The last time art in Sydney made headlines around the world, it wasn’t exactly a persuasive advertisement for the city’s vibrant cultural scene. In 2016, what became known as the “Kanye Loves Kanye” mural—a painting featuring the rapper Kanye West locked in an amorous embrace with the rapper Kanye West—materialized on a wall on an unremarkable stretch of Teggs Lane, in the neighborhood known as Chippendale. It was gratuitous social-media bait, immediately gobbled up and regurgitated by all the usual news outlets.
The Kanye lovefest has since vanished: street artist Scott Marsh eventually covered his own mural with a bucket of white paint, while suggesting he was paid $100,000 by representatives of the rapper to do so. But there are other non-Kanye-related reasons that Chippendale’s art scene is worthy of a look by international visitors—in particular the beautiful, dark, twisted fantasies on display just around the corner from where that mural once loomed.
The White Rabbit Gallery, opened and operated by the Zimbabwe-born billionaire Judith Neilson, devotes four floors to what is claims to be the largest collection of Chinese contemporary art outside China. It might be tempting to associate the name with the waist-coated, watch-checking character that lures a daydreaming girl in Alice in Wonderland, but, in fact, it derives from a porcelain figurine of a girl with a bunny in her hand that Neilson acquired on a visit to Beijing. In any case, the work at White Rabbit is often not what it seems.
The art in “The Dark Matters,” an exhibition that opened this spring and continues through July 30, is no exception. Viewed at an angle, Chen Chun-Hao’s painted portraits of animals reveal themselves to consist not of brushstrokes but of shadows and nails shot out by a nail gun. Peering closer at Xu Zhen’s painting Under Heaven (2013), a visitor will discover a teeming mass of swirling, sticky shapes applied with icing bags of a kind typically used to decorate cakes. For Wen Ying-Huang’s tapestry Searching II (2014), hung in a darkened room, attendants provide visitors with flashlights to shine on a layer of black to coax out a second, previously unseen, picture on strands of reflective thread. And Kong Chun Hei’s convincing-looking bricks? Ink on paper.
Neilson opened the White Rabbit Gallery in 2009, nearly a decade after first experiencing the vibrancy of the Chinese art scene on a visit to the country’s capital city. “It wasn’t so much a particular work that struck me,” Neilson said in an interview. “It was that China had a lot of artists who combined creative imagination, passion, and superb technical skill, and the sense that they were engaged in something new and thrilling. The art scene in Beijing had a sense of potential, of big things brewing. I got the impression that the Chinese art world was a huge alchemical experiment, and that intrigued me.”
Neilson’s prolific arts philanthropy has earned her comparisons in Australia to Peggy Guggenheim. Her next contribution to Chippendale, down the street from the White Rabbit, is Phoenix, a $41 million space—on the site of a warehouse that was destroyed by a fire—that is to open in 2018 as a home devoted to both visual art and performance art, with a sculpture garden and apartments for visiting artists. Work is also underway on a new, 100,000-square-foot storage facility to contain Neilson’s expanding collection.
Originally, Neilson was drawn to the Chippendale district purely for its abundance of old warehouses and its closeness to Sydney’s city center. Since 2009, when the White Rabbit took over a former Rolls-Royce service depot, the area has transformed from a derelict neighborhood to a flourishing creative precinct that some have designated as Sydney’s response to New York’s Chelsea. However, while New York’s main arts district sets visitors on a purposeful, gridded path, gallery-going in Chippendale is more of a pleasant meander, winding along tree-lined laneways and past crumbling Victorian terraces.
Gallery openings on Wednesday and Thursday nights are typical in Sydney, but, previously, visiting more than a couple in succession required a mood-killing drive across town. Chippendale now provides a welcome alternative. Particularly on weekends, with the White Rabbit serving as a hub, foot traffic spills out in all directions. There are now 20 galleries and artist-run initiatives in the area within walking distance, plus galleries and studio spaces at nearby universities that display student work. Offerings are diverse: the Japan Foundation showcases Asian artists, Goodspace and aMBUSH Gallery are strong supporters of the emerging art scene (the latter recently brought street artist Shepard Fairey to the country), and Wellington Street Projects and Galerie Pompom exhibit artists at the forefront of Australian contemporary art.
Beyond the galleries, Jennifer Turpin’s public sculpture Halo, (2012), a sort of benevolent weather vane that turns and tilts in the wind, looms over a picnic-friendly patch of park called Chippendale Green. There are architectural attractions too. Frank Gehry’s first building in Australia, the crumpled buff-colored Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building at the University of Technology Sydney, is like nothing else in the city. Jean Nouvel’s One Central Park, glass apartment towers draped in 250 species of Australian flowers and plants, rises nearby. And Neilson’s own neighborhood residence, a monumental William Smart-designed building called Indigo Slam, takes inspiration from the work of Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida.
“It has grown exponentially,” Nicky Ginsberg, who opened NG Art Gallery in Chippendale in 2007, said of the area. Back then, hers was the only commercial gallery around—before years of growth changed that profoundly. “We witnessed a large increase in foot traffic over the coming years. Galleries benefit from being close to one another.”
Ginsberg founded the Chippendale Creative Precinct in 2010 to solidify connections between gallery owners in the area, leading to the colorful local Beams Arts Festival, the Chippendale New World Art Prize, and Chinese New Year celebrations, as well as walking tours of historic and gastronomic sites. Kensington Street, one of Chippendale’s former grimy back alleys, is now among Sydney’s newest foodie destinations, and the White Rabbit Gallery itself offers Chinese and Taiwanese tea, along with handmade dumplings and scones, in its street-level teahouse.
Ginsberg said the comparison to Chelsea is apt, but she maintains that Chippendale’s evolution has only just begun. “There’s a great creative buzz in the air,” she said. “And it’s actually a fun place to hang out.”