Idioms of Identity

Published in Hong Kong Tatler, February 2016

After a decade out of the Paris spotlight, Chinese contemporary art returns to centre stage with two exhibitions presented by the Louis Vuitton Foundation. Diana d’Arenberg Parmanand visits the studios where six of the featured artists meditate on the complexities of a society in flux.

Beijing- based artist Zhang Huan created a hyper-realistic sculpture of the Chinese philosopher Confucius

It’s been 10 years since Paris last had a significant exposition of Chinese contemporary art, and considering its global impact and the role collectors play in the market today, such a showcase is long overdue in the cultural hub. The Louis Vuitton Foundation has stepped into the breach with two exhibitions that opened late last month at its Frank Gehry-designed museum space.

The main show, Bentu­—Chinese­ Artists­ at­ a­ Time­ of­ Turbulence­ and­ Transformation, is curated by the foundation in collaboration with Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing. (The Putonghua word bentu relates to one’s native land or a return to one’s roots.) The exhibition comprises works by 12 Mainland Chinese artists addressing the complexities and change in modern Chinese society. Concurrently, ‘A Selection­ of­ Chinese­ Works’—chosen from the foundation’s own collection developed by Bernard Arnault, the chairman and CEO of LVMH and a passionate collector—presents works by 10 heavy hitters from the world of Chinese contemporary art, including Ai Weiwei, Zhang Xiaogang, Yang Fudong and Tao Hui.

Much has changed over the course of a decade in the constantly evolving Chinese contemporary art scene, so the exhibitions don’t attempt to provide a comprehensive overview. “What will be in evidence is the confrontation of Chinese and occidental culture. It’s very clear in the works of the artists,” explains Angeline Scherf, a curator with the foundation. “There is a willingness to speak about an identity, and to go back to history
and engage with that. We don’t have that in French culture at the moment—or even in Western contemporary art.” However, most of the works in Bentu defy geographic or cultural categorisation. They’re generally pieces that demonstrate a link with Chinese history or culture while also engaging with the realities of an increasingly connected world—addressing issues of rapid urban development along with the economic and environmental changes it has triggered. On a recent trip to Beijing and Shanghai, I visited the studios of six of the artists whose works are being exhibited in Paris.


Zhang HuanIMG_4745

In a long, white, incense-filled hangar on the outskirts of Beijing, Zhang Huan leads us through a series of his monochromatic ash paintings. The 50-year-old artist began his career as a painter, then moved into performance art before making his way back to painting. His performances in the ’90s involved his body (usually naked) and carried a strong undercurrent of masochism. Today it’s his ash paintings that have catapulted the artist to international acclaim. Several of them now reside in the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s permanent collection, not to mention those held in renowned museum collections worldwide.

Grey ash collected from Buddhist temples is sifted in layers across canvases to create Zhang’s paintings, or used to fashion ash sculptures. The repetitive gestures required to make the works draw on the teachings of Buddhism and Confucianism. Life, death, reincarnation and memory are motifs in his work—and Zhang’s fixation with these subjects is reflected in his studio space, a 3.2-hectare compound of 20 buildings once used to make hydraulic equipment. The grounds and buildings are littered with an array of bizarre artefacts, including stone coffins, a train wrecked in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and placentas stored in a specially designed wall of drawers. A Buddha head made of crumbling ash and shrouded in smoke poetically conveys the ideas of prayer, meditation and the fleeting nature of life.




Cao Fei


The artist greets us in the lobby of her ornate, quirky studio, an abandoned 1960s cinema in one of Beijing’s outer suburbs. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped onto the set of a Wes Anderson film—every inch cries out to be photographed. Cao Fei and her team painstakingly restored the space, detailing and painting the walls in mint green and pink, and restoring the kitchen in a kitschy throwback to a ’60s home catalogue. The 37-year-old multimedia artist explains, “This building will be demolished soon—the whole area will be demolished to make room, to make more money. I wanted to produce something here before they do that.” Her space echoes a similar aesthetic in her video works; a combination of the mundane and the cinematic gives it a poetic, nostalgic quality.

Cao is acknowledged as one of the key artists of a new generation emerging in China. Her work has long dealt with issues of urban modernisation and its implications, both socially and on the individual. She mixes social commentary with references from pop culture and art history to reflect on the rapid changes occurring in Chinese society today. “A lot of my works have to do with important junctures in time and are a way of recording life,” she explains. “All the films show something of what is happening now with globalisation and the internet, the changes brought about by these things and how China is interacting with the world.”

The disconnect between reality and fantasy features heavily in Cao’s work. Her 2006 film Whose Utopia? depicts the monotony of the lives of assembly-line workers in a lighting factory in the Pearl River Delta contrasted with their aspirations and dreams. Similarly, cosplay (2004), shot in her hometown of Guangzhou, features a group of teenagers dressing up in anime costumes, taking on the special superpowers of their characters in a world of their own creation. This is set against scenes of their home lives, where they are lonely and distant from their families, imprisoned in the mundane reality of claustrophobic urban life.

Foyer of Cao Fei’s studio


Hao Liang


“I’m deeply influenced by traditional Chinese paintings—my work follows their rules,” explains Hao Liang as he slowly unfurls a recently completed ink painting on a 15-metre-long silk scroll. “I even acquire old inks from auctions so my work can have the same quality as those historical ink paintings. Ancient inks are of a higher quality due to stricter standards.” The 32-year-old artist incorporates not only the traditional techniques of ink painting, but also the visual language. “My work connects history and the present. In contemporary Chinese society, we are disconnected from traditional Chinese culture,” he explains.

Sombre washes of colour fill the scroll as a detailed landscape unfolds. But this is no traditional landscape. It’s apocalyptic—a violent fairy tale and a dystopian allegory. A savage flood, all curlicues of beautifully detailed waves that consume fields, gives way to a Dante-esque scene as an inferno blazes across a mountainous landscape. Animals attempt to leap to safety and a robed skeletal figure stands atop a hill appraising the destruction around him. The works are indebted to the literati and landscape paintings of the 12th and 13th centuries, from which the artist derived much of his inspiration, but they also depict modern concerns about the environment and society, inviting contemplation on the relationship between man and nature.

Courtyard of the artist’s Beijing studio




Xu ZhenIMG_4922

“It’s a good time to be an artist in China,” says Xu Zhen. “Everything you make, you can sell.” Indeed, the artist, who initially created and marketed his work under the MadeIn Company brand, has certainly built a successful career as one of China’s art provocateurs. Xu established MadeIn (a “contemporary art creation company”) in 2009; the collective of artists collaborates on works under a unified “brand” akin to Warhol’s Factory. Xu is equal parts conceptual artist and entrepreneur, toying with the expectations and the inner workings of a frivolous and demanding art marketplace. “The reality is that an artist today is a brand. My responsibility is to make projects and profit.”

In his cavernous Shanghai space sits an assortment of works as diverse in their subject matter as in the media used. A large three- dimensional textile collage featuring colourful animals and figures leans against one wall. On another hangs an icing-sugar painting that looks good enough to eat, with thick gobs of colourful paint squeezed through a pastry bag. There are “documentary” photographs, a large plush doll, classical-looking sculptures and a series of golden equine sculptures. “There’s no particular thread linking the works together,” explains Xu. “We have a wide range but no specific direction. We just follow our hearts.”

Underlying everything, however, is irony and cliché, as well as an obsession with consumerism, branding and advertising. Works from the artist’s Eternity series (2013–14), which are shown in Bentu, quite literally present a convergence of East and West in a tongue-in-cheek parody of global culture—artificial stone replicas of classical Greek sculptures and Buddhist religious figures are decapitated and awkwardly mashed together, attached at the neck.




Liu WeiIMG_5345

The drive to Liu Wei’s studio in Beijing’s 798 Art District is a dystopian one. A vast sea of rubble stretches out as far as the eye can see. Shattered bricks, concrete slabs and metal scraps from the homes that once stood there blanket the ground, while an occasional figure, bundled in layers of clothing, sorts through the debris. Coal is burnt all around for heating, and the air is brown and acrid. This is the rapidly urbanising landscape of Beijing, where the old is flattened to make way for the new, and where progress and development barrels forth at an accelerated rate. The artist’s 32,000sqft studio, a space he has inhabited for 10 years, is scheduled to be demolished next year.

It seems a fitting backdrop to the artist’s work. Liu began his career as a member of Beijing’s subversive Post-Sense Sensibility movement of the late ’90s, which moved away from the political idealism that dominated Chinese contemporary art, instead embracing conceptual art and improvisation.

For more than a decade, Wei has been experimenting with different materials to assemble his geometric sculptures, using found objects such as door frames, bits of metal, wooden beams and scraps of furniture. Architecture and urbanism frequently emerge as themes in the artist’s work. Even his brightly coloured paintings— abstract planes of vertical and horizontal lines—are an attempt to create order out of the pervading chaos of the contemporary urban landscape.

A maquette of his exhibition space for the Bentu show sits in the office and reflects a distinct departure from his complex 3D constructions. “I’m aiming for a fake, flat atmosphere for the exhibition,” he explains. “It’s something different than my usual work. It’s a new starting point, a work and idea in progress. But I don’t know what it means yet.”



Xu QuIMG_5418

With a degree from the Nanjing Arts Institute and an MFA from Germany’s Braunschweig University of Art, this conceptual multidiscipline artist is a product of the new China—international yet also Chinese, with one foot firmly in the East and the other in the West.

Xu’s Currency Wars series reflects global concerns about economic, social and political issues. He magnifies and abstracts watermarks from the banknotes of various currencies, resulting in bold geometric paintings. They touch on the earlier abstraction and minimalism of US artists such as Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and Frank Stella, yet also draw from ’80s street art culture—a strong influence on the artist when he was growing up. The series is a tongue- in-cheek commentary on collecting and the commodification of art, one in which Xu has literally reduced art to money.

Xu displays the paintings back-to-back on mobile stands, pairing new notes with old ones from each country. The outlines of the newer side are sharp and clean, while the older notes are blurred and the colours are muddied. The moveable stands challenge the traditional notions of art display, but they are also intended to serve as a metaphor for the circulation of currency. “The paintings can be moved, like the way currency moves and circulates,” the artist explains. Importantly, Xu groups specific currencies based on their respective countries’ relationships. For the foundation’s show, he exhibits his US dollar, euro and RMB paintings to reflect the dominant economic and geopolitical climate.





Bentu—Chinese Artists at a Time of Turbulence and Transformation­ runs­ until­ April;­ A Selection of Chinese Works­ runs ­until ­September ­5.

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