YANG YONGLIANG, Infinite Landscape, 2011, Blu-ray video: 7 min 30 sec. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.

The Dark Matters

White Rabbit Gallery
China Australia

“The Dark Matters,” White Rabbit’s latest exhibition, is a group show of 33 predominantly monochromatic works, all of which are drawn from Sydney-based Judith Neilson’s collection of 21st century contemporary Chinese art, which focuses on artworks that were created after 2000.

Neilson opened the gallery in 2009 with the express purpose of showing her collection. When she began this endeavor, the collection tally stood at 200 works by 75 artists. Now the number has ballooned to almost 2,000 works by more than 500 artists, with numbers being constantly fed by regular purchasing forays to China, where she prefers to buy directly from artist studios. “The Dark Matters” was her 16th exhibition since establishing the space.

The show’s title alludes to the techniques used by traditional Chinese landscape artists who achieved such striking results with simple black ink and wash, a technique that few of the 33 contemporary artists on show currently employ. However, Shanghai-based Yang Yongliang, represented with Infinite Landscape (2011), does keep a suite of brushes and blocks of ink on his desk that he claims to use everyday.

The introduction in the show’s catalog tells us how traditional Chinese painters achieved their nuanced blacks by using soot from smoky oil lamps, which was distilled into solid blocks. This approach is in contrast to the techniques of today’s artists, such as Yang, Feng Mengbo and others exhibited as part of the show, who have at their disposal an endless array of mediums limited only by the extent of their imagination. Printer cartridges, spray cans, propane torches, x-ray film, newsprint, synthetic fibers, video and film, as well as old-school pencils and carbonized wood are pressed into service.

In his practice, Yang uses the technological firepower offered by modern computers to create trompe-l’oeil moving image works that suggest traditional landscapes when seen from a distance. When viewed close up, one sees that his mountains are composed from thousands of photographs of apartment blocks and that electricity pylons masquerade as trees. It is a strange apocalyptic world where blimps fly between buildings, and vehicles sluggishly wend their way along freeways.

FENG MENGBO, Not Too Late, 2010, still from video installation, duration variable. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.

YANG MUSHI, Grinding, 2013–16, wood, lacquer, metal plate, 55 × 510 × 780 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.

If Yang displays an audacious perspicacity in his work, Feng—the rabid gamer who appropriated and tweaked open-source coding in his earlier work from the 1990s—is more than happy to allow computer-generated brushstrokes to behave like a combative visual stream of consciousness. In Not Too Late (2010) he inflates pixelated brushstrokes and projects them onto large screens where they behave like Samurai warriors, bobbing and weaving before slipping from view. The nearly monochromatic work possesses extraordinary fluidity; just occasionally, Mengbo allows color to flood the screens.

However, some artists continue to use traditional materials but in thoroughly modern ways, such as in the work of Brooklyn-based Lin Yan. In Sky 2 (2016), Lin uses diluted ink and handmade xuan paper to startling effect, creating a crushed paper cloud that hangs high in the gallery atrium, greeting exhibition visitors. The artist saturated sheets of xuan paper in varying shades of diluted black ink, which she then crumpled and stitched together. Yan has created a billowing cloud of darkness, the likes of which would be familiar to most Beijingers who often live under the dark clouds of atmospheric pollution.

LIN YAN, Sky 2, 2016, paper, ink, 330 × 1600 × 520 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.

If Sky 2 acts as the overture to “The Dark Matters,” then Yang Mushi’s contemplative monochromatic installation Grinding (2013–16), which rests on the top floor of the four-story space, is the finale. (Neilson always likes to have a dramatic solitary work on the third floor.) It took Yang three years to cut, sharpen, shape and smooth the hundreds of wooden objects that make up his all-black tableau, which he describes in the catalog as a “punishing project.” Each piece is coated in black lacquer and arranged to form strict regimented patterns on a black metal plate. According to Yang, the futility of making such a piece parallels “the insanity of society.” 

While Yang’s work is perhaps soulless and devoid of emotion, Gao Ge’s sculptural tree Trinity (2010–13) is a beautiful minimalist intervention into the natural world. Having found the trunk of a felled black locust tree, he split it and carved Biblical verses in Chinese characters into the wood, which he then carbonized with a blowtorch. The tree is now a permanent testament to his personal brand of Christianity.

GAO GE, detail of Trinity, 2010–13, carbonized wood, 67 × 437 × 80 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.

There is much to see and enjoy in “The Dark Matters.” Tucked discreetly in a corner of the first-floor gallery is a touching tribute to photographer Ren Hang, who at age 29 took his own life earlier this year. Two of his saturated color photographs Untitled (2012) and Untitled (2014) are perhaps portentous. One is of a naked woman in a bath with a red straw between her equally red lips, and the other is of a naked man in a bath surrounded by a halo of goldfish. Both subjects have their faces submerged in water. Both curiously throw into sharp relief how so much of conceptual art can be vacuous and sterile, clearly signaling a diminished art community now that Ren Hang is gone.

While the 33 artists in “The Dark Matters” are grouped under the useful rubric of darkness, it is axiomatic that the subtle grays they explore, existing between the polarities of black and white, have never seemed so colorful.

“The Dark Matters” is on view at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, until July 30, 2017. 

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REN HANG, Untitled, 2012, chromogenic color print, 100 × 67 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.