Rags and riches: White Rabbit Gallery brings Chinese art to Sydney

Rags and riches: White Rabbit Gallery brings Chinese art to Sydney

When a billionaire Australian philanthropist teams up with a Chinese activist, the result is artistic dynamite

White Rabbit GalleryWang Zhiyuan's pyramid of rubbish stands as a protest against consumerism and waste.She's one of the richest women in Australia. He's a radical Chinese artist. Together, Judith Neilson and Wang Zhiyuan are conjuring up a storm in the Sydney art world.

White Rabbit Gallery, located in a backstreet warehouse in Chippendale, hangs works by activists, thieves, peasants and immigrants.

Since 1999, owner Judith Neilson has made regular trips to China and together with activist artist, Wang Zhiyuan, has scoured the countryside for unappreciated, emerging talent.

“We never ever buy at auction,” says Neilson, who founded White Rabbit with her husband, South African-born billionaire Kerr Neilson.

“I realized that the whole of the Chinese art market was controlled by a few people. So I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could have a space where I could show the work of the lesser-known artists.”

“The Chinese tend to buy old stuff -- antiquities -- they generally won’t go for the sort of art that we go for."

Neilson's teacher and guide, Wang Zhiyuan, believes the west has been slow to embrace the evolving, Chinese scene.  

Many Western curators and exhibition organizers are still displaying and promoting works from more than a decade ago, works by artists whose primary concern was “political correctness” and which no longer interests even those in the Chinese art scene,” says Zhiyuan.

Neilson started collecting Chinese contemporary pieces in 1999 and was one of the first international buyers to take a keen interest in the radical art movement.

White Rabbit is Neilson’s passion project. A out-and-out philanthropist, she has created the space to share her love of art with the general public, and admittance, tours and even the library are free.

Wang Zhiyuan

“Sometimes I think art is too selfish and useless,” Zhiyuan says. “I want my art to be about something bigger than me. If it wasn’t involved in society I would feel guilty.”

Wang Zhiyuan is an internationally established Chinese contemporary artist with a social conscience. He’s concerned about increased rubbish, waste and consumerism in China.

In response to his growing environmental concerns, Zhiyuan created a giant pyramid of garbage that he collected from local dumps.

He An

White Rabbit GalleryHe An's "What Makes Me Understand What I Know."One of the Neilson’s more recent acquisitions, "What Makes Me Understand What I Know," is by an artist who has moved away from strict political correctness.

He An paid professional thieves up to $750 to steal neon lights so he could create two very different character tributes -- his deceased father and an online, Japanese soft porn actress.

He says he knows plenty of thugs and crooked cops. And money can get you anything in China.

Jin Feng

Jin Feng is a social activist. His 15-meter-long photograph, "Appeals without Words," depicts a petition to the authorities about the theft of peasants’ land. The artwork was part of an exhibition that was shut down by police.

Artists still have to be careful about the subjects they address. If it overtly criticizes China, it could gain unwelcome official attention.

In the photo, the peasants were painted gold to make them look like statues that had solidified waiting for their requests to be granted.

“It’s reflecting how if you want something done, or you want something, you’ve just got to queue up and queue … and the piece of paper in your hand is of no value at all,” says Neilson. “Just like here.”


White Rabbit GalleryPart of Chili's "The Red Star Motel Series."Chi Lei (Chili) embraces the “sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll” mentality of the west, naming himself after the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

White Rabbit GalleryThe art realism of Gao Rong -- part of the North Village building.Chili’s "The Red Star Motel Series" is Hollywood stuff: drugs, violence, nudity and murder.

The photos were inspired by the work of American photographer Lyndon Wade’s "Room 107."

And while Chili is a fan of the United States, he also enjoys life in China. “Come to the bottom of China’s social ladder and experience the pleasure of it!” he says. “It’s quite fun!”

Gao Rong   

Neilson discovered Gao Rong, a Chinese immigrant from Mongolia, as an art student and purchased her first major work.  

Gao Rong created the ultimate soft sculpture –- an embroidered realistic representation of her dingy apartment block. It is an example of the precise technique and proficiency of many Chinese artists who are not shy of material or scale.  

Rong spent eight months on the artwork, stitching every detail of her drab existence –- the peeling paint, the dirty footprint and the rust on the pipes of Level 1/2, Unit 8, Building 5, Hua Jiadi, North Village.

Such is its realism, many people think the work is a building, and not a hand-embroidered fabric.

Edmund Capon, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, believes the collection at White Rabbit is typical of the Chinese art uprising. “As recently as 25 years ago, contemporary art of this form, or this standard of intellectual and emotional embrace was pretty much unknown," he says. "It’s happened in a very short period of time.”

They [Chinese contemporary artists] do push the boundaries quite a lot. And sometimes those boundaries are political and sometimes they are social.

“I think in the view of the Chinese hierarchy, that’s slightly dangerous because if you push the social boundaries too much you’re going to disturb the subtle equilibrium that keeps society sane and stable."

White Rabbit Gallery, 30 Balfour St., Chippendale, +61 (0)2 8399 2807, Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., www.whiterabbitcollection.org