Texts > 2008

White Rabbit and I —Wang Zhiyuan

Q1:How did the White Rabbit Contemporary Chinese Art Collection begin?
A1:My friendship with Judith Neilson dates back ten years. We met in 1999 while I was still living in Sydney. We became acquainted as a result of her collecting my work. Apart from the pieces collected by the National Gallery of Australia and Queensland Contemporary art Museum, the better works I produced during the ten years I spent in Australia are mostly in Judith's collection. It was a source of tremendous support for my artistic development in Australia. I returned to China in 2002, for spacious studios were more affordable in Beijing. In the spring of 2006, Judith brought her youngest daughter, Beau, to Beijing for a holiday. I took them to visit several artists' studios, where Judith acquired a few pieces of artwork. Beijing and China's transformation left a very strong impression on Judith's mind. A month after her return to Australia I received a call from her, detailing very clearly her plan to establish a not-for-profit collection of Chinese contemporary art in Sydney, and inviting me to come onboard and to help her to make it happen. I gladly agreed to it at once. Of course, I did not take the project so seriously at the time. I imagined it to be a small collection of a few pieces, which wouldn't be difficult. I never envisaged that as time went by, the collection would acquire more and more artworks, and that it would grow into such a significant and magnificent project. But still, it is fair to say that this project had a very simple beginning. 
Q2:How did you manage to find these artworks? 
A2:Judith is an artist herself. She paints, and has also done photography and graphic design. Her artistic judgments are highly professional, which made our collaboration very smooth and easy in the selection of works. As I have always paid close attention to the development of art in China, and it's been several years since I returned to Beijing, I have a pretty solid understanding of contemporary Chinese artists and their works. In order to track down quality artworks, Judith visits China as frequently as four times a year. We have assiduously been to all the places where it's possible to find art, including artists' studios, galleries, those in the city and those in the country, Northern China and Southern China… Each of her visits is an expedition of tireless searching. We would be constantly on the run. It feels as if one is searching for a needle in the ocean. 
Q3:What is the intention behind the decision to collect only Chinese artworks created in 2000 or thereafter? 
A3:"Ten years on the East bank of the river; ten years on the West." Thus goes an old Chinese saying. This is a proverb by convention, for treating each decade as a point of reference makes it easier to explain things. The year 2000, as a turning point, has a symbolic significance for China. It is also an important point in time for the opening-up and diversification of artistic forms since the Reform and Opening-up began in 1978, which is, of course, inseparable from the bigger changes taking place in China. In 2000, as China was getting closer and closer to becoming a member of the WTO, it also entered into a series of reforms towards a complete market economy. Marx once said: the economic foundation determines the whole immense superstructure. The soil and environment in which art is bred and cultivated have changed drastically. As a consequence, art must also be changing. What changes have there been? How are these enormous social changes manifested in art? These are the issues in which the White Rabbit Contemporary Chinese Art Collection is most interested. They are also considerations most relevant to us in the selection of artworks.  
Q4:How are the post-2000 works chosen for your Collection different from the pre-2000 works? 
A4:First, I must say something about a number of major events in the development of Chinese contemporary art prior to the year 2000, which have all been affirmed by Chinese art historians, such as the Stars Exhibition, the '85 New Wave, the '89 China Avant-Garde Art Exhibition, Political Pop, Cynical Realism and Gaudy Art (or Kitsch Art). If what Chinese artists faced at the dawn of the Reform and Opening-up could be seen as people of the post-Cultural Revolution era "settling accounts" with the Cultural Revolution, and as a form of resistance and "antagonism" against political oppression, then as Deng Xiaoping gave his speeches when inspecting the South in the '90s and China accelerated its move towards becoming a market economy as a result of its joining the WTO, those changes taking place after the year 2000 happened more and more rapidly. The new environment in which monetary exchange is the basic condition for everything, diminished people's concern with political issues, and the original impulses that instigated artworks also changed. Works produced against this background now have very different focuses from earlier works. The environment Chinese artists are now facing is one of even more complex "multiple-antagonisms": environmental pollution, money worship, market and art, clashes between native and Western cultures, tradition versus modernity, disparity between the wealthy and the poor, the HIV/AIDS problem, increasing self-consciousness of individuals and their consequent anxieties. As China becomes a more powerful nation and participates more and more on the international stage, also as computers become more and more prevalent in common households, Chinese people's horizons are being opened up. Through their works, the artists are no longer merely conveying their concerns about China's problems; they have begun to pay close attention to international issues as well: the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the war over oil, the financial crisis, friction between trading partners of the developed and developing countries, and so on. Moreover, even more importantly, in terms of the forms and methodology in undertaking creative art, they have also entered into what the American author, Arthur C. Danto, in his book After the End of Art, published in 1997, calls "the era of post-historical art". If it could be said that between the start of the Reform and Opening-up in 1978 and the year 2000, Chinese artists exhausted all the different schools of art the West had experienced since the late 19th Century, then it can also be said that these artists have also been forced into "the era of post-historical art" from a state of things where there was no longer any school of art to rely on as a point of reference. Every artist is now facing an embarrassing dilemma where you can do whatever you like, but no matter what you do, there is no benchmark to evaluate it. The difficult question confronting every artist today is this: Why do you create an artwork the way you do? What is your motive and what are you trying to achieve? This is why Chinese contemporary artists have entered into an age that is anarchic, and yet diverse, vibrant and dynamic. How social changes and changes in the artistic environment are affecting art, and how they are reflected through art, is the focus of the White Rabbit Collection. 
Q5:Does the White Rabbit Collection represent the direction of contemporary Chinese art in the 21st Century? 
A5:We are by no means making any such claim. Nobody is in a position, or is qualified, to give any definitive judgment on the value of art that has only just happened, or to say things like "this or that kind of work is the future of Chinese art". It is not reasonable. For instance, at the end of the 19th Century, when Impressionism was only beginning to be discovered and exhibited, no one in France would, or could, stand up and make a prophecy on the arrival of Cubism, nor could anyone have predicted that the central metropolis for art would shift from Paris to New York. I don't think any philosopher or art critic, however bright they may be, is capable of that. Particularly in this "era of post-historical art", we are more directionless than ever, and we are less capable of foreseeing the future than ever. The White Rabbit Collection has chosen a specific period, but it has no intention to deny any artistic phenomena of the past. Although, politically, China has not become truly and completely democratised, but people's lifestyle choices and living spaces are continuously expanding, the realm of things with which art is concerned has also changed. Today, "political correctness" is no longer a prerequisite for a work to receive any positive judgment. Artists are able to choose the fields or subjects they are interested in with greater freedom. This fact is itself a form of liberation for the artist's creativity. Many Western curators and exhibition organisers, unaware of the situation in China today, are still displaying and promoting works from more than a decade ago, works that saw "political correctness" as their primary concern. Even those on the Chinese art scene have grown tired of them. There are a number of reasons for how this state of affairs came about. Firstly, many Western people still have a very limited understanding of the sort of changes that are taking place in China, or emotionally they haven't yet been able to accept today's changes but are still able to find an echo with the "politically correct" works of yesterday. Secondly, some Western collectors have purchased paintings by Chinese artists. Mobilising their influence, they seek to frantically sensationalise things on the media so as to mislead others and to create illusions. Their motive is to increase the value of the works they own, so that ten years down the track they can then sell them off at a premium to China's new affluent class who do not yet possess very good judgments in art. The White Rabbit Collection hopes to reverse these poor judgments, as all of its works belong to the new phenomena in Chinese contemporary art since the year 2000. The White Rabbit Collection is not writing an art history that has just taken place or is currently taking place. It is encouraging new and valuable explorations in art as part of the historical process. 
Q6:When selecting works for your Collection, were matters such as the artist's age and gender taken into consideration at all?  
A6:These things are not relevant to us. Looking at the Collection in its present form, it includes works by middle-aged and young artists. It also includes works by female artists. But all this is only a matter of coincidence. Those middle-aged artists, whose works are included in the Collection, have all been active "trouble-makers" at the various stages in Chinese contemporary art's development since the 1980s. Their works today remain extremely provocative and challenging. This includes artists with overseas living experiences. Many artists who had lived abroad for a very long time returned to China in or after 2000. Their works have grown bolder, more complicated and more "hybrid", both in terms of subject matter and the medium employed. This has allowed their art to change as these artists' living conditions and the "role" they played also changed. These artists have combined Chinese and foreign artistic thinking, and are elucidating Chinese culture and the possibilities of its future development from brand new perspectives. The White Rabbit Collection also includes works by young artists of the "New Generation". As computers become increasingly popularised in China, most of the artists born after 1980 belong to the generation that grew up with computers. What is embodied through their artworks is something that has never happened in Chinese art before; they are new phenomena. For example, they are into digital drawing, multimedia animation and music. Another new phenomenon taking place among these young artists is collective authorship. They are no longer confined to working independently. Many of them work in collaboration with one another. Some even give their group a pseudonym instead of working under their individual real names. For example, "Unmask" is a group consisting of three artists, and "Tamen", literally meaning "They" in Chinese, is the collective pseudonym of a duo. What is common to these artists' works is that they have obliterated the artist's individuality. They are works of collective or collaborative creation. In the 1990s there was a Chinese art trio named "The New Measurement Group". It was very influential. Those artists also sought to negate the artist's individuality. But what they were exploring was the relationship between the "creation" of the artistic noumenon and the subject; it was a purely scholarly discourse. But today's young artists are more like the Japanese artist, Takashi Muradami. They have corporatised the creation of art, using methods akin to those of Hollywood movie-making. These young artists have not experienced the Great Cultural Revolution. They do not feel so many historical burdens as the previous generation does. The styles of their works are also more fashionable and market-driven, but they are also full of imagination. They are not after individuality. Instead, they accept collective production and market operation. 
Q7:How significant is the White Rabbit Collection for promoting contemporary Chinese art to the world?
A7:The other internationally influential collections of Chinese contemporary art, such as the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art and the Uli Sigg Chinese Contemporary Art Collection, have all played an important role in the development of contemporary Chinese art. Through their collections and exhibitions to audiences worldwide, Chinese contemporary art was brought onto the international stage and, as a result, received much attention. But the focus of the White Rabbit Collection is on the present, and what is happening right now, this very moment. Round about 2000, drastic social transformations took place in China. It may be said that few people in the West are truly aware of just what sort of transformations have taken place. Their impression of Chinese contemporary art is largely associated with pre-2000 works, most of which are images with political symbols or elements of traditional Chinese icons with a touch of what is trendy in the West. The White Rabbit Collection provides a platform, enabling the world to better understand the sort of changes currently taking place in Chinese art, allowing international collectors who are interested in Chinese contemporary art to gain a better appreciation of these changes, and to form better judgments about what is contemporary art and what is valuable art in today's China. For this reason, the White Rabbit Gallery will be holding both long-term and short-term exhibitions as well as publishing catalogues, so as to continue to promote Chinese contemporary art. There will also be a library of books on Chinese contemporary art in the Gallery. All of this will be extremely beneficial for international social research and educating the public on the development of Chinese contemporary art. 
Q8:How significant is the White Rabbit Collection for driving contemporary Chinese art forward? 
A8:Institutional reform of the cultural system in China is lagging behind when compared to the rest of the world. It is essentially still following the Soviet model. For example, China has "art academies" and "artists' associations" of various political hierarchies and in various geographical regions. Now there is no longer any point in their existence, but these institutions continue to exist with government funding. The emergence and development of Chinese contemporary art has always been really difficult. Only very recently has it ceased to be an "underground" movement and gained "above ground" status. Recognition for the so-called "freelance work" is also extremely recent. Once upon a time, if you called yourself a "freelancer", people would immediately associate you with a "riffraff", a "loafer" or an "idler". However, the freshest and most vigorous young bloods working as freelance professional artists today are yet to receive any support or sponsorship from the government. Unlike many Western countries, such as Australia, where each year the government-funded art council will provide a number of grants for artists to support their artistic projects. In a way, the White Rabbit will provide a form of sponsorship for Chinese artists. Of course, China is so big, and the White Rabbit alone is only capable of doing so much. I hope for many more private organisations, both in and outside China, to participate and to contribute. Not only is the White Rabbit Collection providing spiritual encouragement for many artists, it is also bringing them financial support, enabling a limited number of artists to continue their creative pursuits. Every artist has a dream. But in this special profession, no dream can be realised without the backing of capital. 
Q9:Against the current backdrop of globalisation, would you consider the question of "Chinese-ness" when selecting artworks for the Collection? 
A9:Generally not. Today's China is a society that is opening up. The so-called "Chinese-ness" is a stamp imprinted upon a non-Western culture by the West. For example, the Chinatowns in Western countries have all preserved traditional Chinese styled architecture, décor and customs, such as lion dances in festivals, yum cha and martial arts etc. There is nothing wrong with these practices as such; they are in fact highly commendable as ways to preserve a traditional culture. The problem is that in "his" eyes, this is what you should be like; this is what you must be like. It is the same with international art exhibitions. In exhibitions funded and coordinated by organisations with a Western background, works by Chinese artists are, as remarked by the distinguished Chinese art critic, Mr Li Xianting, "nothing but a plate of 'spring rolls' on a dining table". Works collected and displayed by the White Rabbit Collection doesn't have the "spring roll" problem. The selection of works was not determined by Judith alone. She respected my opinion and gave me great latitude in sourcing and choosing works. As a Chinese person participating in the selection of works by Chinese artists, this is quite rare and extraordinary for international Chinese art collections. The reality I have seen is that today's Chinese artists are no longer restricted to merely making "spring rolls". They even have their mind set on pounding the "spring rolls", the "hamburgers" and computers to pieces, and then cook them all together. What is "Chinese-ness"? I believe any regional culture must be changing constantly with time, for otherwise there is no way it could develop. Because the culture of every traditional nation is still "organic" in its native soil, it is alive; it is therefore constantly evolving and fusing with foreign cultures. What the White Rabbit Collection seeks to show the world is a visual-cultural feast from the changing China. What the Collection shows is its "comprehensiveness" and "plurality". 
Q10:Is an artist's reputation or eminence taken into account when selecting artworks for the Collection? 
A10:Works in the White Rabbit Collection came from artists of very different levels. Some are by very well-known and prominent artists, while others are the works of not-so-famous artists, and even artists who have only just begun their artistic career and are not yet well-established. The selection of each piece was purely merit-based, that is how interesting the work itself is. We were not interested in where the artist came from and where he or she was going. The Saatchi Collection in London was highly influential in the '80s. Most of the artists whose works were included in it were little known at the time, but apart from Damien Hirst, which other of these artists are still doing creative and influential work today? These things are not important. I think through his collecting and displaying these works, Saatchi has already given his affirmation to new artistic phenomena and new tastes at the time, and that is enough. 
Q11:Is medium a relevant consideration in selecting works for the Collection? For instance, are drawings preferred? Or "Chinese ink paintings"? 
A11:Categorically not. I know for a fact that many Chinese artists are painters, the reason for which has a lot to do with the artistic education system in China. Besides, paintings also tend to be more marketable. The White Rabbit Collection is a not-for-profit entity, therefore whether the artworks collected are likely to appreciate in value has not been a relevant consideration to us, which has enabled us to be relatively objective in the selection of works. As China is becoming increasingly opened up, its artists are also exploring an increasingly diverse range of artistic media, and its artistic ecology is becoming increasingly rationalised. There are currently many Chinese artists with a very open mind when it comes to media and materials. Some are even bolder than Western artists in their experiments. I believe "Chinese ink painting", as a medium, will always exist, just like Beijing Opera. But its many limitations do not allow today's artists to express all the sensations they wish to convey. Therefore, the question of medium has not been taken into account in selecting artworks for the White Rabbit Collection. There are some works in the Collection which employ the medium of Chinese ink painting. But it is only a medium. It's not quite right to call it a "Chinese painting". 
Q12:How do you perceive the hype in today's Chinese art market? 
A12:The hype isn't consistent across all media in Chinese contemporary art. It is mostly confined to two-dimensional paintings and drawings. To the criticisms towards the so-called "big face" paintings that are prevalent in China's academic circles, my attitude is one of understanding and concurrence. Twenty years of popularity and eminence owing to one "big face" painting should never be allowed to happen in any country, because this sort of misunderstanding will distort the entire course of development for contemporary art. Personally, I did not perceive this as a majorly significant problem. Like in any stock market, there'll always be some who are laughing, and there'll always be others who are crying. The problem is a real lack of independent art critics and a market for art criticism in contemporary Chinese art. Nor is there a developed system for collection and exhibition of art. That is, there is a lack of legitimate criticism and proper market direction. If the only characters singing on the opera stage are the "auction houses", the audience will naturally and inevitably consider that they are all that there is. So there is no proper opera to watch for the audience, only a distorted version. They will have to take it seriously. But I have confidence in the future development of Chinese contemporary art. In fact, looking back on the changes that have taken place, one will see that the artistic environment in China has already changed substantially. Contemporary art has already moved from a secondary role to the primary one, and it is becoming more and more widely accepted and highly regarded by the Chinese people. Many middle-class people have begun to collect contemporary art. A new era has come where works of different artistic media are each playing their own roles on the same stage. I hope to see more and more foundations, not-for-profit galleries and museums funded by Chinese capital, to allow those exceptional artworks be collected and displayed on their native land, because these works form a historical record for the development of Chinese people, because they are a part of Chinese history. 
Q13:Lastly, how do you feel, as an artist, about your involvement in the White Rabbit Collection? 
A13:As a Chinese artist being involved in such an important large-scale collection of Chinese contemporary art, I feel incredibly honoured. I really cherish this extraordinary opportunity, and therefore was very dedicated to my role and took every task very seriously. The amazing project did take up huge amounts of time, but I also learned many important lessons along the way. As you can get a more holistic view of things when you look from multiple perspectives, my involvement with the White Rabbit Collection will also impact on my creative work. I would like to take this opportunity to, firstly, in my own name, thank Judith for her enthusiasm for and commitments to Chinese contemporary art, to thank her two beautiful daughters for the efforts and patience they have devoted to this complex project, and to thank Mr Li Liang of Eastlink Gallery, Shanghai, for his efforts in procuring many of the works in the Collection. I would also like to extend my thanks to all the Chinese artists who have taken part in this project for their support and cooperation. Finally, the person we must also thank is the White Rabbit's ultimate sponsor, Judith's husband, Mr Kerr Neilson. Without his generous financial input, none of this would have been possible. 

Sincere thanks to the Neilson family for their love and support for Chinese contemporary art.

Wang Zhiyuan November 2008