T hroughout the 20th century, rabbits played a continuous, perhaps rather understated, role in literature, particularly of the children’s variety: from Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), ably assisted by his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail, through the cunning rabbit of AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (1926) to Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972). Rabbits played memorable roles in films and cartoons, from wise-cracking Bugs Bunny (1938 onwards) to the piteous, eponymous lead of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Conversely, in earlier art history, the rabbit’s longer-eared cousin, the hare, hogs the limelight: who could forget Albrecht Dürer's Young Hare (1502) or the blink-and-you-miss-it hare chase of JMW Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (1844).
Rabbits, twinkly-eyed, fleet of foot, silky of tail, simultaneously mysterious and mischievous, have been a source of fascination for centuries. Their stories are handed down in the form of folklore and mythology. Of course, the rabbit plays a crucial role in the Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinese culture, and in similar celebrations in other parts of Asia, specifically the Jade Rabbit, who lives on the moon with Chang'e, the Moon Goddess. Whether the loyal and selfless rabbit on the moon makes divine medicine, or mochi, as the Japanese believe, is a debate for another article.
“Down the Rabbit Hole” is partly inspired by another literary rabbit: the White Rabbit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Smartly waist-coated, distractedly muttering “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” he is the siren call and spark for the whole adventure’s inception. Following the rabbit down the rabbit hole, a journey into the unknown begins, catapulted by curiosity and a yearning for discovery. In that spirit of joyous peril, Sotheby’s presents an exciting range of artists including Ayako Rokkaku, Chun Kwang-Young, Genieve Figgis, Jordi Ribes, MR., and Tania Marmolejo. Let’s see where they take us.
Let’s start with Atsushi Kaga’s Learning to Care of Someone (2018) and Usacchi and Robert with Two Boiled Eggs (2019). A graduate of Ireland’s National College of Art and Design in 2005, Kaga finds the whimsy and pathos of a world which is part imagination, and part all too resolutely real. The rabbit Usacchi appears as a mischievous alter-ego of the artist, with Usacchi representing a kind of benign Mr. Hyde. The viewer wonders what possibilities a rabbit avatar might bring for gentle havoc and wry shenanigans.
Terrell Jones’ hot-off-the-press American Dream Life (2023) NFT places us at a 45 degree angle to a scene which distils the essence of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967) and Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) into its own unique, unsettling cocktail of sun-drenched, yet menacing frivolity: no rabbit holes on that beautifully manicured lawn. He is not the only artist on display to present the stultifying limitations and mistakes that come with the responsibilities of adulthood. Mildly dystopian Barcelona-born cartoonist Joan Cornellà holds a mirror to humanity with the wry, tinder-dry humour of his craft. His To Hatem With Love (2016) shows a macabre moment of that collision of childhood potential with adult care in a spare, geometric form which is both spatially static and pregnant with swaying, nauseating motion.
The rabbit’s appeal to children and its place in children’s literature is secure. Floppy ears and fluffy tails radiate the bright joys and upheavals of childhood and adolescence. Many of the artists featured illuminate that fresh beginning of the human journey to a tee.
Mayuka Yamamoto’s Sitting Bear Boy (c. 2021) is one of two works by the artist here, and consistent with her theme of children dressed as animals. She captures the awkward make-believe of the child on their own, uneasily considering the world around them. Animals and teddy-bear adventures represent a refuge and source of friendship which is, fleetingly, on an equal footing with parental presence and classroom companionship.
Roby Dwi Antono’s Lonesome Hero #3 (2021) and Ayako Rokkaku’s Untitled (2009) revel in the faux naïve wonder of drawing on cardboard, that most ubiquitous of materials, the first artistic canvas and playground of most of the world’s preeminent artists.
Meanwhile, the deliciously saturated, mirage-like shades of works by NIKKI, Stickymonger, Okokume and Jang Koal are redolent of youthful hopes and desires as yet unsullied and untroubled by distant collision with mundane compromise and regret. Visually reminiscent of the verbal inventiveness of Osamu Dazai’s novella Schoolgirl (1939), who could not succumb to the allure of those sparkling hopes and iridescent, innocent dreams?
Where the rabbit may lead us in 2023 is as yet undecided, but the rabbit’s bright, alert agility and sense of curiosity may be a good model to follow. Embracing optimism and momentum, let’s all explore the uncharted warren of possibilities that life can bring, beginning here with “Down the Rabbit Hole.”