At Monumenta 2016, a Giant Carcass and Shipping Containers Carry a Solemn Message
Emigré artist Huang Yong Ping takes on globalization at the Grand Palais.
The cross-shaped nave of the Grand Palais, soaring above neighboring Parisian monuments with its glass vaults and gently patina’d iron latticework, is no white cube.
Inside, walls of solid concrete join transparent cupolas, and the floor is flanked by curving metal balconies. It is a space that must be acknowledged—a challenge faced by any artist invited to create a work there; and Monumenta, initiated in 2007 by the French Ministry of Culture and the French Reunion of National Museums, has asked Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Christian Boltanski, Anish Kapoor, Daniel Buren, and the Kabakovs to do just that.
Now, Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, based in France since 1989, has joined the ranks for Monumenta 2016. “Even though I have been in France for more than 20 years, I’m still like an outsider,” the slight, bespectacled artist told a small group of press this weekend, speaking in Chinese through a translator. (Although he speaks little French, he can understand it perfectly.) “That’s what is perceptible in this work, that I am an outsider; you can feel this very strongly.”
Titled “Empires,” Huang’s imposing installation is certainly disorienting, and it occupies the Palais’ 13,500 square meters and 115-foot ceilings with numerous plays on texture and form that echo the intricacy of the surrounding architecture. Organized into geometric stacks of varying heights, boldly colored shipping containers from around the world draw eyes up and provide the work its armature, evoking an urban wasteland, vestiges of the industrial age.
Inscribed with logos in a panoply of world languages, from Japanese to Arabic, some containers offer double meanings: CAPITAL, for example, seems salient; CAI, printed on another, means “fortune” in Chinese. “I wanted to create the impression of a valley,” Huang said. “And you can read into the writing on the containers. We discovered by accident that ‘Jesus’ is written on one in the front. A total coincidence; and we didn’t mean to put ‘Capital’ in the center. But it is there.”
Weaving over and through the containers—like morning mist crawling across the mountains in traditional Chinese paintings—is the serpentine skeleton of a 130-ton aluminum snake, its glinting vertebrae supported by metal piles and yoked together with cables. It was produced in five different factories, one in China and four in France, to emulate manufacture in today’s globalized market economy.
And another strange object, modest in its way, holds the work’s pieces together conceptually: Supported by bright containers on either side, a behemoth replica of Napoleon Bonaparte’s infamous Bicorne hat from the bloody Battle of Eylau—a symbol of hard-won imperial conquest—casts a looming shadow on the ground.
“For any project, I consider two points: first is the space itself, and second is the story of the space, and beyond the space,” Huang said. “Here, we are located in the center point between all these essential palaces; there is a palpable history of conquest and construction. For this work, the idea was there for me clear as day. It was the first idea I had, and it was the best idea. I had no choices to make.”
“Huang’s installation is striking first as a visual work, but it has many layers,” said commissioning curator Jean de Loisy, director of the Palais de Tokyo. “The snake that has shed its skin plays with this idea of mutation, as the steel revolution has transformed the world. The hat is made out of asphalt, which was used in the earliest Mesopotamian empires for the Ziggurats. So the idea of Empire comes from many places and from far away. Of course petrol, which makes asphalt, is still one of the reasons for war around the world.”
The notoriously enigmatic Huang, however, would never explain his work so clearly. He is considered a major figure of the avant-garde during the 1980s in China, though he left in ‘89. (He came to Paris for an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, and since his voyage intersected with Tiananmen Square, he never went back.) An avid consumer of philosophical texts from all corners of the globe, he often answers questions with other philosophical questions, and has a wry, ironic sense of humor that is easy to miss. “Moving to France was certainly decisive for me,” he said, smiling smugly. “You can say that living here has either changed me, or not changed me.”
His large-scale works often use mythical creatures drawn from Eastern and Western canons to suggest the continued relevance of cautionary fables, and are characterized by a sensibility that is cynical and fantastical at once, eschewing easy interpretation. “Like Napoleon’s battles, globalization is of course bloody, is of course difficult,” de Loisy said. “These containers are hosting fortune, but also misfortune. Huang doesn’t want to place any judgment on hungry ambition, because for him it is a natural phenomenon, part of the human condition. He embodies the idea that you must pass through pessimism to get to optimism.”
Although Huang would be loathe to admit it, “Empires” also engages his personal history. When he moved to France in 1989, he left a small harbor called Xiamen. When he returned 11 years later, the modest port had become an international shipping hub: He witnessed the transformation of the world in his own backyard through his country’s economic ambitions. “Empires,” then, takes on the lofty missions of both of his homes, connecting China’s geo-economics and Europe’s geo-political agenda.
“MONUMENTA 2016: Huang Yong Ping, Empires” is on view at the Grand Palais, Paris from May 8 – June 18.
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