White Rabbit Gallery's Hannah Toohey muses on her first impressions of Beijing in this personal account of a recent trip accompanying Manager of Research Luise Guest as she travelled to artists' studios conducting interviews for the Judith Neilson/White Rabbit Collection Archive.
If it wasn’t for Judith Neilson’s generosity, it would have been a much longer period of time before I got my first taste of China. The insider’s look I was privy to whilst accompanying White Rabbit Collection Manager of Research, Luise Guest, on her trip to Beijing and Shanghai to interview artists for the collection archive was a far cry from what you could expect as a mere tourist. I was incredibly excited and intrigued, but ultimately, I could not ever have imagined what I was in for. As it turned out, I was charmed by the strangeness and beauty of the country.
Beijing by night is quite simply beautiful. Flying in, the city resembles a tangle of Christmas lights, illuminated with gaudy brilliance, begging to be patiently teased apart and made sense of. These moments of neon and general confusion seen from above are magnified as you walk the streets, finding yourself accosted by the unseasonable greetings of year-round Christmas decorations or blindsided by signs advertising noodles and Starbucks on almost every corner. As such, it’s difficult not to fall in love with this city, a place of dirty romance and austere poetry.
A sinister Santa in March in Beijing
I have had a deep admiration for Collection Artist, Chen Wei since his 2013 work Drunken Dancehall was shown in the White Rabbit exhibition, 'Paradi$e Bitch', in 2015, but, experiencing Beijing first-hand, his practice revealed itself to me in a new and profound way. His series of staged photographs including Future Modern, 2014, Today is Unsuitable for Shooting, 2013 and Light Box, 2013, were lifted out of the abstract and took form as skyscraper lined highways and intimate alleyways illuminated with an eerie phosphorescence. The times I came to enjoy most in the city were my solitary evening walks, feeling entirely safe as I walked alongside eight-lane highways aglow with street lights and activated by chaotic driving. After only a week in Beijing I became far too comfortable walking headlong into oncoming traffic with the expectation that cars would accommodate my presence and simply weave their way around me – which they always did – like principal dancers in an anarchistic ballet. What works a treat in Beijing would mean total catastrophe in Sydney.
Chen Wei, Lightbox, 2013, archival print, 150 x 187.5 cm, White Rabbit Collection
A gentleman waiting for his midnight meal
It’s contradictions such as these that I came to relish during my stay, because I expected a lot of things of Beijing, but to feel strangely alone was not one of them. I found myself constantly asking: if this is a city of 20 million people, where on earth are they? The answer is probably in one of the hundreds of thousands of apartments blocks simply appearing around the city, or perhaps, as Luise suggested, in the subway. But how can a city that extends so far beyond what the eye can see, feel in some ways desolate? I had assumed, as I’m sure many before me have, that Beijing was a high-density city with buildings and people packed together with a claustrophobic tightness – this, however, was simply not the case. As the landscape slipped into the distance as we sped down highways in our car, what I saw was sprawling but with vast amounts of space in between roads and structures. The landscape shifted imperceptibly from urban structures to rural fields and at the end of each of these journeys, we found ourselves at the studio of an artist from the White Rabbit Collection.
Warm light on one of our many car journeys.
There is something very intimate about visiting the space in which an artist works; it’s a privilege that never ceases to humble and excite me as the sights, smells and instruments of creation in each studio differ as dramatically as the artists who occupy them. Our first visit, and the one most vividly etched into my memory, was to Yang Shen’ studio. Bathed in hazy sunlight and suffused with the rich intoxicating smell of oil paint, his space had all the romance you’d expect from such a talented painter. Growing up during the period of Reform and Opening in China, his work is informed by a veritable hodgepodge of comic books, surrealist literature and communist propaganda.
But what a contrast this was to photographer Chen Wei’s studio. His space on the outskirts of Beijing was one-part office and two-parts warehouse, dedicated to intricate set designs; the subject of his mise-en-scène style photographs. I was barely able to contain my excitement as we sat down with him on our last day and he spoke to us about his works in the White Rabbit Collection, of the industrial coldness of the city and of digital glitches that seem like floating paintings. And so, with eleven artist interviews behind us and my heart entirely full, we headed to the airport and on towards Shanghai.
Green moments in Yang Shen’s studio space.
Under construction in Chen Wei’s studio.
More to Explore
In 2018, Wang Jianwei donated an f-clamp to the White Rabbit Collection Archive, explaining that
If there were any doubt that the art scene in China is as relentlessly creative, taboo-breaking,
Yu-Chieh Li, the Judith Neilson Postdoctoral Fellow in Contemporary Art at UNSW Art & Design,