The word commune, whether used as a noun or a verb, has complex connotations. From earnest Utopianism to grim, state-enforced collectivism; from familial relationships and networks to our connection with the natural world—all of these possible associations are present in the new show at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery of Contemporary Chinese Art. From Judith Neilson’s impressive collection, curator Bonnie Hudson has selected works by twenty-three artists. They include representatives of the older generation that emerged in the 1980s and ’90s, characterized by transgressive experimentation and a merging of the local and global in their practice, through to young (in some cases, very young) artists whose work reflects their experiences growing up in the “new China.” Theirs is a world of chaotic energy, the newly globalised world into which Chinese people were catapulted by Deng Xiaoping’s socio-economic reforms, the transformative effects of which continue to convulse every aspect of Chinese life. As you might expect, an exhibition that explores this world has moments of both darkness and light. The artists examine the complex, shifting realities of contemporary China, including changing structures of family life, relationships between old and young, and the conflict between self-actualization and the collective past.
A series of paintings by Xia Xing embodies these paradoxes. The artist collects press photographs from the Beijing News, a mass daily with a circulation of 450,000. In 2007 he was working as a reporter at the paper and became fascinated with how it shaped public opinion and represented only selected aspects of daily life in a time of flux and change. Trained as an oil painter, Xia had found his subject. He began to paint the images he saw on the front page of the newspaper. For 2010, he reproduced one photograph for every day of the year, emulating the commercial printing process in a painstaking application of layers of cyan, magenta, and yellow. There is no caption, no headline; from the sixty closely cropped paintings shown here, we must guess what the images represent. Each alludes to a private joy, tragedy, or conflict that has been made—all too fleetingly—public. By preserving these ephemeral images, Xia Xing documents a particular time in China’s history, structured as a series of apparently unconnected fragments. We encounter the man whose hands were amputated by a criminal against whom he had given evidence, the parents of missing children, the forced demolitions and removal of people from their homes, the polluted rivers and lakes. We sense the artist’s horror at a never-ending catalog of disaster and anguish. The artist as witness—a continuing theme in China’s contemporary art.
Bai Yiluo’s Spring and Autumn 1 (2007) is juxtaposed with these paintings. A life-size tree with branches fashioned from old farming implements, with outstretched rakes, shovels, and pitchforks poignantly evoking the dependence on the seasons, the rhythms of nature, the times of planting and harvesting that dictate the lives of those who farm the land. One is also reminded of the obsession with rural agriculture of Mao’s revolutionaries: the ill-fated campaigns to eradicate the sparrows during the Great Leap Forward that caused enormous hunger and hardship; the rustication programs that sent urban “educated youth” to toil on communal farms and “learn from the peasants.” The work is very beautiful, and in its restrained use of weathered, rusted found objects, it is reminiscent of Ai Weiwei’s continued use of the “things” that evoke China, from ancient urns to three-legged stools and Qing Dynasty tables. Ai himself is represented by a pile of his porcelain sunflower seeds, that street snack shared among friends in hungry times in the past. These sunflower seeds have multiple meanings. They may be read as a comment on the ancient traditions of porcelain manufacture and its significance in trade with the West, or as a critique of mass production in China, “the world’s factory.” The realization that each seed, apparently identical, is actually different, reminds us of the weight of China’s population. The seeds also allude to Maoist iconography, which represented Mao as the sun, the Chinese people as sunflowers turning toward him. This is a subtle and clever acknowledgement of the tensions even today between individualism and collectivism.
Rural China is also represented by the youngest artists in the exhibition. Wang Cheng’s reconstructed pig sty, communal brick oven, and roadside shrine are built with Ming Dynasty bricks taken from the Great Wall. Salvaged by farmers over the years to build their own humble structures (especially during the Cultural Revolution’s “Smash the Four Olds” campaign, when everything considered “feudal” was fair game) they were purchased by the artist for his installation. He has installed them together with photographs of their original locations, a video, and a map. They represent the pillars of Chinese culture, says the artist, “community, animals, and God.” Gao Rong uses the traditions of Shaanxi embroidery taught to her by her mother and grandmother to make simulacra of the objects of her daily life in Beijing. She is represented here by The Static Eternity, a replica of her grandparent’s traditional home in Inner Mongolia. This simple house was the focus of Gao’s happy memories and longing for home when she left to study and work in the capital, part of “a generation adrift in Beijing.” Gao applies a painstaking traditional female domestic craft to create astonishing feats of trompe l’oeil. She replicates objects that have become or are about to become obsolete, in an effort to make us “look more closely at these things.” The work is an elegy to childhood, family, and a vanishing way of life.
The painter Chung Shun-Wen similarly pays homage to family with a series of gouache paintings of the patterned, faded fabrics of the clothes that her grandmother wore for decades. When this indomitable matriarch died at the age of ninety-seven, the artist began to paint remembered details of her clothing, including pockets, hems, and buttons. They are subtle, quiet works that require a willingness to look below the surface. Cleverly, like the Chinese painter Liang Yuanwei who has also painted fabric in closeup, they parody conventions of “all-over abstraction” and replace the field of the (mostly male) mid-century abstract painters with an entirely domestic surface, redolent of lived experience.
Wang Lei knits words. He takes newspapers, in this case the Oriental Daily, cuts out all the people’s faces, and mounts them onto long scrolls, a cascade of anonymous humanity. He then turns the dampened, discarded paper into yarn, knitting it into large, empty sacks. They are a little alarming, like something from a Grimm’s fairy tale. Previously he has used toilet paper to knit elaborately beautiful imperial robes, turning humble materials and the everyday into something rare and extraordinary. This alchemical approach to materials is another characteristic feature of contemporary Chinese art.
Chen Mingqiang’s Pictorial Study of Marriage Certificates in the New China was his doctoral dissertation. The artist collected hundreds of marriage certificates dating from 1949 to the present day, searching through flea markets and recycling centers to produce sixteen bound volumes of gorgeously illustrated documents that reveal changing attitudes to gender, love, and family through their iconography. Depending on the social circumstances and policy directions in the year of your marriage, you might end up with pictures of happy peasants and factory workers, a bumper harvest, or perhaps a Soviet-made tractor on the official record of your wedding. Marriage in the past was not a private affair, and hence the certificate recording the event was also a propaganda vehicle. The presentation of these “found objects” in a museum vitrine—like artifacts of a lost world—serves to underline the disjunction between past and present in China. Two such very different worlds. But it also reveals the way in which the past is always there, just out of sight, bubbling up from under the surface gloss and consumerist hustle of today’s world.
Perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibition is the highly cinematic Waltz by Zhu Jia, a slow, dreamy, and evocative video work presented on a single large screen. A pigtailed young woman and a young man, dressed in the drab Zhongshan suits of the past, dance awkwardly and stiffly to the martial rhythms of a revolutionary song, their bodies held deliberately away from each other. The settings change—a slow fade reveals the same young man preening in front of a mirror, dressed in the sharp Western fashions of 1930s Shanghai and waltzing with an imaginary partner. Time flips to the present, then runs backward, challenging our comfortable sense of narrative. The couple represent the artist’s parents and their courtship in days that seem to belong to another world. Zhu questions whether we can make sense of the past, with blurred transitions and soft fades alluding to the unreliability of memory. Trained as a painter, he works solely in video, making works that deal with time and the loss of innocence, reflecting on the impact of dramatic social and political change.
In the end, it seems to me, COMMUNE is all about memory. Public memory; revealed through newspapers, the printed word, marriage certificates, and official photographs. Private memory; the random, selective, and often blurred fragments of past connections and relationships. Both are immensely poignant, everywhere, but especially in the torrent of destruction and reconstruction that is China today.