Made in China
Judith Neilson and her husband Kerr founded the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney, which displays Chinese art produced after the year 2000. She spoke to Apollo about why she wanted to share her collection
Oscar Humphries, Tuesday, 1st November 2011
The Chinese art boom of the previous decade saw interest in, and the prices of, Chinese contemporary artists rise to unprecedented levels. Collections and fortunes were built by serious connoisseurs and speculators, eager alike to engage in this newest art market. ‘First-wave’ artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Ai Weiwei, Wang Guangyi and Zhang Huan made huge prices at auction. Much of their work was bought not by Chinese but by American and European collectors; as a result, prices went into decline when the global financial crisis hit in 2008. Only in 2010 did the seeds of a second boom, this time fuelled more by mainland Chinese collectors, become visible.
By contrast, the White Rabbit Collection, which has its home in Sydney, focuses on the work that followed in the wake of this initial interest: everything in it was made after the year 2000. The collection – nowadays comprising well over 400 works by more than 200 Chinese artists, the largest and most significant of its kind – was put together by Judith Neilson with the backing of her husband, Kerr, a billionaire fund manager. Since 2009 a changing selection of these works has been publicly displayed, without charge, at the White Rabbit Gallery in central Sydney (Figs. 1 and 7).
For the Zimbabwean-born Mrs Neilson, who studied textiles and graphic design as a teenager in Durban, South Africa, the collection and the gallery space represent a very personal journey. In 1999, at a private gallery in Sydney, she came across a sculpture by Wang Zhiyuan, a Chinese artist who, having fled his country as a student following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was then living in Sydney. ‘I realised this was something very special,’ she recalls. ‘A year later I contacted him, and he agreed to come and tutor me. For a year he spent eight hours
a week with me – we just talked about art and ideas.’ Mr Wang introduced her to an astonishing outpouring of creativity that had been gathering strength, largely below the radar, in China since the beginning of the country’s ‘opening up’ in 1989.
In 2000 she made her first visit to main-land China, travelling to Beijing, and was delighted to find it ‘absolutely bursting with ideas, with energy and desire.’ What she didn’t like, however, was that the market seemed to have attained prominence over the work itself. ‘I saw that this was a market that was being manipulated horribly by collectors and auction houses. [The Neilsons themselves have never sold a work.] I just felt that there were lots of artists that the rest of the world should see and they would likely never get the chance because the market was so focused on a dozen-or-so artists.’ While for years Mrs Neilson had collected art from various countries and continents, ‘mainstream’ Chinese contemporary art – exemplified by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney’s ‘Mao Goes Pop, China Post-1989’ exhibition of 1993 (a streamlined version of ‘China’s New Art, Post-1989’, which had been held earlier that year at the Hong Kong Arts Centre) – had so far failed to engage her interest. On that trip, however, she acquired a few pieces.
Five years later she returned to Beijing, this time with her youngest daughter, Beau. There they were taken by Mr Wang, by then living once more in the Chinese capital, around a number of local artists’ studios. Mrs Neilson enthusiastically made several new acquisitions, but when she got back to Sydney it quickly became apparent that any further, significant collecting would be hampered by a lack of wall space at home. Thus the idea of the White Rabbit Collection and Gallery was born. Barely a month after she had bidden farewell to Mr Wang in Beijing, Mrs Neilson called the artist to seek his help in putting together a collection of contemporary Chinese art for public display in Sydney. Planning a museum before its contents had even been identified, let alone acquired, was a reversal of the usual order of events that put altruism at the core of the White Rabbit concept: Mrs Neilson wanted this new and exciting art to be collected and preserved in a coherent way, expressly for public appreciation. Mr Wang accepted her proposal without hesitation.
Since then, the White Rabbit Collection has come together very quickly. Mrs Neilson visits China every three to four months for scouting trips with Mr Wang, staying 10 days at a time; more recently they have started visiting Taiwan as well. She says that when she goes she ‘never has a plan, and buys from galleries, from artists’ studios and from art schools’ – the only constant is that both she and Mr Wang must agree on a prospective acquisition. For newcomers to the Chinese market, and indeed to Asian art in general, Mrs Neilson recommends Hong Kong, mainland China being ‘too spread out’ to navigate without a degree of local knowledge. Last year she joined the advisory board of
ART HK, a majority share in which was recently acquired by Art Basel, nonetheless, aside from saying that she is a huge fan of the fair, she remains reluctant to talk about the market for Chinese art and in particular the market in Hong Kong.
Australia has very few privately funded museums, with the White Rabbit Gallery and David Walsh’s MONA, in Hobart, being the most significant (see Apollo’s December 2010 issue). The Neilsons chose their display space, a former knitting factory near Sydney’s Central Railway Station, hot on the heels of Judith’s trip to Beijing in 2006. ‘I told Kerr about my idea for the White Rabbit,’ she recalls. ‘On the Saturday we went to see a building; I knew immediately it wasn’t right for us. Then we walked around the corner and saw “our” building – we saw it on the Sunday and we’d bought it by Thursday.’ After substantial renovation works, creating four floors of exhibition space as well as a screening room, library and teahouse, the gallery opened in August 2009. To this day, it remains entirely funded by the Neilson Foundation.
Every six months the gallery is filled with an entirely new exhibition drawn from a diverse and still rapidly expanding collection which includes painting, sculpture (from the small to the monumental), video and photography. For each work apparently the only set parameter – aside, of course, from its maker’s ethnicity – is that it be of a third-millennial vintage. The year 2000 has been chosen as a cut-off not only for its symbolic value but also because Mr Wang feels that it most accurately locates the moment when Chinese contemp-orary art diversified away from its earlier preoccupations – the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square – into territories less overtly polemical and more to do with everyday humanity. Thus in Yang Fudon’s photographic series Miss Huang at M Last Night (2006; Figs. 2 and 3), the displaced narrative we encounter may be mysterious – just who is this glamorous Miss Huang, and what of her two apparently wealthy suitors? – but it is hardly ‘foreign’. The same goes for Qiu Xiaofei’s Cakravada Mountain 2 (2007; Fig. 5), which notwithstanding its Buddhist cosmological title was inspired by the story of an elderly man who, in his own words, ‘wanted to find another world’ – so much so that he attempted suicide by gas poisoning.
‘A lot of my art, you wouldn’t know where it was from,’ says Mrs Neilson, keen to stress the universal intelligibility of the themes explored in her collection. Indeed, far beyond merely making public a personal enthusiasm, her museum makes a case for contemporary Chinese art not as something colloquial, hyped and local but as international, deserving of the same attention we give to art from the traditional and established art centres. Ultimately, too, she wants the White Rabbit Collection to serve as a ‘document’ – no mean feat, given how fast things are changing in China, and an ambition that would seem to account for her broad buying habits.
Given Mrs Neilson’s and Mr Wang’s self-imposed temporal remit and moreover their disregard for the market, it is unsurprising that ‘name’ artists feature infrequently among the collection. Xiao Lu, who in 1989 famously shut down the state-sponsored ‘China/Avant-Garde’ exhibition in Beijing by firing a pistol at her own installation, is one of those that do. But her work has always been marked by an apolitical, intensely personal approach not a million miles away from Tracey Emin’s, and in the White Rabbit Collection she is represented by Sperm (2006), an installation/video piece telling the story of her search, newly single and nearing 40, for a sperm donor. There are also two works by Ai Weiwei, Oil Spill (2007; Fig. 6) and Sunflower Seeds (2009). Mrs Neilson directly negotiated the purchase of the latter with the artist and cause célèbre himself – she found him ‘impressive, and very laid back’ – and installed it in her space months before a larger version went to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
An interesting adjunct to White Rabbit’s gallery activities is its book publishing. Mrs Neilson has even authored a book herself: Ming and the White Rabbit (2009), an illustrated tale of a Chinese orphan who rebuilds her life with the help of a magical rabbit and a new family of artists. Most recently published are the Decade of the Rabbit ‘guide looks’, named both to commemorate Mrs Neilson’s first visit to mainland China and in reference to 2011 being a year of the Rabbit on the Chinese Zodiac, which provide an overview of the gallery’s four previous exhibitions. (The fifth, ‘Beyond the Frame’, is currently underway.)
For this article I first meet Mrs Neilson at the White Rabbit Gallery; together with the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, of which the Neilsons are also keen supporters, to look around this very beautiful space. The next time we meet is during Frieze week in London. Mrs Neilson has just spent four hours at the fair with her elder daughter, Paris (who manages the White Rabbit Gallery), and reports feeling ‘overwhelmed’ by the exper-ience. It is a revealing comment: China may be a crowded, sprawling country, seemingly impenetrable to the outsider, nonetheless I suspect she enjoys there a much more intimate and ‘real’ patron-artist relationship than what is on offer – if indeed it is on offer at all – at such a fair as Frieze. Unlike many (perhaps most) other collectors, Mrs Neilson views acquisition and ownership as no more than a means to a philanthropic end: ‘I feel that [the art] doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to everyone.’
Further information on the White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, can be found online at
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