“We were making the future,” he said, “and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!” (H.G. Wells, The Sleeper Awakes)
Inspired by H.G. Well's twentieth-century novel, The Sleeper Awakes is White Rabbit Gallery's first exhibition of 2018.
Parallels are drawn between the protagonist of the novel, Graham, who awakens from a 200-year slumber to find the twenty-second century world a strange and nightmarish place, and Chairman Mao, who was the founding father of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
The exhibition questions what Mao (if he rose from his mausoleum today) would make of the present situation in China with its colourful chaos and exponential growth in wealth. Would he condemn Deng Xiaoping's Open Door policy in 1978 as being too capitalist? Or would he be amazed at the productivity of the collective masses? Would he publicly denounce the increasingly large disparity between the rich and poor, the city and countryside and the ratio of men to women? How would he react to the modern forms of communication and entertainment, such as WeChat, Weibo, and Youku? Would he be intrigued by the current modes of government censorship or would he criticise the inequalities between the party officials and ordinary citizens?
"Some Days 30" (2005), "Some Days 63" (2009), and "Some Days 72" (2009) by Wang Ningde. Image Courtesy of Artist.
Nearing the end of Mao's rule, China was faced with famine, poverty and a diminishing vision for industrial expansion. The works of important imperial painters from Han to Qing dynasty were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and many literary intellectuals were condemned for their outspokenness. However, things began to change under Deng Xiaoping's rule.
Since the late 1970's, China underwent dramatic economic transformation in efforts to modernise China and 'catch-up' to the West. Artists, curators, and art critics were given the opportunity to travel abroad and study in the West. Visiting the United States, Europe and Australia, many young and eager Chinese artists began to come to terms with their own diasporic identities as they propelled themselves into the discussion and critique of globalisation and modernising state of Chinese society.
White Rabbit Gallery's director, Judith Neilson, wanted to share the best of Chinese contemporary art to the Australian audience. Hoping that visitors to the gallery would share her delight and fascination with the growing number of contemporary Chinese artists, Neilson has become a great patron for contemporary Chinese artists and their development in Australia.
"The Deluge - Noah's Ark" (2011) by Peng Hung-Chih. Image courtesy of the Artist/
In tradition with White Rabbit Gallery's curatorial practice, the first work that greets the audience's eye is a mammoth installation - Peng Hung-Chih's luxurious ship, The Deluge - Noah's Ark (2011). Assembled from almost 6,000 3D-printed parts, the work comments on the cleverness of modern technology, a product of human invention, but also warns us of the hubris and danger that often accompanies it. Demonstrated in the twisted nature of the ship, the biblical reference in the artwork's title frames the vessel as a "latter-day Noah's Ark". Although God may have steered the inhabitants on the ship to safety after the deluge, Peng questions whether this "fresh start" has ultimately led to the same result - the need for another deluge. In the face of another apocalyptic scenario, Peng then questions whether God will save us this time and thus highlighting the fragility and impotence of human beings when facing Mother Nature.
When considering the title of the exhibition, it is evident that the curators of the exhibition wanted to incite the curiosity of their audience as they wander through the front door. Who is the "sleeper"? Why is the ship warped? Is the ship the vessel that carried this awakened sleeper to save the world or are they a threat to modern society? So many questions that enter the audience's mind as they walk up the stairs to the next floor where they are greeted with Sun Xun's work.
Video still of "Republic of Jing Bang - 31-Metre-Long Scroll Painting of Jing Bang" (2013) by Sun Xun. Image Courtesy of Concrete Playground.
Transforming the entire first floor, Sun Xun's ink on paper works, Republic of Jing Bang - 31-Metre-Long Scroll Painting of Jing Bang (2013) and Divine Republic of Jing Bang (2013) are mounted on specially made paper walls. The work chronicles a fantastical place, Jing Bang (the Whale State), whereby the citizens have no need for cities, commerce or industry and only exists for a short span of time. The artist explains that it is the ephemeral nature of the state that keeps it from falling into the errors and temptation of corrupt modern societies. Sun believes that "all politics and history are lies - a lesson he first learned from parents and grandparents who suffered for choosing the wrong side in China's revolutions". Perhaps Sun is asking the present society to reconsider their current political, social and economic state. By entering into the immersive work, Sun hopes to overwhelm and inspire the current generation to ask questions and re-imagine a new world that is pure and utopic.
Known for his Square World Calligraphy works and large scale installations, including A Book from the Sky (1987-91), Xu Bing toys with a new medium - film making. His 80 minute video work, Dragonfly Eyes, follows the story of Qing Ting and Ke Fan, two fictional characters whose lives are deeply impacted by the technological chaos that is present-day Chinese society.
Filmed entirely on surveillance cameras, Xu comments on the lack of privacy citizens of China have as public streets and buildings are filled with countless security tracking devices. Layered with voice-overs crafted from a written script, disturbing video clips arise with real-life street violence, car accidents, suicides, and the collapse of building facades in major cities within China. Blurring the line between fiction and reality, Xu presents China through the lens of thousands of camera angles - or 'dragonfly eyes'. He asks the audience to contemplate what kind of reality does modern society currently exist within.
Stepping away from Sun's utopic work, the exhibition enters into this disturbing spectacle of modern day China filled with plastic surgery, webcam entertainment, and violent uproars.
"China Carnival 1 - Tiananmen" (2007) by Chen Zhuo and Huang Keyi. Image courtesy of the artist.
Hidden away on the highest floor of the White Rabbit Gallery, Chen Zhuo and Huang Keyi's China Carnival 1 -Tiananmen (2007) photographic work transforms the infamous Tiananmen Square into a fun theme park filled with the robotic smiles and laughter of Chinese corporate employees. The work comments on China's "age of craziness", where Chinese individuals are either chasing after monetary gains or seeking high-thrill activities. Utilising digital painting and photo manipulation, like Xu, the two artists create a fictional world that may in fact represent the modern reality of China. Asking us - the audience, 'Is the new China, so vibrantly optimistic, also a prison of conformity, a ride no one dares to get off? We have no choice but to be insanely excited and scream and shake as we go faster and faster".
July 2017 Midnight Moment: "Time Spy" by Sun Xun
The exhibition closes with another work by Sun Xun.
Time Spy (2016), is a video animation that requires the aid of stereoscopic 3D glasses. Merging two images together - one red and one blue, the glasses act as a transmitter of stories, where it mediates which image recedes and which advances. Framing the concept of 'time' in similar terms, Sun believes that "all you have is now...you cannot touch yesterday, you cannot touch tomorrow".
Beautifully executed, the animation is created from 10,000 hand-carved woodcuts, which, with the aid of a computer, creates a sequence that is a feast for the eyes. Fusing technology with tradition, imagination with science, Sun's animation was the perfect ending to Peng's opening dialogue of questioning where China's present society was at and where its future lies. There is a glimmer of hope in the imaginative landscape that is created by Sun, where there is no dialogue or voice-over. Ultimately, it is up to the audience's imagination to make-up their own interpretations.
Maybe, just maybe, the world that the Sleeper awakes to see is not entirely doomed.
The Sleeper Awakes is on view till 29 July 2018.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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