spectacle. Consider his Sydney Biennale sculpture, a towering rubber dinghy that stretched on and on, crowded with hulking asylum seekers. And yet, this flipped presentation of Oil Spill makes the work seem new and freshly abstracted in its power.

I reach the show’s apex, an installation combining two works that takes up the gallery’s highest level: Ocean of Cloth Wheels (2013–16) and Floating Islands (2013–16) by Yang Wei-Lin. An archipelago of sewn discs and cottony bubbles hangs adrift, the walls behind it a cool turquoise. They are two of six works in this show from Taiwan. “Taiwan shares conventions with Japan, and many relate to it more than Chinese culture,” says Williams. “This work heavily relies on the Chinese influence, with the sewing technique, but dyeing the fabric indigo is Japanese.” In this way, Yang’s imaginary, textile landscape is the result of a rich intercultural exchange of techniques, of China’s ever-shifting connections with the rest of Asia.

Williams speaks of this work as a kind of sea. But you can also see it as a constellation of clouds, islands, lilies, or whatever dreamy natural forms you may imagine. It is nice to think of Supernatural as a whole in this way – as a vision of a floating life in an uncertain society, and as the result of thousands of years of rich, contradictory artistic traditions distilled into one warehouse. With an ancient past as its engine, its treasures can never be fully understood by those from the West.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Moving mountains ". Subscribe here.

Lauren Carroll Harris
is an arts journalist, artist and casual academic.