A comment on Chinese modernity
WORDS BY JACINTA KEAST
“We were making the future”, he says, “and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making”.
H.G. Wells, The Sleeper Awakes
White Rabbit Gallery’s first exhibition of the year, The Sleeper Awakes, invites six contemporary artists from Mainland China and Taiwan to comment on Chinese modernity.
The title comes from H.G. Wells’ 1910 dystopian novel of the same name, where a London socialist insomniac finally falls asleep only to wake to the year 2100. While he has by chance become the richest man on the planet, he is confronted with an unsettling surveillance state, economic inequality and an unrelenting propaganda machine.
The exhibition is an attempt to use this theme in evaluating the success of the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping against the original proclamation of the “socialist revolution” proposed by Mao Zedong in 1949. Would Mao be happy that his republic survived? Would he view modern forms of propaganda and surveillance as reasonable extensions of the socialist state? Or would he feel at unease at the insidious and pernicious aspects of control in the world’s most populous nation?
“There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause.” – Mao Zedong 毛泽东
On the first floor, you’ll enter the state of Jinbang 鲸邦 – or the Whale Republic –, a creation by one of Mainland China’s most popular contemporary artists, Sun Xun 孙逊. If the state is an imagined community, Sun displays the rhetorical tools and art necessary to create one. On large pieces of Beijing-made millet paper, Sun paints the myths of the Whale Republic – the heroic horse 英雄, the demon-child 山鬼, the mother 妈妈, the earth 土地and the wise man 老人.
Images (L-R): “We are no longer political toys”; “Whale Republic freedom of speech”; “A country on the back of the whale”
Next to the multicoloured, gold-trimmed flags of the republic are propaganda posters informing us of the values of the Whale Republic, accompanied with illustrations in black ink. Each poster lists qualities of the republic in Chinese with a second language translation (among others – Japanese, Tamil, Russian and Hebrew). While it is an attempt to show the linguistic diversity and tolerance of the republic, observers may run into difficulty appreciating the full meaning of these works, as the gallery and artists provide no translation of the Chinese or other languages.
Sun tries to caution that there can be no state without artistic skill; the artist is always complicit. This gives the leader of the state, “the magician” as in the Whale Republic, the legitimacy needed to lie and deceive its citizens. On exit, we are invited to join this “perfect state” – citizenship (and a UK-made briefcase) comes at the price of $10’000 USD, while a visa can be obtained for only $35USD. The gallery guide tells me 100 people have already bought Jinbang citizenship – and I am really not sure if she is joking.
On the second floor, a selection of pieces from the Some Days collection by Wang Ningde 王宁德 glide across white wall-panelling. Unlike creating propaganda like Sun, Wang wants to oppose it – he deliberately tries to contradict the style, theming and colours of the state propaganda of the Cultural Revolution. For young people who did not experience the Cultural Revolution, the catalogued, codified and sanitised memory of the state steps in to inform us of what happened.
Thus, he shows a personal history – perfunctory expression, sitting and waiting, merely existing against the narrative we know of the strident, patriotic Chinese man in this period. Is this history more authentic? Wang thinks so, saying “all our memories are written on our eyelids”.
Also on this floor is “Occupation” by Xu Qu 徐渠. Rosary beads made out of surveillance cameras reference the author’s Beijing workplace – a city with one of the highest concentration of CCTV cameras in the world.
Next to this, migrant workers in Beijing pose for a portrait in the piece “Zhang Qing’An”. The guide comments: “Migrant workers are people with dangerous ambitions, peasants who think they could be the next leader of China. Mao was once a peasant.”
According to the gallery guide, the work references the story of Zhang Qing’An 张清安, a peasant who lived on the outskirts of Beijing, near the Great Wall. In 1982, he declared himself emperor of China. Almost immediately, he was beheaded by the People’s Liberation Army.
Curious about this act of state subversion, I tried to find a source for the story. In English, I could find nothing. In Chinese, the story was a little different. Zhang Qing’An turned out to be a peasant from rural Sichuan (far away from the capital of Beijing) who did not declare himself emperor of “China”, but of a revived Qing dynasty. He set up his kingdom, complete with imperial chambers, a deputy emperor, a gallery of concubines and distributed letters stamped with his imperial seal. He was found guilty by a local court for spreading “counter-revolutionary propaganda” and trying to overthrow the government. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in Sichuan province.
This underscores my main qualm with White Rabbit Gallery. I appreciate greatly that we have free access to one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese contemporary art. But I don’t think that it fulfils its mandate of educating visitors about Greater China and the history of China. There are often factual inaccuracies, translations of Chinese are rarely provided, and so it’s hard to grasp the social and political context.
Given the diversity of opinions and voices on “China” and “Chinese history”, this should not result in the gallery attempting to promote a single narrative or understanding, but White Rabbit owes it audience more resources and tools to try and contemplate the incredibly complex, often political works they are viewing.
Without this, our ability to understand and contemplate the meaning of contemporary art is no better than the protagonist of The Sleeper Awakes, transported into a unknown world but expected to understand everything he encounters.
The Sleeper Awakes is showing at White Rabbit Gallery Chippendale until 28 July 2018.