Tag Archives: White Rabbit Gallery

Asia Literary Review 22

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 22, [Northern] Winter 2011


[Note added in 2021: All the links in this blog post are broken except the ones in the journal title above and in the image to the left, and the profile of Amitav Ghosh and ‘The Sacred Cow‘. The whole journal is still available online to subscribers.]

The Asia Literary Review has a new Editor in Chief, the third in the nine issues since I first subscribed. There’s no note of farewell to Stephen McCarty, as there was none to Chris Wood before him. The silent turnover is just a little unsettling, but I guess we don’t read the journal for news of its staff. Martin Alexander, the new occupant of the chair, was previously (and still is) Poetry Editor. In his editorial, he addresses the journal’s identity:

… while Asia is a concept we may broadly understand, it would be foolish to attempt a precise definition. Asia’s identity is in a state of motion; we aim to capture that motion in these pages.

That’s not bad: if Asia is an imprecise entity, it would be a mistake to overdefine the journal’s scope or purpose. Its contents are in English, and they ‘capture’ Asia in some way. That’s enough.

‘Capture’ can describe what a tourist snapshot does, and there’s quite a lot of that in this issue, mainly but not exclusively in its four photo essays – of street scenes in Java, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and the grand but as yet unpopulated city of Kangbashi in Inner Mongolia. The photography is brilliant in each case, but in the end they are all picturesque street scenes, and so a lot less interesting than, say, Jack Picone’s ‘Planet Pariah’ about life on the Burma Thailand border in issue 19.

There are a number of excerpts from longer works, both prose and verse, which are like snapshots in a different way: tantalising glimpses, but sometimes hard to tell what it is one is glimpsing. An exception is the excerpt from Chen Xiwo’s novel I Love My Mum (banned in China, translated by Harvey Thomlinson, and published by Make Do Publishing), which stands alone as a tale of desperate brutality with chilling allegorical implications. You can read the whole excerpt at the link.

Sticking with the idea of ‘capture’, there’s Fionnuala McHugh’s profile of Amitav Ghosh. I’ve only recently discovered his writing, and was delighted to learn more about him, and about his Sea of Poppies. He reveals, for example, that having done a little sailing he knew that sailing was ‘very dependent on words’:

I thought there has to be a dictionary. I happened to be at Harvard but I found the Lascari dictionary in Michigan – published in 1812 in Calcutta by a Scottish linguist. I didn’t have to make anything up.

He sounds like a terrific man – if a Sydney Writers’ Festival scout happens to read this, could you invite him some time soon, maybe when the third book of the Ibis trilogy comes out?

The Ghosh profile is also part of what Martin Alexander calls ‘motion’, if he means by that the kind of dynamic interplay that can add spice to a literary magazine.  Ghosh, we read, turned down the 2001 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize because it was for works written in English, from a region ‘that was once conquered and ruled by imperial Britain’. This is honourable and hardly surprising, given the unflinching portrayal of the Raj in Sea of Poppies. But here it resonates interestingly with a short piece by Pico Iyer, The Empire Writes Back, Revisited, which argues that the formerly colonised have taken charge of the cultural centre, and that the English language, no longer dominated by the former colonisers, is being reclaimed and revitalised by a host of writers from India, China, the Caribbean, Africa, New Zealand, Australia. This ALR tends to bear out Ghosh’s side of the conversation, as most of the contributors seem to be of European or US extraction, and there is that strong touristic element. But Pico Iyer would find material to support his view as well.

Of the short stories, ‘The King, the Saint and the Fool‘ by A. K. Kulshreshth weaves a sweet romance from elements taken from the folk history of Singapore, and Sindhu Rajasekaran’s ‘The Sacred Cow‘ tells a distinctly modern love story in the context of Indian village life. The essay that stands out is Michiel Hulshof’s ‘Special Academic and Art Zones‘. Hulshof is a Dutch journalist living in China. Among other things his essay gives a fascinating account of the economic and political context of contemporary Chinese art (of the kind Sydneysiders get to enjoy at the White Rabbit Gallery).

Almost as good as getting on a plane and travelling for six months.

Journals: Overland 201, Asia Literary Review 18

Overland 201 (Jeff Sparrow 2010)
Asia Literary Review 18 (Stephen McCarty 2010)

A dear friend of mine was once a member of the CPA (that’s the Communist Party of Australia, not the Chartered Accountants’ thingummyjig). Years after she left the Party, a former editor of Tribune asked her what she was reading to keep up to date with politics. When she named the National Times, an eminently liberal weekly of the day, he was scathing: ‘Surely you don’t think you can get decent information from the bourgeois press!’ I thought of him as I was reading these magazines: at least part of my motivation for subscribing to them is to ensure that I have a regular injection of thinking from respectively left and non-Western perspectives, neither of which – to put it mildly – is dependably represented in the mainstream press.

So, for instance, Jeff Sparrow’s article ‘The Banality of Goodism‘ starts with a quote from Aimé Césaire on the dehumanising effect that colonisation has on the coloniser, and goes on to argue that the war in Afghanistan is actually a colonial enterprise, that colonial enterprises have always dressed themselves in the robes of what he calls ‘goodism’ (we’re in Afghanistan for the sake of the women, the peoples of Central America needed to be rescued from human sacrifice), that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (bad) used some of the same justifications as the US invasion (good). He also reminds us that in the week after 11/9 George W Bush visited a mosque and described Islam as a religion of peace, a gauge of how the dominant Western conservatism has degenerated in the last nine years. This kind of thing has to be good for the soul.

Similarly refreshing are a debate on population policy, a reply to Cate Kennedy’s anti-Internet rant in issue 200, a piece on Bruce Petty’s heroic cartoon-wrestling with economic subjects, an article that discusses the state of ‘flow’ (that focused state attained by craftspeople), a challenging argument against corporations’ providing breast pump ‘lactation’ rooms in lieu of maternity leave, and indeed the replacement of ‘maternity leave’ with ‘baby leave’. I may have come across any of these pieces on the net, but I would have skimmed them there. Here, I either read them with full engagement or skipped them altogether (I couldn’t bear to read Marty Hiatt’s rebuttal of Cate Kennedy, for example, because Kennedy’s piece was exactly the kind of intervention that an incipient Internet addict such as I needed: I don’t want it watered down).

A third of this issue is given over to showcasing the work of Young Writers. No ages are given, but it’s fairly evident that the four writers involved aren’t young in the sense that term would be used in the context of children’s literature. The introductory note by retiring fiction editor Kalinda Ashton and Samuel Cooney invokes Mark Davis’s Ganglands, thereby apparently implying that these ‘young writers’ are Gen Xers. Whatever! In my naivety I had assumed that magazines like Overland would publish work by Gen X and much younger writers as a matter of course, and I found myself reading these four stories with half an eye out to see what made them ‘young’, not a good frame of mind for enjoying a story.  They’re all good stories, but Sam Twyford-Moore’s creepy ‘Library of Violence‘ was the only one that overcame the handicap created in my mind by the pigeonholing.

This issue of Asia Literary Review focuses on China, to the extent that all but three items are on topic.  There are photo essays, travellers’ tales, expat narratives, an odd little memoir by Jan Morris, and short stories. A short essay by John Batten, ‘Cracking the Sunflower Seed’, reflects on contemporary Chinese art such as we have seen at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. There’s a poem by last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiao Bo, as well as ten or so other modern poems, with a useful five page orientation by Zheng Danyi. I miss a lot of what’s happening in Chinese poetry – Zheng quotes a quatrain that ‘infuriated Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing’, but all I can see is a lament for a broken stove. So Lord knows what’s happening in Liu Xiao Bo’s poem, ‘You Wait for Me with Dust’, besides surface action of a man in prison writing to his waiting wife.

The three pieces that aren’t about China are almost worth the price of admission: Marshall Moore’s short story, ‘Cambodia’, about three US siblings visiting Phnom Penh, Burlee Vang’s ‘Mrs Saichue’, set in a Hmong community in the USA, and Anjum Hasan’s piece on E M Forster’s time in India, which includes this glorious photo:

I think it’s fair to say that Asia Literary Review is more fun than Overland this issue. Overland, on the other hand, invites sharper engagement with issues closer to home.

White Rabbit revisited

Yesterday we visited The Tao of Now, the new exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at the White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale, and had a very good time. The wonderful bright red pig car whose tongue soars to the ceiling and has another, golden pig and two other figures hanging from its tip – that and other pieces that were in the foyer previously are still there, but the three upper floors have had a complete makeover and the works are as fresh and surprising as the last lot.

As we were chatting over a display catalogue of Qin Fengling’s work, a tall silverhaired woman with a chihuahua on her arm (‘He will bite,’ she said later) joined our conversation, saying, ‘We have her red piece, though not in this exhibition.’ She flipped through the pages and showed us the piece she meant, and then went on to say that the Guggenheim had been interested in it, but she’d beat them to it because she didn’t have to secure a committee’s approval.

Aware of my solemn responsibility as blogger cum citizen journalist, and sharp as a tack as always, I said, ‘You must be … the owner.’ Those three dots represent the moment in which the name ‘Judith Nielson’ didn’t get past the tip of my tongue. She didn’t seem to mind. ‘Not the building,’ she said. ‘That’s my husband. But yes, I own the artworks.’

We chatted for a couple of minutes (there were five or six of us in the room – that citizen journalist thing was definitely a joke), and she said something that explained part of the appeal of the gallery: ‘I never buy something because of the explanation. If I need to read about a work to be able to enjoy it I’m not interested in acquiring it. But once we’ve bought it and have it back here, we have a whole machinery that swings into action to fill in the background.’ and it’s true: whether it’s the motorbike and sidecar crocheted out of bright blue wire, the interactive screens based on classic Chinese watercolour scrolls, or the giant painting of a headless Mongol archer looking out over Tien an Minh square, the works in this exhibition grab the attention first, ask questions later. It’s a bonus that there are attendants on every floor who are keen to raise and answer the questions.

I don’t suppose Ms Neilson and her tiny, dangerous dog are always there, but clearly they sometimes are, as an extra special bonus.

White Rabbit and Menagerie

This afternoon we visited the White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale, and then went on to Object Gallery to see their part of the exhibition Menagerie.

The White Rabbit Gallery has been open for exactly three months. In a converted Chippendale warehouse, a couple of very rich Sydneyites have set up a space to share with the public their collection of contemporary Chinese art. Admission is free, and gallery staff members are on hand on all four floors to answer questions, point out things you might have missed, offer a word or two about the biography of the artist. From the meticulously shredded Mao suits of Sun Furong’s Tomb Figures, through the spectacular trompe-l’oeuil draughtsmanship of Ma Yanling’s four images of opera singers, to Chen Wen-Ling’s over-the-top sculptures (guaranteed to make a pig-lover smile, and maybe even a pig-hater) this gallery is fabulous. Thanks, Judith and Kerr Nielson.

Menagerie: Contemporary Indigenous Sculpture is, according to the Australian Museum web site, ‘a groundbreaking exhibition featuring animal sculptures by 33 established and emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists’. Part of it is at the Museum, part at the Object Gallery up the hill (The site uses flash but irritating Flash: click on Explore on the side and you’ll get details of this exhibition). We’ve yet to visit the former. The latter occupies the single room of the Main Gallery, with a 20 minute video on six of the artists playing on a loop in the small upstairs space. It’s magic. I particularly loved ‘Red, White and Blue’ by Danie Mellor. This consists of three kangaroos, about a metre high, with front paws covering respectively mouth, eyes and ears. They’re made of mosaic tiles (respectively red-patterned, white and blue-patterned), except for their paws and ears, which are made of kangaroo skin, creating the impression that living animals have been encased in unyielding shells made from the detritus of settler society. They’re beautiful, poignant, and made by a man of Mamu heritage (I was born in Mamu country). I just googled Danie Mellor and found out that he won the Telstra Aboriginal Art Award this year, and that he had a solo exhibition at Elizabeth Bay that closed yesterday. I have terrible timing.

The White Rabbit exhibition stays up until January, when it is replaced by other contemporary Chinese works from Judith Nielson’s collection. Menagerie closes on 15 November.