What is Bentu?

Bentu: Chinese Artists in a Time of Turbulence and Transformation
Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
27.01.16 – 02.05.16

Translated by Daniel Szehin Ho

Bentu: Chinese Artists in a Time of Turbulence and Transformation was a group exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, jointly organised by the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art ( UCCA ) in Beijing. It was an exhibition not of artistic movements/currents and theoretical terms, but one with a very sociological title, ‘Bentu’ ( ‘native soil’ ). According to the organisers’ official explanation, ‘bentu’ is opposed to the ‘global’ and does not refer to nationalistic ideas – even if the suggestion of such a dichotomy might arouse one’s suspicions.

It was a rather ambitious exhibition. Although the official material clearly states that it was different from previous exhibitions in France, which have sought to introduce Chinese contemporary art in a comprehensive way, this exhibition still unfolded around grand narratives: taking the immense transformations in Chinese society as a backdrop, it sought to deal with the question of the ‘native’ ( ‘bentu’ ) in the context of globalisation. This meant that the exhibition fell into the usual trap of seeming to offer some kind of panoramic, or all-encompassing, overview.

Despite being slightly conservative, the exhibition was excellent. Although the curators, wanting to shake off China’s position as an ‘other’ within the Western context, chose twelve artists, born mainly in the 1970s ( the oldest being Xiaodong Liu, born in the 1960s, and the youngest, Hui Tao, born in the 1980s ), to reflect the ‘spirit of the times’, this made little difference to the final outcome. In fact, from the perspective of institutions in France, it is only meaningful for Chinese artists to be packaged within a set geographic and historic context. Even if we disregard the political aspects, from both a social and a cultural point of view China is still seen in the West as the ‘other’.

In rough terms, the works presented in the exhibition dealt with the following topics:

– Urban space( s ) and individuals: Chuang Liu’s BBR ( Blossom Bud Restrainer No. 1 ), Xiangqian Hu’s The Woman in Front of the Camera, Zhen Xu’s Confucius PE, Cao Fei’s Strangers.

– Nostalgia after urbanisation: Xiaodong Liu’s Hometown Boy series, Xiangqian Hu’s Speed at the End of the World.

– Rural space: Hui Tao’s One Character and Seven Materials, Fudong Yang’s Blue Kylin.

– Economic and social globalisation: Qu Xu’s Currency Wars, Shiyuan Liu’s From Happiness to Whatever.

– Appropriation of We Liu’s Purple Air; tribute to traditional Chinese art: Zhijie Qiu’s Map of the Third World, Liang Hao’s The Virtuous Being.

This is categorisation for the sake of categorisation. It cannot summarise what is subtle and particular about each work, but from it we can catch a glimpse of the curators’ reason for grouping all these works under the common ‘bentu’ label.

Certainly, if we tacitly agree that works of art are embedded in the social contexts in which they are born, and that they always reflect their society, whether consciously or unconsciously, then these works, without a doubt, reference China’s current conditions of rapid ‘urbanisation’ and gradual ‘globalisation’. However, any conclusions we may reach about China’s ‘urbanisation’ and ‘globalisation’ do not derive from the works themselves, but rather from a broader understanding that draws on other disciplines, such as economics and sociology. These works merely happen to lend weight to the argument.

This, then, raises a number of interesting questions. Firstly, when the exhibition adopts this dichotomous discursive system of the ‘global’ and the ‘native’ as a way of conceiving and understanding contemporary Chinese art ( regardless of any kind of post-colonial critique ), does it come from a preexisting system of knowledge, informed by first impressions? Or is it based on an understanding of China’s conditions and artistic environment? It was the curators’ stated aim to explore questions about the nature of the transformations currently affecting China. And yet, this would seem to reduce the exhibition to the status of an illustration of an academic thesis.

Secondly, even if the curators of contemporary Chinese art have already abandoned intensely ideological art, such as Postsocialist Pop, in the end are they not being even more blatantly ideological in resorting to a discursive system rooted in ideas of the ‘native’ and the ‘global’?

And then, if the dichotomy between the ‘global’ and the ‘native’ ( ‘bentu’ ) really reflects a universal paradigm capable of transcending ‘nationalism’, should it not be equally valid in the case of exhibitions of contemporary art in India, Brazil or, for that matter, any other ‘Third World’ country? If so, where exactly does the distinctiveness of China lie? Or could it be that contemporary Chinese art is not really so distinctive after all?

Returning to the discursive system itself: although these broad sociological classifications may offer a simple, general, and seemingly reasonable interpretative framework, they cannot explain the individual choices behind each artist’s work, or the subtleties of each individual work of art. Of course, one of the limitations of any large-scale exhibition is the need for a congruous logical thread, in order to link the works together.

Today, with all the recent developments in art history and curation, we already have too much art research that is bound up with paradigms – not to mention whole sets of ‘regional knowledge’ drawn from other disciplines. This makes it possible for people to write confidently, and at length, about any foreign culture ( and who defines foreign culture? ), yet neglect the dynamic particularities of the individual artist. What kind of specific contexts do artists inhabit? What do they read and listen to every day? Whom do they talk to? Why might they want to go back to their place of origin, to express their emotions in paint in front of their parents and relatives? Why might they want to go and deliver a passionate speech at their old primary school? This cannot all be boiled down to examples of ‘going native’ ( ‘bentu’ ) in the face of globalisation. It is not enough, for example, to mention – as the exhibition’s curator does in the catalogue – that Xiaodong Liu’s Hometown Boy was basically created at the invitation of the UCCA, in 2010! This means, effectively, that we cannot have looked in any depth at the artists’ motives for making their works, and goes no further than asking the usual kinds of ‘chicken-and-egg’ question.

Speaking of artists’ motives, this calls forth yet another question: the choice of artists to be in the exhibition. As ‘successful people’ among their colleagues, to what extent do their works actually reflect the ‘native’ ( ‘bentu’ ) conditions of China – assuming, for the moment, that we accept the proposition that China is the ‘other’ in Western parlance? Apart from being of an approximately similar age, practically all twelve of the participating artists live and work in Beijing and Shanghai, the two most developed cities in China, which are also the most immediately affected by globalisation. In anthropological terms, the artists could very well be ‘self-othering’, creating different forms and stereotypes of Chinese society – in other words, producing the ‘other’ of the ‘other’ by, for example, returning to their places of origin, sketching from life and collecting samples from minority areas.

At the same time, artists now also have more international experience, even experience of studying abroad. With the globalisation of the Chinese art market, all this makes their ideas and forms of expression adhere even more to international standards – and this fact was also noted, and praised, by the French curator in the exhibition catalogue. This, perhaps, reflects another embarrassing truth, which is that the ‘native’ ( ‘bentu’ ) artists and works of art in China can be known and understood by the artistic mainstream, only if they look sufficiently ‘globalised’.

In this regard, no exhibition can surpass Magiciens de la Terre, which took place in Paris in 1989. This first appearance of contemporary Chinese art administered a powerful shock to viewers, who were at a loss to know how to react: ‘Oh, so ink abstraction is still going strong!’ Although the artists who participated back then did not completely share similar concerns, and although they were certainly not representative of all Chinese art ( how could they be? ), their very diversity acted as an incentive to unprejudiced viewers to get closer to the work itself.

Of course, if we insisted on pushing the comparison further, we might feel obliged to ask ourselves whether the shock effect for audiences owed more to a hunger for novelty or to quest for a deeper form of understanding that might even carry ideological implications. There is no way of answering this, even if it provided for a more satisfactory artistic experience. But at least we can say that, in exhibitions where the curatorial discourse is excessively dominant, a strongly coherent curatorial grand narrative will only intensify existing understandings, instead of sparking off something new. The Bentu exhibition also reflected this limitation.


2016年1月27日 – 2016年5月2日

“本土:激流和嬗变下的中国艺术展”是由法国巴黎路易威登艺术基金会与北京尤伦斯当代艺术中心( UCCA )合办的中国当代艺术群展。这是一个没有艺术流派和理论术语的展览,只有一个充满社会学意味的标题:“本土”。按照官方解释,“本土”是与“全球”相对立、不指向民族主义的概念,虽然这种二元论令人心存疑惑。

这是一个颇有野心的展览。虽然官方解释说明该展览与法国之前全景式介绍中国当代艺术的展览不同,但展览依然围绕宏大叙事展开:以中国的社会大变革为背景,探讨全球化语境下的本土问题。这使得展览又陷入了某种全景式的陷阱 。



 – 城市空间及个体:刘窗《BBR1( 抑花一号 )》,胡向前《镜头前的女人》,徐震《孔子体育》,曹斐《陌生人》;

 – 城市化后的乡愁:刘小东《金城小子》系列,胡向前《土尾世界之演讲》;

 – 乡土空间:陶辉《1种性格与7种物质》,杨福东《青麒麟/山东纪事》;

 – 经济与社会的全球化:徐渠《货币战争》,刘诗园《从幸福到别的一切》;

 – 对西方艺术的挪用:徐震《永生》;对抽象艺术的演绎:刘韡《紫色空气》;向中国传统艺术致敬:邱志杰《第三世界地图》,郝量《北京乐师》。







今天,由于艺术史和策展的大发展,我们已经有了太多的艺术研究范式,更不用说从其他学科所汲取的一整套“地方知识”,使得任何一个关于异域文化( 谁来定义异域文化? )的展览都可以自信满满地大书特书,而忽视了艺术家个体的能动性。艺术家到底生活在怎样具体的情境之中,每天看什么,听什么,和谁聊天,为什么要回到自己的家乡,对着父老乡亲深情作画,对着母校小学激情演讲?这不是一句全球化下的“本土”就能概括的。更不用说,策展人在展览图录中提到,刘晓东的《金城小子》根本就是在2010年北京UCCA策展人的邀请下创作的金我们并无从深究艺术家的创作动机,正如无数“鸡生蛋,蛋生鸡”的问题。



从这个意义上来说,没有展览能够超越1989年法国的“大地魔术师”。在该展览上,中国当代艺术第一次亮相法国就震惊了观众,那是一种无所适从的、难以名状的震撼金哦,原来还有水墨抽象!虽然当年的参展艺术家在艺术关怀上不尽相同,也远不能代表中国艺术家全貌( 谁又能代表谁呢? ),可这种奇妙的不加预设的多样性,才可能更接近艺术本身。

当然,如果非要比较,到底是猎奇式的惊讶,还是认知型的金哪怕带着某种意识形态预设金艺术体验更好,是无解的。但起码,在策展人话语相对喧宾夺主的群展中,或许逻辑自洽的策展宏大叙事只会强化已有的认知,而非启发新知。 该展览也反映了这种局限。