Earlier this month, Penny Wong detailed the last 50 years of Labor government engagement with China in her Whitlam Oration, tracing how the relationship’s varying warmth and chill have been politicised.
China – The Past is Present, the new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), is a wonderful context for this speech.
The exhibition is about the depth and complexity of Chinese culture – visual and wider – as collected by one major art institution here in Euro-centric Melbourne. It is a long history, in collecting terms, undertaken by curators who have spent years working in the area.
In recent decades Mae Anna Pang notably collected historic Chinese paintings and calligraphy. Now curator Wayne Crothers has very creatively and beautifully (it is an overtly beautiful show) brought these traditions into the present.
Crothers’ years living in East Asia have given the ideas and interpretations he brings both a seriousness of intent and lightness of touch not often apparent.
But other individuals are part of this as well. The people who have found, taken, paid for or been given Chinese works of art over the last 150 years and then passed them on.
Long Australian connections
In her oration, Wong said “when Australians look out to the world, we see ourselves reflected in it”.
The first Chinese object was acquired by the year-old gallery in 1862, the same year the well known and most glamorous of Australians in China was born: G.E. Morrison, son of the first principal of Geelong College. As the Times of London’s correspondent in Peking (now Beijing) from 1897 to 1912, he became internationally known as “Chinese Morrison”.
Serious collectors like H.W. Kent followed. Kent was a businessman in China and Japan, and in 1938 he became the gallery’s first curator of the Asian collection. He built the extensive holdings especially of Song and Tang dynasty works we see in the permanent hang today.
James Mollison, following Gough Whitlam’s ventures, was sent to China in 1976 as a young gallery director of the yet-to-be-built National Gallery of Australia.
He recalled to me negotiating the intended acquisition of over 1,000 Mao-era posters. In 1985, Mollison also acquired an extensive woodcut collection originally brought together by legendary journalist and editor, and founder of Australian Art Monthly, Peter Townsend.
Mollison further described a visiting Chinese diplomat to National Gallery of Australia saying:
eventually we will have to borrow from you, nothing like either of these collections exists in China.
Today collectors and givers to our institutions range from the high profile Judith Neilson of White Rabbit Gallery with its huge collection of contemporary Chinese work, to Rachel Faggetter, whose donation of Maoist era works to the NGV are well included in this show, and Jason Yeap who has been generous for years in this area.
An exhibition of delight
In The Past is Present, Crothers has created tableaux – like little stage sets – each around an idea important in Chinese culture.
There are a group of works of restrained monochrome spatial sophistication next to an assemblage of bright, smiling, Maoist era odes to workers’ paradises.
Next to this are deep red richly incised containers and portrait busts, next to the tutti-frutti colours of karaoke pop.
The entry tableau says it all: the strange twisted rocks, carved by eons of nature’s winds and water, so valued in traditional China, next to a polyurethane chair carved, it seems, by a blowtorch.
The whole clever display has a moment of dark red tranquillity at its centre, with a wall of 18th century muted painted landscapes facing a 2010 video by Yang Yongliang of Hong Kong-like traffic dwarfed by similar mountains.
Everywhere the contemporary is given depth by the historical, and the historical gives context to the work made now, but it isn’t didactic. You come away thinking it is an exhibition of delight.
Looking to the future
The works on display here, and in collections around Australia, gathered over decades, have become part of our national fortune. Important in themselves, they also represent our history of engagement.
Part of the overt long-term reality around us and seen in the exhibition is the work of artists of Chinese background, who live in Australia. There are the well known fanciful sculptures of Guan Wei and exquisite porcelain busts of Ah Xian, sitting alongside work by emerging artists like the witty photography of Scotty So and ethereal paintings of Louise Zhang.
How are we faring in our cultural relations with China? Are we asking the current day “Chinese Morrisons” and Peter Townsends for their help to maintain ongoing cultural relationships? To be curious about Chinese culture and keen to engage in a long-term, creative, meaningful way? Are we celebrating Guan Wei and his compatriots?
I would hope so, and maybe Penny Wong’s advocacy is key here, but let us see.
Both in this exhibition and beyond, Chinese art in Australia is about people and connections. Long held, strong working and personal relationships evident even in a formal setting like this. It belies the superficial hostility we witness across the twittering classes.
China – The past is present is at the National Gallery of Victoria until February 20 2023.