There is something very powerful about seeing a new artwork by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, produced while under house arrest, where he remains to this day.
An Archive (2015) is just such a work. It’s a collection of 700 of the artist’s blogs written between 2005 and 2013, printed on individually designed pieces of rice paper and stacked in a traditional huali wooden box.
The work is part of a private collection of contemporary Asian art held by noted collector, philanthropist and gallerist Gene Sherman and her husband Brian. Their 47-years of collecting has amassed 900 works, around 300 of which relate to contemporary Asian art. “The collection as a whole – and these works in particular – relates to three issues: social inequality; the significance of the written word; and textiles as a potent medium for expressing ideas and representing people,” says Sherman.
“Ai Weiwei is very interested in the historical legacy of Chinese art, and the blog is how he maintains independence under house arrest [in China], how he maintains his voice,” says deputy director and director of collections at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Suhanya Raffel.
An Archive is one of 30 works the Shermans have loaned to the AGNSW for Go East, the gallery’s first foray into a large-scale exhibition of contemporary Asian art. It includes works by many significant artists, such as Lin Tianmiao and Song Dong, and ranges from photography and sculpture to installation and performance.
Although the AGNSW has made what Raffel refers to as “little forays” into contemporary Asian art such as The Art of Islam (2007) and The First Emperor: China’s entombed warriors (2011), it’s never before held an exhibition of contemporary Asian art on this scale. When the Shermans offered to loan the gallery the bulk of their Asian collection, Raffel leapt at the chance. And the result is a group of works that haven’t been seen before.
These include Yang Zhichao’s monumental installation Chinese Bible, made up of 3000 diaries and notebooks the artist collected from the Beijing markets that span a 50-year period and track the impact of China’s turbulent history during that time. And Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice 2 which takes over the gallery’s entrance, a monumental installation that spells out, in bone-shaped letters, Mahatma Gandhi’s famous speech on the eve of the 1930 Salt March.
In a gesture of great generosity, these two works will be donated to the gallery, a gift that is possible now that the Sydney Modern gallery expansion project has begun, promising more space for exhibiting large-scale works.
“What was very clear in looking at the collection was a real interest in social justice issues and text-based works,” Raffel says, citing Tibetan artist Nortse’s Zen meditation 2012 as an example. The piece consists of six empty Buddhist robes that have been burnt – a reference to the horrifying, regular act of self-immolation in Tibet – and housed in an empty pyramid structure. “Nortse is looking at the idea of cultural survival in the face of China’s ambitions,” she says.
A free series of public discussions, talks and workshops will accompany Go East during Art After Hours, the gallery’s regular Wednesday late-night forum.
Go East is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until July 26. Chinese Bible is on display at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation until August 1.