Maria Karageorge, Art History (Honours) graduate
It’s hard to mistake Mario and his iconic get-up, unless, perhaps, he’s swinging Coke-cans instead of bob-ombs and banana peels or racing from space to Tiananmen Square to do battle with astronauts and USSR satellites. Or, he’s swapped his signature overalls for a (hint: also blue and red accented) combat-suit more reminiscent of one of Mao’s Red Guards, though the two outfits have never looked more alike. These are the kinds of double-takes that greet visitors stepping into White Rabbit Gallery’s 'Big in China' – the gallery’s first exhibition for 2022 and the latest to feature Feng Mengbo’s massive side-scrolling video-game installation, Long March – Restart (2008). Feng’s work reimagines more than fifty years of Chinese history, drawing on the collective memory and iconography of events like the Red Army’s 1935 campaign of (almost) the same name and the fervour of the Cultural Revolution, as the game unfolds to a jaunty soundtrack of revolutionary folk songs. At the same time, characters from foreign franchises like Nintendo and Street Fighter seemingly alluding to China’s policies of Reform and Opening in the 1980s appear alongside tanks recalling the Tiananmen Incident toward the end of that same decade. Feng’s historical interpretation of these events is playful, yet subversive; exposing the hypocrisy of narratives of Chinese modernity and progress perpetuated by the contemporary party-state, which saw openness to the world as merely a continuation of that previous endeavour for national (not cultural) survival.
As far as exhibition openings go, Long March: Restart is perfectly big, bold and flashy in its immediate aesthetic and sensory impact; transforming White Rabbit’s first floor into an almost surreal arcade, and viewers into gamers taking turns with the controller.
The excesses of capitalism and consumerism are blatant themes that no doubt fit with the sentiments of the opening wall text: ‘companies, brands, and even nations from around the world all scramble to win the favour of Chinese consumers’. At first, it’s tempting to write off White Gallery’s decision to open the exhibition with Feng’s installation in the vein of criticisms voiced by writers like Zhu Qi who note a shallow Western preference for Chinese contemporary work that’s ‘political, fashionable, subversive and psychopathic’ . Art historian Lily Chumley asks why so much contemporary art (like the’90s genre of 'Political Pop') still depicts the face of Chairman Mao, speculating that he might be ‘the only Chinese political figure Western buyers recognise’ . In the same way, we might ask why this exhibition opens with a work that’s just as familiar in its adaptation of popular gaming characters; conveniently universal, and instantly relatable.
Galleries like White Rabbit which display Chinese contemporary art outside of China know the answer to these questions quite clearly: works that derive their message by appropriating materials and methods from outside function better than others to make that art easier for Western audiences to comprehend. Art historian Cary Liu offers a way to understand this, as the issue comes with not merely exhibiting Chinese art elsewhere, or ‘outside’, but to audiences who are ‘cultural outsiders’, for whom China remains 'exotic', incomprehensible, and 'other' . The result is, as Liu explains, an approach to Chinese art that looks for similarities and differences (from Western tradition) rather than cultural understanding. For audiences who search for the things they know and recognise, this becomes sort of a game. As such, many viewers spent considerable time puzzling over Xu Zhen’s highly saturated Communication (2019) series picking out the ‘Easter Egg’ cast of mainstream cartoon heroes like Mickey Mouse and the Smurfs; still salvageable, still recognisable, and not entirely lost in an otherwise totally abstract mash-up.
By contrast, many of those same viewers seemed to brush past Fu Xiaotong’s Spiritual Mountain (2015) in the opposite room, a work that was by all means beautiful and touching in its unique composition of a sprawling mountain landscape composed entirely of tiny pinpricks on handmade paper. Of course, some took the time to admire the way Fu captured subtle undulations and fleeting textures with only the slightest changes in the direction of the needle, although this was a work that required seemingly more explanation in the form of a nearby gallery assistant to chime in and reveal its process.
Moments like this make it possible to consider whether works featuring quintessentially 'Chinese' materials and subject-matter, such as the xuan paper in Fu's work traditionally used for calligraphy, which should be praised for their ‘outstanding creativity’ in fact find it harder to speak.
'Big in China' is to be commended for its centring of the diversity of responses and artistic voices that shape contemporary art in China, even while captivating the attention of ‘over a billion wandering eyes and minds’ and making them ‘move in unison’ appears something of a curatorial cop-out for an exhibition that lacks a unifying theme. To consider China’s history over the last century for a moment, the narrative of the modern and contemporary is after all, an erratic one, resisting categorisation by style. In the way it was defined by a pattern of reversals, or 'restarts' which involved ‘closing down and looking inward, opening up and looking outward,' shaping its encounters with the rest of the world, artistic responses diverged tremendously in their respective interpretations of the past, present, old, new, Chinese, and foreign . Galleries tasked with curating Chinese art in the West no doubt play a role in constructing ideas about Chinese culture. Certainly, the challenge posed by this exhibition at its outset, 'what does it mean to make it Big in China?' is a valid one that raises just as many questions about what it means to make it big outside China.
Zhu Qi, 'Do Westerners Really Understand Chinese avant-garde Art?,' in Chinese Art at the End of the Millennium, ed. John Clark. (Hong Kong: New Art Media Limited, 2000), 56.
Lily Chumley, 'Comments: Review of “What Marco Polo Forgot”: Contemporary Chinese Art Reconfigures the Global,' Current Anthropology 53, 4 (August 2012): 483-4.
Cary Liu, 'In the Mischievous Role of Naturalist: Classifying the Chineseness in Contemporary Art,' in Outside In: Chinese x American x Contemporary Art, ed. Jerome Silbergeld and Dora C.Y. Ching (Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum), 143.
Liu, 'In the Mischievous Role of Naturalist,' 150.
Maria Karageorge recently completed an Honours year in Art History at the University of Sydney. For her thesis under the supervision of Dr. Yvonne Low, she examined reverse glass paintings as a form of eighteenth-century cross-cultural exchange between the Qing Empire and Europe. Her research interests include Export Art, material culture, and decorative histories. Prior to completing her Honours she worked for Bonhams Australia, the National Art School, and the Art Gallery of NSW in collaboration with other students to produce content for ArtExpress.