Things are not quite what they seem in ‘Double Take’ at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. The exhibition presents some new works and others which have been seen before but deserve re-examination. A heap of porcelain sunflower seeds, a shiny Harley Davidson which turns out, on closer inspection, to be a bicycle, and the doorway of a Beijing apartment which reveals itself to be padded cloth, stitched and embroidered in a simulacrum of downmarket real estate: these and many other works repay a careful second glance – the ‘double take’ – in order to reveal hidden meanings.
Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, piled on the floor in more modest numbers than the overpowering 100 million exhibited in 2010 at Tate Modern, seem far more domestic. We remember that sunflower seeds were the snack item shared by ordinary Chinese in times of great poverty and hardship. A close examination reveals their individual beauty. The seeds, at first glimpse so real, possess many complex, even contradictory, meanings. They allude to imperial porcelain production, and to modern-day China as the world’s factory. They also allude to the conformity expected of the masses, reminding us of the price paid by individuals for China’s breakneck modernisation. In propaganda posters Mao was often represented as the sun, with the faces of the proletariat turned towards him. More audaciously, they can be seen as a direct critique of the commodification of contemporary Chinese art, and the way it has been voraciously consumed by western curators, critics and audiences – almost a new ‘Chinoiserie’. Ai Weiwei connects the current western fascination for contemporary art from China with the trade in willow pattern and porcelain ware in the past. Shown in a space which also includes Zhou Xiaohu’s fake press conference and a satirical Pisan video work, ‘Cracking Sunflower Seeds’, the connections between the works allude to the artist as political dissident and artworld iconoclast.
A replica by young artist Gao Rong of the entryway to her Beijing basement apartment delights and surprises audiences new to her work. The artist, who made a full size version of her grandparents’ house in Inner Mongolia for the recent Biennale of Sydney, has created a simulacrum so real that many viewers walk straight past thinking it must be a service door for the gallery. In fact every detail is stitched, sewn, embroidered, appliqued – including rust stains and electricity fuse box. Continuing this theme of simulated reality is Tu Wei-Cheng’s ‘Happy Valentine’s Day!!’, an installation in which the sense of smell is first tantalised and then repelled by the aroma of chocolate wafting out of an apparent confectionery shop. Shelves and counters display heart-shaped boxes with pink satin bows, and an array of enticingly packaged chocolates. On closer inspection the ‘chocolates’ turn out to be weapons, hand grenades, tanks – the machinery of war. And they are not made of chocolate, but of plastic. The artist explores how menace and aggression can lie beneath love and romance, in a veiled message about the fraught relationship between his birthplace of Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.
Liu Zhuoquan’s intricately painted installation of glass bottles painted in the ancient tradition of ‘neihua’, or ‘inside painting’, contains beautifully painted body parts rather than the traditional misty mountains or blossoms seen on snuff bottles. “My work is like a scientific laboratory”, says the artist. His bottles often contain a coded meaning, and this installation, despite its beauty, may be read as a comment about the way in which organs for transplant are reputedly obtained from executed prisoners. Lu Xinjian’s ‘City DNA Beijing’ at first appears to be a formalist abstraction, but in fact his works are representations of cities seen via Google Earth. Satellite views reduce any metropolis to a complex geometry of interlocking lines and shapes.
A very different approach to painting is seen in Shen Liang’s painterly impasto replicas of Cultural Revolution comic book covers from his early childhood. Reproducing every tear and stain on covers depicting Young Pioneers marching into a bright socialist future, he also added schoolboy graffiti and obscene doodles. He is mocking his own seriousness as an academically trained painter, as well as puncturing the propaganda of his past. “I give old things new meanings through my work”, says the artist.
Zhan Chung Hong’s 11-metre scroll of a long plait, beautifully rendered in charcoal and graphite, is drawn in the meticulous method of ‘gongbi’ in which every stroke and mark creates an image of perfection. In her work hair is a metaphor, sometimes focused on youth and vitality, sometimes showing the ravages of time. Sometimes seductive, even erotic, at other times with darker meanings. Zhan’s work raises questions about representation, simulation and the ways that meanings can be hidden in apparently innocuous subject matter, an idea which is elaborated in works throughout this cleverly curated exhibition. This is not a new feature of Chinese art – Imperial ink-painting masters were also adept at concealing the true meanings of their works. The artists in ‘Double Take’ reveal some uncomfortable truths about aspects of the world, but at the same time they delight us with their sheer inventiveness.