White Rabbit Gallery: Week 193

2010 - Xia Xing - White Rabbit Gallery - Sydney, Australia

“2010” – Xia Xing

“I wish I could say WELCOME,” my tour guide enthusiastically cried, “but instead I can only say welcome.” Her arms dropped and shoulders slumped. “You’ve got on the wrong bus.”

The guide was right to offer only a restrained greeting since she wasn’t introducing the most flattering or palatable aspects of a modern China. However, I wasn’t on ‘the wrong bus.’ I was exactly where I wanted to be.

The White Rabbit Gallery is the world’s largest collection of contemporary Chinese art. What started as a personal collection for Judith Neilson eventually transformed into renowned gallery and teahouse.

The Family Album - See You Later - Huang Hua-Chen - White Rabbit Gallery - Sydney, Australia

“The Family Album – See You Later” – Huang Hua-Chen

Judith Neilson has over 1,100 works in her collection and while many of them celebrate the beauty and culture of China, the current exhibition dug beneath the veneer of the most populous country in the world. “In Commune, some of China’s best-known artists and brightest newcomers explore the tensions between individual and group, community and nation, collectivist past and chaotic present.”

On the ground floor was a series of images borrowed from the pages of the Beijing News- circulation 450,000. Xia Xing painstakingly painted each photo by mimicking the way the ink is layered on newsprint- cyan, magenta, and yellow.

The man who was amputated by the criminal he testified against, the fallen angel and her $2 billion dollar lawsuit, Xia transformed the disposable story into something more substantial.

As Husband and Wife - Li Xuan - White Rabbit Gallery - Sydney, Australia

“As Husband and Wife” – Li Xuan

“Indifferent herself to money and fame, she worried that money was corroding Chinese society, “tearing up conscience, morality and kindness”. As Husband and Wife (2010) was an experiment in a style that later became her hallmark: “painting” with torn-up banknotes and PhotoShop. The notes—from China and other nations—not only afforded her an extensive colour palette but literally represented a factor whose role in relationships is much larger than most people are willing to admit.

In this collage, the softly torn, petal-like shapes are a reminder that money is also one of the chief causes of marital conflict. The faceless bride and groom could be any couple, their disagreements stitched up for the happy day. (The artist obtained suture thread from her father, a surgeon.)”

In 2013, Li Xuan lost the battle against depression. She took her own life and that of her child as she could not bear to leave them in this world. In acquiring the piece from her distraught husband, the gallery donated to charity instead of directly purchasing the piece.

The Static Eternity - Gao Rong - White Rabbit Gallery - Sydney, Australia

“The Static Eternity” – Gao Rong

The struggle within a rapidly changing society is not without its fond memories though. Artist Gao Rong spent years recreating her grandparent’s house with foam, fabric and embroidery. The small one-room interior is lush in detail – especially when you realize that worn edges on the kitchen table, the rust spots on the pipes and the cracks on the wall had actually been embroidered.

The installation is a massive feat, which is an accurate assessment of the Commune show in general. It is not the glamorous or flattering side of China, but it is beautiful in its execution and heart-breaking in its honesty.

Teahouse at White Rabbit Gallery: Sydney, Australia

White Rabbit Gallery teahouse

How to get to the White Rabbit Gallery: 30 Balfour Street, Chippendale NSW 2008

Inner House: Week 190

Inner House: Darlinghurst, Sydney (photo by design firm Bates Smart)

Sydney Open is an architectural ‘open house’ that happens once a year and allows unparalleled access to some of Sydney’s most innovative buildings. This year was the tenth anniversary of the Sydney Open and everything from exclusive apartments to the ‘most glamourous watering hole in Australia’ was on offer. In total there were over 50 buildings available for viewing.

Barret and I chose to tour the ‘Inner House’ – a private residence concealed within a neo-Classical church in Darlinghurst. Built in 1926, the building was originally the headquarters of the First Church of Christ, Scientist. When the church eventually relocated to Glebe in 2010, they left a massive heritage-listed building in a residential zone. Given the development restrictions, I think it’s safe to say it was an intimidating property.

The architecture firm Bates Smart was interested in using the property as a studio, but due to the building’s zoning they instead showed the property to a potential client and suggested something rather unique. They wanted to create, “a residential ‘pod’ within the space- a reversible, demountable structure which would not compromise the building’s heritage status. At first this was to be a temporary solution. Instead there is now a six-bedroom, five-bathroom house built inside the former church.”

Inner House: Darlinghurst, Sydney (photo by design firm Bates Smart)

The current house completely resides within the 12 meter tall church auditorium. Most of the original pews were moved to the basement (which once housed the Sunday School), however a few pews remain clustered around the console of the massive church organ.

A short description from the architectural brochure: “within the main space, the architects have built a lightweight structure which sits on top of the original, slightly raked, timber floor. This is the dining and living area and it is bookended by two translucent, two-story cubes which contain the bedrooms, bathrooms and the seriously serious kitchen (tempura plate, deep fryer, cooktop and seating for a dozen people) to accommodate the client’s passion for cooking and entertaining.”

“The lightweight structure was manufactured off-site and then assembled on-site (it took just 14 weeks to build) and can be completely unscrewed and taken away. It uses fairly raw, contemporary materials (for example, ply linings that brace the structure), which is a deliberate strategy to contrast with the original building. In this way the integrity of the building is maintained, with old and new complimenting one another.”

Inner House: Darlinghurst, Sydney (photo by design firm Bates Smart)

“There’s no penetration through the roof. The kitchen exhaust, for example, has an ultra-violet hood which enables you to duct it down through the floor – it treats things with ultra-violet light so it doesn’t condense. The fireplace runs on ethanol, so it doesn’t need a flue.”

While the house was intriguing and the Harbour Bridge view was stunning, the short recital on the church organ was one of the most memorable highlights. Barret and I were very lucky because as part of the tour, a volunteer from the Organ Music Society of Sydney played a few songs for us.

Inner House: Darlinghurst, Sydney (photo by design firm Bates Smart)

Before the music began, the organist warmed up the 2500 pipes hidden behind a pierced screen. As the air began coursing through both the lead tin alloy pipes and wood pipes, it sounded like a muffled jet before softening into the sighing sounds of an industrial air conditioner. The pipes were in need of maintenance, but the escaping air was only noticeable during the quieter parts of the score.

While the powerful orchestral organ filled the room with Voix Celeste, Harmonic Piccolos, and Tuba Tremulants, the bright afternoon sunlight steamed into the living room. On the wall to the right of the organ was a quote from the church founder Mary Baker Eddy: Divine love always has met and always will meet every human need.

A space designed for the public, the intimacy of a home, and a church organ to fuse them together- what a cool house.

About: Sydney Open

About: Bates Smart (all photos above courtesy of Bates Smart)

The Redfern Terrace: Week 186

Illustration of a terrace home in Sydney. By: Stephanie Potell

Jason, the realtor, rocked up forty minutes late on his bike. He was in his early twenties and super keen about his job. “Because of the time of year,” he began as he led us into the house, “most of your flatmates are moving out. This creates exciting potential for you to pick your new flatmates. You could even recommend your friends and share the place with people you know!”

Ever since moving to Sydney, I have lovingly gazed upon the terrace homes that populate the inner west. It wasn’t too long ago that many of these urban homes were neglected and undesirable, but that definitely isn’t the case anymore. The same property that sold for $25,000 in the 1970s could now potentially fetch a million dollars. The neighborhood we were in, Redfern, had a funky vibe and the terrace we were looking at had space to store our bikes on the patio.

I have a good feeling about this! If this is the one we can move in this weekend!

Just after this thought popped into my mind, we reached the living room. It was dark and sparse like a bachelor’s pad. Jason pointed out the ‘new’ couch and then led us into the kitchen that looked significantly better online.

“We have inspections twice a year and if everything is not up to standard, then the tenants get a warning.” Jason explained. “If the house continues to be dirty, then we hire a cleaner. Don’t worry, this house had never failed inspection.” I’m sure Jason thought that was a great threat, but to me it sounded more like a great idea.

From the kitchen Barret and I were led outside and along the side of the house to the small brick courtyard. A bunch of our potential flat mates were huddled around the BBQ grilling meat and drinking beers. “We didn’t plan this!” Jason exclaimed. “I swear!” He chuckled before pointing out a small brick building in the furthest corner of the yard. “And the best part is that you don’t have to go inside to use the nice toilet- you can use the one out here.”

After greeting the group of guys, we walked back inside and up to what I really wanted to see- the bedroom with the terrace. The terrace was just as nice as I had imagined it would be. A cool breeze blew in through the double doors and the neighbor’s red bottlebrush tree blossomed at eye level. I could see myself on the weekend propping my legs up with a cup of tea and people watching the morning away. I loved it.

The only problem was the rest of the house. The online ad had mentioned two bathrooms, but that number included the brick outhouse in the backyard.

“Uh, Jason, how many people live here again?”

“It would be six including you.”

“And there’s only one shower?”


No wonder there were only guys living there. “Hmm… I thought there were two showers.”

“Well, I can’t make another one appear.”

No kidding I thought, but it probably wouldn’t have hurt to advertise the property more accurately. Jason impatiently shrugged his shoulders and began reading every minute detail on the lease. You can have 5-9 people over before you need to ask permission. There’s a $50 charge if you call us out for something unnecessary like for a broken vacuum when really the bag is just full. The oven is gas which is great because it heats your food up faster. Are you familiar with them?

While Jason read the four page document out loud, one of the flatmates walked downstairs clutching his own roll of toilet paper. Jason must have noticed this too because he mentioned again how nice it would be if we got our friends on board. “It’s just better when you share things, you know?”

Jason was eager for us to sign, but I politely deferred. “I’d like to look at the bathroom again before I make up my mind.” Barret and I headed back upstairs. The shower floor was covered in hair and a million bottles. The room was small and humid and I realized that I already hated the idea of touching anything in there.

In fact I hated everything except for the balcony, and you know what? The price had somehow increased by $20 a week.

It was our first time house-hunting for an old two-story terrace and it would have been great if it were the right place, but that’s just not how the Sydney real estate market works. And so the search continued…

Neon Museum Boneyard: Week 182

Polaroid of the Las Vegas Club neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard, Las Vegas

I was with my color photo class the very first time I visited the Neon Boneyard. Even before it became a proper institution, a museum with a visitor’s center and a security guard, the Boneyard was something special.

As soon as my film was developed, I locked myself up in the photo lab. The color darkrooms were small individual rooms along a short dark corridor and they had a vinegary smell. It might not have been practical to study film in a digital age, but it felt more meaningful. My film was a tangible object that captured the jagged glass, the rusted metal, the heart and soul of Sin City history.

Polaroid of the Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

“Neon lighting took on a particular resonance in Las Vegas and in other parts of the open landscape of the Southwest. Without many trees or buildings, the illuminated neon sign could be seen from miles away in the evening. Western motels used the neon medium perhaps more than any other business. This was also perhaps afforded by the low profile of casino and motel buildings when casinos within Las Vegas’ city limits were once limited to two stories. The low, horizontal profile has allowed building-mounted signs to be seen at longer distances. Traveling north on the Strip, the neon glow of Las Vegas acted as a beacon signaling toward the city.”(Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon).

Polaroid of the Lido neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

Within the last two years, the neon collection has been split into two different yards- the North Gallery is for commercial shoots and weddings while the Neon Museum Boneyard is available for public tours. One of the most exciting new additions to the facility, which was still in the process of relocation the last time I was in town, is the visitor center. The clam-shaped lobby, designed by Paul Revere Williams, was salvaged from the demolition of the La Concha Hotel in 2005.

Polaroid of the Stardust neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

The Neon Museum Boneyard is a testimony to the ebb and flow of Vegas culture. From the atomic font of the 50s to the kid-friendly themed signage of the 90s, the history of this desert valley is written in neon. Hotels might come and go, the wedding chapel vows too, but the Boneyard will still be around fifty years from now to document the changing city. At least, that’s what I would bet on.

Polaroid of wedding neon sign. Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

How to get to the Neon Museum Boneyard: 770 Las Vegas Blvd North

The Archibald Prize: Week 180

'Penelope Seidler' - Medium: acrylic on canvas - Artist: Fiona Lowry

‘Penelope Seidler’ – Medium: acrylic on canvas – Artist: Fiona Lowry

The Archibald Prize is one of the most prestigious arts awards in Australia. The annual prize is named after an Art Gallery of NSW trustee and since 1921 it has been given to the best portrait made in Australia/New Zealand.

To be eligible for the $75,000 prize, the entrant must reside in Australia or New Zealand for one year prior to submission deadlines. JF Archibald had stipulated in his will that the subject be ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics.’ While this guideline is more loosely interpreted, the following rules are hard and fast:

  • Must be a painting.
  • Must be a portrait painted from life, with the subject known to the artist, aware of the artist’s intention and having at least one live sitting with the artist.
  • Must NOT exceed the size limit of 90,000 square cm (eg 3 × 3 m, 1.5 × 6 m). Dimensions apply to the actual work of art, not the mounting or framing. Exhibition wall height is 3.4 m, floor to ceiling.
  • May be a multi-panel work as long as the overall dimensions do not exceed the size limit above.
  • May be painted in any medium (eg oil, acrylic, watercolour, mixed media).
"I wanted to paint him as a mountain" - Medium: oil on canvas - Artist: Abdul Abdullah

“I wanted to paint him as a mountain” – Medium: oil on canvas – Artist: Abdul Abdullah

The guidelines might be clear-cut, but they’ve still generated their fair share of debates. Throughout the 20s and 30s, artists were conservative in their subjects and style. Realism dominated and it wasn’t until the early 40s that a radically different kind of portraiture won the prize.

"Evan on a Sunday morning at the gallery having a ginger tea with some old fat snoring man and some lady pushing someone's annoying crying baby around in a blue pram, and no, you can't smoke here mate" - Medium: Ink on Chinese paper - Artist: Jason Phu

“Evan on a Sunday morning at the gallery having a ginger tea with some old fat snoring man and some lady pushing someone’s annoying crying baby around in a blue pram, and no, you can’t smoke here mate” – Medium: Ink on Chinese paper – Artist: Jason Phu

William Dobell had painted a fellow artist Joshua Smith. What ensued can only be described by the Art Gallery of NSW as a shit storm. Their words, not mine:

Opposition to the win was intense and two Royal Art Society members, Joseph Wolinski and Mary Edwards, took legal action against Dobell and the Gallery’s trustees, alleging that Joshua Smith was ‘a distorted and caricatured form’ and therefore not a portrait. In contrast, the supporters of Dobell described the portrait as both ‘a likeness or resemblance of the sitter and a work of art’, which allowed for distortion for the purpose of art.

Mr Joshua Smith - Medium: Oil on canvas - Artist: William Dobell

Mr Joshua Smith – Medium: Oil on canvas – Artist: William Dobell

In response to critics, Dobell said that when he painted a portrait he was ‘… trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject’s character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.’

The case stimulated massive press coverage and public comment – by those both familiar and totally unfamiliar with art. Ultimately, the Dobell case became a lively debate about modernism. The question of whether the painting was portraiture or caricature equally asked the questions of what constituted a portrait and what was the relationship of realism to art in general. Justice Roper upheld Dobell’s award on the grounds that the painting, ‘although characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion… nevertheless bore a strong degree of likeness to the subject and undoubtedly was a pictorial representation of him.’

"Real thing" - Medium: acrylic and oil on canvas - Artist: Mia Oatley

“Real thing” – Medium: acrylic and oil on canvas – Artist: Mia Oatley

Controversy struck again in 1975 when artist John Bloomfield’s photo-realist painting was disqualified. The image was based on a photograph of a British-Australian filmmaker he had never met. By way of the ruling, it was clear that capturing the essence of a known individual was more important than just realistic rendering alone.

Not too many boats were rocked at 2014 Archibald awards though. There was a lot of good work, the right amount of questionable stuff, and a few oddballs; however pretty much everyone agreed that the painting Rose Seidler was worthy of the substantial award.

The winner Fiona Lowry might have been walking on air, but I was also feeling pretty lucky to have been given a free ticket to an exclusive reception with the artists. There were delicious hors d’oeuvres and a buffet table of free champagne. My friend and I traipsed through the galleries back to front and when we scaled the marble steps back up to the foyer we were greeted with anther flute of champagne.

I already love art receptions, but this was like being upgraded to business class. Cheers to the JF Archibald for getting this ball rolling.

About: the Archibald Prize

How to get to the Art Gallery of New South Wales:  Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney NSW 2000

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