Against all odds, the much-maligned genre of the China show seems to be making a comeback, some decade since it largely disappeared from major international museum programs. In addition to the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s “Bentu,” comparable projects on the docket for the next two years include both an historical exhibition and a thematic group show at the Guggenheim in New York and the return of the Sigg collection to M+ in Hong Kong.
How does “Bentu” stack up? It doesn’t add much to critical discourse: the oddly untranslated concept of local essence that headlines the title seems anathema to all but two or three artists in the show. The exhibition is mercifully limited to just 12 artists, all of whom are widely respected and do indeed largely work in ways that are unique to the Chinese art world. Fresh, previously unexhibited work by Cao Fei (Strangers, 2015-16, a four-channel video in which the artist trained a Chatroulette camera on studio vignettes) and Hao Liang (The Virtuous Being, 2015, a reinterpretation of classical garden in a stunning ink landscape involving a futuristic ferris wheel) steal the show. A new installation of spheres and other geometric components rendered in construction material by Liu Wei seems to be the largest special commission; it’s a fine work that surpasses any individual work from his Ullens Center for Contemporary Art exhibition in 2015, but it seems squeezed into an inappropriate space.
While the titled exhibition would seem to be a marquee moment, it is overshadowed by “The Collection: A Selection of Chinese Works,” an exhibition that happens to not be relegated to a basement. Cao Fei, Tao Hui, Xu Zhen, and Yang Fudong appear in both exhibitions, to their benefit—they appear in the latter context with generous, full-room installations in almost every case, often including multiple works. Of course, all of the jockeying for position and debating audience reception around the China show occurs back in China; this is the nature of the beast. In this case, one might hope that a Parisian audience makes more of it than the Chinese art community has.
Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris