Chinese art was once regarded as a gift from the gods. Artists were conduits between earth and heaven; their aim was not just to capture the beauty of nature but to convey its vital “breath”. Many were recluses or monks, for whom painting and calligraphy were spiritual exercises. But that was long ago, in a China where the “three teachings” of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism suffused every aspect of life.

China today is a different country, where the official “religion” is atheism and most people are too busy making a living to spare much thought for their soul. But interest in spirituality is growing, as is the freedom to pursue it. For some contemporary artists, faith fills a personal need. “I grew up without religion,” says Tianzhuo Chen, a Buddhist. “I think that is one of the reasons I have this longing to believe.” Even for atheists or sceptics, the symbols of religion tap into deep wells of cultural memory and human meaning.

“Art is not like science,” says Gade. “It is concerned with the soul, the spiritual world.” Ni Youyu is not religious, but he thinks “a good artwork should have a sense of the divine”; otherwise, “it is just a pile of paint”. Zheng Guogu believes ideas and imagery from Tibetan Buddhism give “a new dimension” to his work. Other artists put religious symbols in outrageously secular contexts to mock the modern gods of money, power and pleasure.

The artists in Ritual Spirit do not seek to raise man into heaven. But all are trying, in one sense or another, to bring the gods down to earth.

Among the highlights:

  • Ishvara, Tianzhuo Chen’s over-the-top operatic rave inspired by the Bhagavad Gita
  • Mr Sea, by Geng Xue (pictured), in which exquisite porcelain figures act out a classic tale of the supernatural
  • God Comes Down to Earth, Chen Yu-Lin’s dramatic images of religious festivals in Taiwan
  • Scripting, a high-tech ode to hidden harmonies by Luxury Logico
  • Joss, a firecracker of a video on material and spiritual values in the consumer age by Cheng Ran and Item Idem
  • Ni Youyu’s Dust (Thomas Ruff: 16h 30m/ -50°), a “photograph” of interstellar space made with chalk on a blackboard.

The White Rabbit Gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (The Teahouse closes at 4 p.m.) RITUAL SPIRIT runs until 28 January 2018.


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