Contemporary Chinese art challenging clichés and exploring new realities with Paris show

Fondation Louis Vuitton juxtaposes a selection of works from its collection with newer work by 12 mainland artists offering their perspectives on China’s breakneck transformation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2016, 3:25pm

Ai Weiwei is everywhere in Paris – from a theatrical installation of bamboo and silk kites at the ultra-chic Bon Marché department store to the 6.5-meter-high artificial Tree made of industrial bolts and petrified wood. The latter is on show at a new six-month programme presenting 20 key works from the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s Collection of Chinese contemporary art.

The provocative artist’s works are guaranteed to attract interest but visitors would do well to also pay a visit to the Fondation’s pool-level galleries, where a three-month exhibition of works by 12 mainland artists from a younger generation offers thought-provoking perspectives on the shifting values of China’s breakneck cultural and economic transformation.

The exhibition, titled “Bentu” – which translates as “of this earth” – opened in late January and is co-organised with the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) of Beijing.

UCCA director and pre-eminent Chinese contemporary art expert, Philip Tinari, who co-curated the show with Fondation exhibition curator Laurence Bossé, says he was especially keen to avoid a stereotypical “eroticising” of Chinese art. Instead, the exhibition focuses on what it means to be an artist in China today, both in terms of its national political system and a global audience.

“The choice of artists who represent a diverse range of generations and approaches also helps challenge clichés and expectations,” says Bossé.

“Most importantly, we wanted to show how the exhibits have less to do with artistic movements and trends and are more about individual personalities who have the freedom to chose the media and techniques they want to use.”

The artist mix is intriguingly diverse, and includes the Shanghai-based Xu Zhen, who has a reputation for creating irreverent multimedia works like his hyper-realistic 2006 “documentary”, in which he pretended to have climbed Mount Everest and displayed a chunk of ice that was in fact papier mâché.

At the Fondation, his striking installation Eternity – five copies of Jean-Pierre Cortot’s 1834 sculpture The Soldier of Marathon Announcing Victory attached to five copies of the first-century Roman sculpture known as the Wounded Galatian – is a witty play on classic Western themes, made even more relevant for a French audience given that the original masterpieces come from the collection of the Louvre.

In contrast, Beijing artist Liu Wei’s enormous 2014 painting Liberation (400 x 720 cm) is a colourful abstract reflection of China’s fast-changing urban landscape. Farther within the next gallery, the artist has also created a surreal immersive landscape of minimalist plastic spheres and mirrored forms that Tinari says is about deliberately altering our views.

“Liu Wei comes from a generation of artists that got their start in basement shows in the 1990s where the very act of staking out their space was very difficult and political. The idea of the object occupying space has stuck with him all the way through,” he says.

Meanwhile, digital video artist Cao Fei’s hauntingly melancholic Strangers: City (2015) reflects on how information technology impoverishes personal relationships.

“The message is that what we face is similar, that everything is happening so fast that no one has time to look inside and take time,” says the Beijing-based artist.

Although the title of the show touches on the issue of identity, none of the works are preoccupied with self-indulgent introspection.

Liu Xiaodong’s series of realist paintings, for example, are based on a summer when he returned to his hometown to reconnect with people he grew up with.

“The experience taps into the very human fascination with thinking about where you grew up and who you have become,” Tinari explains, “as well as reflecting on the upheavals in the everyday life of simple farmers and workers.”

One of the distinct highlights of the exhibition is the quietly intense The Virtuous Being (2015) by Beijing-based painter Hao Liang, who employs traditional techniques combined with studies of ancient texts, classical paintings and modern data like satellite images. His extraordinary 40 x 1312 cm scroll depicts two famous traditional garden landscapes. One has long since disappeared and the other has been transformed into a park that the artist reimagines as a metaphor for the relationship between humankind and nature, complete with quirky details like a Ferris wheel.

Another standout piece in the exhibition is The Woman in Front of the Camera (2015), a mesmerising performance video by Hu Xiangqian featuring a woman dancing unselfconsciously in a Beijing park. The work – the first of the artist’s pieces where Hu does not perform – offers a gentle commentary on individual liberty.

Qiu Zhijie’s outstanding ink on paper From Huaxia to China (2015, 370 x 120 x 6cm) is another remarkable work. Presented as a carefully chaotic, highly detailed mind map of China’s recent history, it highlights important contemporary issues as far ranging as monetarism to freedom of the press.

“It almost provides a framework for the show, but we thought it worked well as part of the finale as the issues start to dawn on you as you go through the exhibition,” says Tinari.

Beijing-based artist Xu Qu’s Currency Wars offers a further commentary on modern-day financial values, adding an effervescent jolt of bold colour and abstract form with his paintings of details of different currencies like the euro and renminbi magnified 600 times.

Of course, the big question is whether the work by the “new” generation of Chinese artists is strong enough to stand next to those by the likes of Ai, who for many still represents the face of Chinese contemporary art.

The answer (happily in the affirmative) is conveniently to be found elsewhere in the Fondation with an assemblage of the Collection’s monumental works by an earlier generation like Huang Yong Ping, Isaac Julien and Zhang Huan, presented alongside the Collection’s works by Bentu artists like Cao Fei, Yang Fudong, Tao Hui and Xu Zhen.

“The selected works from the Collection support and illuminate the approach to this very complex Chinese scene that is very dynamic, diversified and has many different individual artists,” says Fondation chief curator Suzanne Pagé.

Standout works in the Collection include Zhang Huan’s monumental Buddha head and panorama painting of a military parade on Tiananmen Square done in ash from the incense burned in temples, and Zhang Xiaogang’s painting and sculpture showing five children that represent the dreams of their parents, dressed as worker, peasant, soldier, student and shopkeeper. On the ground floor is the only non-Chinese artist, Julien, whose dreamlike video work pays homage to Chinese culture.

“You can see that our work now is a different style with less symbols like Mao. It is a different angle on China,” explains Cao Fei, whose three videos on show in the Fondation’s Collection explore the reality of life in contemporary China as an avatar in the cyberworld creation RMB City (2007-11) and at a factory assembly line in Whose Utopia? (2006).

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The different generations may appear distinctly different but, according to Tinari, together the Bentu exhibition and Collection hanging provide a deeper understanding of China.

“The Fondation is a collection-based institution and an exhibition programme is one way of enriching that. To have the works from the Collection upstairs answers the question about what the relationship is between these young artists and the ones we already know about.

“It is,” he cautions, “very difficult to give anyone a view of Chinese art or to explain the cultural, social and intellectual situation that lies beneath China’s incredible rise to wealth and power.”

That may be true but this exhibition is a good place to start.

“Bentu, Chinese artists in a time of turbulence and transformation” runs until May 2; the selection of works from the Collection is on show until August 29, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris