“Heavy Artillery” is the latest exhibition at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery trawled from proprietor Judith Neilson’s extensive collection of contemporary Chinese art produced since 2000. The date signals when she began buying artworks—paintings, drawings, photographs, installation, sculpture and video—on her regular trips to China, particularly Beijing and Shanghai. At the time, her acquisitions provoked accusations from several Sydney art cognoscenti that she was amassing a collection that would be irrelevant in a decade. But she has proved them wrong. Neilson’s bi-annual exhibitions at White Rabbit, which are drawn exclusively from her collection, continue to demonstrate her acute judgment of contemporary Chinese art.
Six years ago, Neilson opened White Rabbit after having totally gutted and refurbished an old, three-story car service center in Sydney’s inner-city suburb, Chippendale. The area was then rundown, but has since been redeveloped with apartments, shops and service industries. In 2009 Neilson’s collection stood at 450 works by 130 artists; today the tally is over 2,000 pieces by 500 artists. The acquisitions are fueled by Neilson’s unbridled passion for contemporary Chinese art and, inevitably, given that most of the work is produced by young artists in the 21st century, remains free from the stultifying referential legacy of the Cultural Revolution. Rampant consumerism is what has shaped these artists’ lives. The early shows of White Rabbit, which demonstrated a lack of curatorial rigor, have given way to thematic shows with catchy titles that have proved altogether more successful.
The day before “Heavy Artillery” opened, Neilson was again off to China on another buying spree. She rarely purchases at auction, preferring the intimacy of visiting artists in their studios where she plucks works from backrooms that simply catch her eye (an eye that has become increasingly assured and steady). It is a modus operandi that perhaps could only be pursued in China’s unregulated art world, where it can quickly become dog-eat-dog and the explosion of contemporary art museums throughout China sees collectors and gallery directors competing for what is a limited amount of good work. Among this trip’s highlights were visits to the studios of Feng Mengbo and Xu Zhen, the latter being one of her favorites. Xu is a mercurial artist who is self-adulatory and indulgent, with an unrivalled understanding of the art market. He formed an art production line called MadeIn Company in 2009, a pseudo-democratic environment that remains answerable to Xu, who tightly controls every part of the production cycle. For the artist, democracy only goes so far. In the exhibition “Heavy Artillery,” it is Xu’s sculpture European Thousand-Armed Classical Sculpture (2013–14) that confronts visitors on arrival. The procession of life-size glass-reinforced concrete figures references classical Greek and Roman sculpture and, when seen from the front, conjures up the “thousand-armed” Buddist deity Guanyin.
Monumentality and spectacle are themes traced throughout the exhibition. As the exhibition’s catalogue underscores, the show contains 2 tons of leather, 3 tons of compressed paper, 8,000 identical books, 130,000 photographs and 600,000 painted dots. To this lexicon of monumentality, one could also add endurance, and the sheer perseverance of the 21 participating artists.
The two tons of leather sit on White Rabbit’s top floor, a part of the gallery that is often given over to the display of one work. He Xiangyu’s Tank Project (2011–13) is a vast replica of a Soviet T34 battle tank, which seems to have imploded on itself like a ruptured inflatable that lies gasping for air. Made in the finest Italian leather it remains a wry comment on the tanks that crushed the Tiananmen protest in 1989 and the Chinese population’s passion for luxury goods.
The multitalented Liu Wei is represented with Density 1-6 (2013), comprising several geometric forms made of compressed paper from shredded text books in somber cream and beige tones, which are enlarged to gigantic proportions, giving the impression they have been somehow magically shoehorned into this low-ceilinged gallery environment. Their cool conceptual detachment reminded this writer of the closing scenes of the 2010 sci-fi movie Inception, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character traverses a sterile, depopulated cityscape. Weighing in at about two tons, the gallery floor had to be reinforced for Liu’s installation.
Displayed within the same space is the work of Polit-Sheer-Form (a collective of artists Hong Hao, Xiao Yu, Song Dong, Liu Jianhua and curator Leng Lin) entitled Library (2008), an enclosed room with shelves holding 8,000 books with identical blank pages. Everything is painted a uniform blue color and riffs off the millions of Little Red Books printed during Chairman Mao’s despotic rule over China. Polit-Sheer-Form’s blue books contain nothing, and their muteness is a comment on the futile early years of collectivism in China and its concomitant lack of individualism.
And so “Heavy Artillery” goes on seducing the viewer with ever more works that reference the type of endurance that only Chinese artists seem capable. For example, Sydney-based artist Guo Jian, on returning to his home region of Guizhou after many years away, is dismayed at how it is covered in trash. He takes a photograph Picturesque Scenery 26 (2011–12) and enlarges it to five-by-three meters and replaces every pixel in the inkjet print with photographs of anonymous human faces culled from the piles of trash he found. Perhaps this is the work of 160,000 the exhibition catalogue speaks of.
“Heavy Artillery” is by turns fascinating and enthralling, and with its sheer audacity demonstrates how Neilson has transformed herself from an art dilettante into someone capable of mounting museum quality exhibitions.