From the very beginning, since the gallery first brought Judith Neilson’s private collection of Chinese art into public view in August 2009, White Rabbit has performed with style and polish well beyond its years. Not an easy bit of prestidigitation.
Of course, the fact that both the physical infrastructure of the gallery and the collection itself have had the benefit of Neilson’s vast wealth is an undeniable part of the White Rabbit magic. Neilson is ranked as the 37th wealthiest person in the country on the 2019 Forbes list. Though admittedly, merely throwing money at something doesn’t guarantee greatness – a lesser-known contributing factor at White Rabbit is that Neilson had been collecting Chinese art for nearly 10 years before the gallery opened its doors. So, while White Rabbit Gallery celebrates its 10th anniversary, the collection is about to turn 20.
White Rabbit is marking both of these milestones with a series of exhibitions: A Fairy Tale in Red Times, currently open at National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne until 6 October; a survey of the first 10 years of Neilson’s collecting titled Then on at White Rabbit from 11 September; and another titled And Now which will open in March 2020 and will feature much more recent works.
The White Rabbit collection has always been idiosyncratic, and this too is one of its strengths. Like David Walsh’s equally influential collection at Mona, which opened in Hobart about 18 months after White Rabbit, it’s a physical manifestation of an individual’s concerns and aesthetic tastes. As David Williams, curator at White Rabbit, explains, “Judith is not trying to present exactly what is happening in Chinese art at the moment, and she doesn’t really care if she buys work by ‘name’ artists. It’s very much a personal selection. She refers to it as a ‘document;’ one person’s view of this 20-year period.”
The challenge of working with this type of collection is managing to find new ways of presenting the same work, and this is where the White Rabbit magic really happens. The work is continually recontextualised around themes as varied as violent change (The Big Bang, 2010); greed, corruption and spiritual destitution (Paradi$e Bitch, 2015); and the conceptual resonance of the colour black (The Dark Matters, 2017), so that even old works, which audiences may have seen before, are presented in a new light.
And over the 20-year period that Neilson has been collecting Chinese art, the concerns of the artists have changed and evolved too. As Williams, who has been at White Rabbit in a variety of roles from the beginning, explains, the changes he has witnessed over time have been significant. “When the gallery first opened it was a very different style of art. It was all about consumerism, and not just criticising the West, but the whole idea of the West being really important. Now it is very much about commenting on China,” he says. “Well, the older generation are commenting on China. The newer artists consider themselves to be international citizens. They don’t consider themselves to be Chinese artists; they don’t want to be labelled by gender or nationality. That’s the biggest shift.”
Highlighting these changes is one of the aims of the anniversary show, Then, which, after some 20 shows in 10 years, is the first chronological survey of the collection. Then features around 70 works made between 2000 and 2010. The ground floor hang replicates the very first White Rabbit show by re-presenting three sculptures by Chen Wenling: Valliant Struggle 11, 2006, in which a couple of golden figures cling to a sow who is in turn suspended from the preternaturally long tongue of an apparently voracious car; and Red Memory – Smile, 2007, and Red Memory – Asking God, 2006, in which, together, a red giant man leans down to chat to a small pig perched on its hind legs.
After this initial time capsule, the exhibition moves from Qi Zhilong’s China Girl, a 2001 paintin of a young woman clad in khaki ‘Mao pyjamas,’ to Xu Zhen’s 2009 sculpture, Calm, which occupies the entire third level. As Williams puts it, “We start off with Qi Zhilong’s quintessential work, what people might have expected from Chinese art when we first opened.” The show finishes with Xu Zhen’s pile of rubble, which seems to gently breathe; a poetic work that cuts through any cultural specificity to highlight the vulnerability of all human endeavour.
“I think the aim of White Rabbit is to open people’s eyes to what Chinese art is,” says Williams. “And that is really rapidly evolving. Sometimes visitors come in and say, “This isn’t Chinese art!’ And we go over and reply, ‘Well, yes it is.’ And it’s nice that people don’t always know what to expect.”
This article was originally published in the September/October 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.