“Smash Palace”: a palace, smashed; dreams, crushed; a narrative of marginalisation and disenfranchisement set in a strange yet familiar dystopia – this is the latest chapter in the epic tale of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery of contemporary Chinese art. Featuring works from the incredible cache of passionate collector of contemporary Chinese art Judith Neilson, the new White Rabbit Gallery exhibition “Smash Palace” is an unforgettable insight into the power of art and the art of power.
Through sensational works of art by some of China’s most talented contemporary artists, “Smash Palace” unearths beauty in decay, discovers harmony in anxiety, reveals peace in conflict, and finds strength in adversity. Yes, there are stories of poverty, abuse, death, and despair; but the works in the exhibition are neither demoralising nor belligerent. Far from being a subversive and demoralising diatribe that seeks sympathy and sedition, the exhibition is a celebration of the human spirit. It is at once both restrained and uninhibited, a fine balance of the positive and the negative that is testament to the skill and dedication of the artists in the show.
One of the most poignant and insightful works in the exhibition is the incredible 15-metre photograph “Appeals without Words, 2006” by artist and social activist Jin Feng. The image depicts eighty-nine rural villagers queuing to present petitions to the authorities regarding land theft. Carrying blank pieces of cardboard suggesting that their petitions fall on deaf ears – if they are heard at all, each of the villagers has been painted black and gold giving them the appearance of statues, solidified by time, going nowhere.
Surely by now they would be aware that their efforts are futile? Perhaps they have, perhaps they haven’t. Regardless, these people have not given up; they are resolute in the face of defeat. The photograph evokes the idea that the very act of queuing with their petitions is in its own way a sort of pilgrimage, a rite of passage that acts as a source of empowerment and encouragement.
According to Judith Neilson, the artist made specific reference to one particular man who is shown in the photograph crouching on the ground. This man had just bought new shoes and refused to have them ruined by paint – he still takes pride in his appearance and values his reputation. Although this man and his fellow protesters are ignored by the authorities, they still have a strong sense of identity and self-worth.
Printed using a special pigment that does not degrade, the experience of the people in Feng’s photo is indelibly inked into the annals of art history. Further adding to the seemingly interminable plight of the subjects of his photograph, the curve of the wall at the edge of the work gives the impression that the line extends beyond the photograph – perhaps for eternity.
Another highlight of the exhibition is Taiwanese artist Shyu Ruey-Shiann’s “Traveller’s Wings, 2011,” a series of flapping copper reproductions of French railway tickets collected during five years of restless travel around France. Although the work is a triumph of engineering and design, the installation took a long two years to build partly because of the lack of resources available to the artist in his homeland. While visiting Sydney prior to the “Smash Palace” exhibition the artist even collected rubbish – an integral component of many of his works – to take home with him.
Like the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket, Ruey-Shiann’s railway passes represent the key to a land of hopes and dreams. The irony that the artist was able to immerse himself in a culture of luxury and excess yet is himself far from wealthy, even though he is a world-famous artist, is one of the most powerful aspects of this work. Although he had the opportunity to travel, the installation suggests that the journey was somehow futile – the tickets flap like a bird yet are forever tethered to the ground, never able to escape. But they continue to seek flight; there is still hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. “Travellers Wings” is a celebration of the opportunities afforded to the human race by modernity but also appears to lament the loss of innocence evoked by the opportunity to visit an exotic foreign land.
Anxiety is just one of the emotions prevalent throughout the “Smash Palace” exhibition. Taking the experience of anxiety to the extreme is Zhou Xiaohu’s “Ever in Fear, 2011,” a weather-balloon installation that endlessly inflates and deflates, each time almost reaching the point of bursting. The meaning is pretty clear but in order for the full impact of the work to be revealed it has to be experienced. The final few moments when the balloon is wedged between the ceiling and the floor are intense to say the least. Once again, however, there is an inherent sense of balance in Ziaohu’s work. The anxiety is partially, at least momentarily, displaced by a sense of delight and intrigue at seeing a weather balloon inflate indoors.
Jin Shi's “Mini Home, 2005” inhabits a sublime “no man’s land” somewhere between a doll house and a full-size dwelling, albeit an urban Chinese-style living space that even at full size is tiny in comparison to its Western counterparts. Filled with the usual detritus of modern life meticulously reproduced in exacting detail, every component of the domestic dwelling is scaled down to about two-thirds full size. An exercise in restraint and discernment, Shi’s “Mini Home, 2005” is a humble comment on the difficult circumstances faced by many Chinese while at the same time recognises that the inhabitants of such a dwelling would be comparatively well off.
The fact that every single work in “Smash Palace” is worthy of being mentioned is testament to the depth of the exhibition. Each of the artists in the show exhibits a finely-tuned aptitude for articulating thoughts, feelings, and concepts not just though imagery but through scale, shape, texture, and movement. Even though evidence of pain and suffering is prevalent throughout the show, the works of art are presented in such a humble manner like a gift or offering – a positive product of the grief experienced by the artists and their subjects. This sense of equilibrium is one of the most powerful characteristics of the exhibition and reveals much about the Chinese people.“It's a fine, fine line between pleasure and pain,” as the song “Pleasure and Pain” by the Divinyls says.