And sometimes, you still don't believe your eyes. Catching sight of Shi Jindian's Jeep chassis, you might take it for some kind of hologram. In fact, it's a sculpture, but one that consists almost entirely of empty space. Even the surfaces of this astonishingly detailed replica are largely empty, because the artist has crocheted every last part in wire. Walking past Ai Weiwei's 500-kilogram pile of sunflower seeds, you might be impressed by its size. Still, you'd think- where's the art?
They sell those at the supermarket. Take a second look and it dawns on you: every last seed, more than 100,000 in all, has been hand-formed from clay, painted, and fired into porcelain. For Chinese people, sunflower seeds are both a cheap snack and a reminder of the famines of Mao's day. These seeds are not only inedible but hugely valuable. The monochrome mass resembles an ash heap, but every individual in it is unique. Before long, visitors' heads may feel a bit like the twirling rotors that transform Gao Feng's ordinary set of suitcases into miniature helicopters. You can check out this luggage as often as you like, but it doesn't need to be checked in: it can fly on its own. There are also double-takes in store for peckish visitors who are drawn to Taiwanese artist Tu Wei-Cheng's lavish chocolate shop, only to find that the "chocolates" are lethal weapons, from machine-guns to missiles. It's surprises like these, embedded in works of jaw-dropping originality and technical skill, that have propelled White Rabbit to the top of Sydney's must-see list.
The current show, Down the Rabbit Hole, has drawn viewers in record numbers. It closes on August 5. On any given day, the crowds roaming the free museum's four spacious floors include schoolchildren and senior citizens, tradesmen and tourists, professional artists and the occasional low-key celebrity (actresses Cate Blanchett and Jacki Weaver, actor Hugo Weaving and international architect Frank Gehry have all dropped by, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra has performed twice for lucky gallery-goers).
White Rabbit's Ukulele Nights draw sing-along audiences of 600 and more. Some visitors come for tea and dumplings in the ground-floor Tea House and end up savoring the art as well. That diversity is just what White Rabbit Collection owner Judith Neilson was aiming for when her family's philanthropic foundation established the Gallery in 2009. "I wanted everyone to feel they could come here and enjoy the art and not feel intimidated or uncomfortable," she says. Australians are not only getting comfortable with Chinese contemporary art, they are developing quite a taste for it. Seven of the artists in the 2012 Sydney Biennale were introduced to Sydneysiders at White Rabbit, and four of the works in the Biennale are on loan from the Gallery. Two White Rabbit artists, Li Hongbo and Liu Zhuoquan, will have solo commercial shows in Sydney and Melbourne later this year. Judith Neilson's aesthetic eye was honed by her career as a graphic designer and a history of collecting everything from Coke bottles to African carvings. In choosing works for the Collection, she is unconstrained by art-world trends or the ups and downs of market value.
She never acquires works to resell, only to share. "If you are the only person who sees it, what's the point of having it?" she says. "I buy works that I respond to, where the feeling stays with me. And when that happens, I think other people will respond too." The feeling of excitement she had on her first visit to China in 2001 is still with her twelve years later. "Chinese contemporary artists are extraordinarily creative, and they have the skill and patience to bring off even the most way-out ideas," says Mrs Neilson, who collects only works made since 2000. "China has discovered individualism, but it still has that deep connection with tradition.
That's what makes the work so interesting. Before 2000 the artists were getting politics out of their system, but now they are just doing whatever they like." For many artists, that requires looking again and again at the world around them- their home and city, ordinary objects, mundane scenes. Paris Neilson says the works in Double Take celebrate the hidden beauties and unnoticed potential that second looks uncover. "The works we've chosen all have this wonderfully fresh perspective, and there's a sort of thrill running beneath it, of finding wonder in such familiar things. Neilson hopes visitors will be inspired by the show's creative double-takes "so when they leave the Gallery, they'll look at all kinds of things in new ways."