ZHANG DALI, Chinese Offspring (detail), 2005, FRP, acrylic and car paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection.
ZHANG DALI, Chinese Offspring (detail), 2005, FRP, acrylic and car paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection.

CHENG DAPENG, Wonderful City (detail), 2011–12, resin 3D prints on lightbox, 80 × 960 × 200 cm.  Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection. 

Vile Bodies

White Rabbit Gallery
China Taiwan Australia

The “vile bodies” referred to in the title of this exhibition are those that are of us but are not us. Kept at a distance, they simultaneously threaten and intrigue, invite and repulse. Through examining these monsters, from those of ancient mythology to contemporary cyborgs, clones and viruses, the exhibition seeks to expand our conception of ourselves.

This is of course from a Chinese perspective, as Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery showcases the private collection of contemporary Chinese art collector Judith Neilson. Upon entering the gallery, visitors are confronted by Zhang Dali’s Chinese Offspring (2005), a group of to-scale sculptures of human bodies made from resin, their grotesque pearlescent “skin” brushed over blood-red paint, and palette-knife smoothed hair appearing hastily finished. They represent millions of internal migrants who have relocated from China’s rural areas to the cities. Hanging like carcasses by ropes tethered to their feet from high up in the double-height entrance space, Zhang’s work gives the sense of these bodies as societal counterweights.

Moving from the fleshy white surfaces of Zhang’s figures to the manufactured translucency of 3D-printed plastic, artist and architect Cheng Dapeng’s white-on-white work Wonderful City (2011–12) looks outward to the cityscape to uncover the monstrous side of China’s urban development. 3D-printing is now ubiquitous but Cheng’s use of the medium is effective, with mutant figures melding human and architectural forms appearing to emerge from the lightbox they rest upon.

From Cheng’s macro, map-like world to the micro, Li Shan’s photo-lightbox work Recombinant (2002–06) incorporates images of his own body parts into those of small living creatures. The images make the insects and animals appear more exquisite and the human elements more grotesque. Drilling down even further into our atomic makeup is the work opposite, Yang Xin’s Original 5 (2015), paintings in which the artist has experimented with the various qualities of different paints to create small cell-like images.

In a more traditional take on painting, Wei Rong’s photorealistic nudes on the second floor of the exhibition elevate the everyday to the revered. In Poor Goddess(2013) a woman adopts a classical pose, standing languidly while holding a small plastic tub above her head. Behind her, a decorative blue and white vase has been used to house a dirty duster. In stark contrast to Wei’s sensitive treatment of her subjects is Lu Yang’s Krafttremor (2011), which depicts patients with Parkinson’s filmed before and after electrode treatment, sampling the frequencies of their tremors to create a music video. It is an effective if disconcerting experiment; however, the accompanying inkjet print uses unfortunate caricatured representations of the work’s subjects, rendered in a video-game aesthetic.

LI SHAN, Recombinant, 2002–06, photographs on lightboxes, 50 pieces: 60 × 80 cm each. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection. 

Installation view of “Vile Bodies” at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, 2016–17. (Front) CANG XINExotic Flowers and Rare Herbs, 2007; (Back) LAM TUNG-PANGWhere is the White Crow?, 2009–10. Courtesy the artists and White Rabbit Collection.  

From being trapped by one’s body to trapped by one’s circumstances, Lam Tung-pang’s paintings Where is the White Crow? (2009–10) channels the suffocation and relentlessness of Hong Kong commerce and real estate into a monochromatic frieze of black crows. The artist turned his claustrophobic living situation into an epic artwork by painting many small canvases which are presented here across the gallery wall, now free of the tiny room in which they were painted. The crows flap within their individual squares, their wings truncated by the canvases edges, recalling the sense of containment that birthed the work. The sculptures of Cang Xin presented nearby are carved from un-lacquered wood, these imagined species of Exotic Flowers and Rare Herbs (2007) contrasting the sense of containment found in Lam’s work, instead occupying an exaggerated scale akin to John Wyndham’s 1951 post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids.

On third floor, one encounters the single gallery space lined with mirrors darkly reflecting two works that in different ways take a futuristic perspective on the exhibition’s theme. Wandering (2015) is a large suspended motorized sculpture by Taiwanese collective Luxury Logico. Its many arms, suggesting vertebrae or a wing, slowly and continually cascade, alongside Huang Siying’s Initial Psalm (2013), a video exploring fractal designs which are also presented nearby in three-dimensionally printed form. The video’s soundtrack, seeming to meld meditative electronic effects and didgeridoo, fills the mirrored space.

Ultimately, “Vile Bodies” is an investigation of the monsters of our outer and inner worlds. The works in the exhibition investigate the wilds of both psychology and nature, across mythologized histories and imagined futures. It’s clear that these themes continue to provide rich inspiration to Chinese artists, and the resulting works have much to tell us about contemporary society, in China and beyond.

LUXURY LOGICO, Wandering, 2015, steel, plastic and motor, 140 × 717 × 248 cm. Courtesy Courtesy the artists and White Rabbit Collection. 

“Vile Bodies” is on view at White Rabbity Gallery, Sydney, until February 5, 2017. 

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