White Rabbit Collection by Toko
Text by Richard Baird.
The White Rabbit Collection is a contemporary arts publication showcasing the work of 99 artists drawn from the White Rabbit, a contemporary art museum, gallery and archive in Sydney. The museum has become one of the world’s most significant collections of Chinese contemporary art, with over 2000 works from 700 artists. Through this new publication, designed by Australia design studio Toko and commissioned by Judith Neilson, the museum seeks to represent the breadth and depth of its collection.
Inspired by the Little Red Book (Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung) the publication is marked by a bright red clamshell box with a unique typographical gesture, and three books of 33 artists each with its own unique cover art. Together, box and books form a print run of 2475 individual variations, with each boxset being a unique piece and a invitation to discover the social and artistic changes of twenty-first century China.
“The unique history of the development of contemporary art in China is also a mark of its difference. From 1949 until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, all art was at the service of the revolution. The great Chinese traditions of ink painting and calligraphy had become suspect, viewed as ‘feudal’. Artists were trained in Soviet-style Socialist Realism, painting heroic soldiers, farmers and factory workers, bumper harvests and belching power stations. When China began its period of reform and opening after 1978, ideas and artistic influences from the west flooded in at the same time as foreign investment: artists discovered postmodernism, and simultaneously rediscovered modernism. After a period of joyful eclecticism, they began to explore how revived national art traditions and folk-art forms could become part of a contemporary visual vocabulary. Today, artists are marrying ink painting and porcelain with stop-motion animation, calligraphy with computer gaming, and using paper-cutting to comment on issues of consumerism and social control, to name only a few examples of this confident hybridity. Chinese artists weld cutting-edge technologies to their deep knowledge of some of the oldest artforms in the world. They reflect on ancient and modern Chinese history yet position themselves as savvy practitioners in a global artworld. Many navigate the political landscape carefully and tactically; at times the necessity for double-coding and allegory makes their work even more intriguing. These artists deal with subjects ranging from Chinese history to urbanisation, from pollution to gender roles, from the spiritual to the defiantly secular. They tell a story of today’s China.” – White Rabbit.
It is unusual for BP&O to pull a quote directly or as extensively as this, however, it is important to understand the context of the book and works it contains. Its graphic immediacy and, perhaps somewhat modernist sensibilities, are likely to see the book as image disentangled from context, aestheticised and stripped of its politics, as these images move online. Indeed, BP&O recognises the power of the aestheticised surface to move an object, particularly online and today, but commits fully to the (cultural and long-term) value of a synergistic relationship between cover and content, and the need to keep this intact.
Chinese art has a rich and multifaceted history. Its contemporary art not only speaks of the ideas and craft of individual artists, but the times in which they live, the stories they have been told of the past, and the present politics they are involved in or intend to subvert (overtly or subtextual). Thus the individual works contained within the books, collectivised, alphabetised and systematised (there is an irony there within the context of Chinese politics) becomes more than the sum of its parts. Toko’s work manages to express this with beauty, simplicity and technology. The approach effectively uses every available tool. A confluence of spatial sensitivity, colour, materiality, volume, outside and inside surface and digital print technologies touch upon key aspects of the collection it presents.
The intelligence of the work is in the application of technology to individualise each boxset. Unique variations give each artist equal weighting, thus, the book becomes an inherently political gesture, one that is a democratic counterpoint to the environment in which the artists emerged. Everything else supports this central expression. Technology and idea synergise. Also check out Unit Edition’s work with Universal Everything.
Ambiguity sharpens perception. The beauty of the work also lies in the space for interpretation. With such as simply graphic expression, the syntax of the work (structure, grid, typeface, text, image, space and materiality) is another layer to be read and interpreted. The unique texts of the cover drawn from the artist introductions set in a neutral sans-serif, the material volume of the box but simplicity of the graphic presentation and the outside English and inside Chinese logograms create polarised points, spaces between two thing in which to insert meaning, just as art is an invitation/provocation.
The work, at its most accessible, is a beautiful intersection of art, design, materiality and technology. Toko’s own approach, one of ideas presented with clarity and ease, is well-suited. Yet, for those inclined, there is a depth to the work, beyond its appealing graphic immediacy, that given some thought, is satisfying. More work by Toko on BP&O.