During the 1980s, Huang Yong Ping was a founding member of Xiamen Dada, a group of Chinese artists who were disgruntled with the artistic traditions fostered during the Cultural Revolution. Xiamen Dada viewed “official” Chinese painting as an impediment to modernity in the arts, and they attempted to link Chinese traditions of Zen and Taoism to the ideas of such Western modernists as Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Michel Foucault. The group distinguished itself with often violent actions against Socialist Realism, or anti-art provocations such as burning their own paintings. At its root, Xiamen Dada acknowledged that art and ideology were intricately interwoven in China’s sociopolitical arena. Because of this background Huang places cultural hybridity at the center of his practice, alongside an aesthetic of skepticism regarding established cultural, religious, social, and political orders. Through his efforts to reinvent the language of art, he attempts to provoke real social change.
Since moving to Paris in 1989, Huang has been concerned with confronting the definitions of history and truth offered by both Eastern and Western hegemonic ideologies. While living in Asia, he referred to the Western avant-garde tradition in order to counter official Chinese ideology; in Europe, he introduces Eastern ideas and practices to undermine ingrained Eurocentric habits of thinking and cultural stereotypes. For example, he uses chance and the practice of I Ching (Book of Changes) to deconstruct the politicized “Hegelian rationalism,” contradicting the idea that the world can be understood according to the formula in which the real is rational, and the rational is real. Huang’s artistic universe contains diverse materials and approaches, including insect and reptile environments, and room-size installations in which ready-made objects and traditional symbols give shape to his critical understanding of art, history, and politics. Working within the tradition of installation art, Huang uses space and architecture to explore the phenomenological experience of a work, beyond its mere objecthood.
The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987–1993) is emblematic of Huang’s philosophy. Conceived in 1987, then accidentally destroyed, the work was reconstituted in 1993. Atop an old tea crate inscribed with the date and the history of the piece, Huang has left a pile of paper pulp obtained by “washing” two textbooks—on the history of Chinese art and the history of Western modern art respectively—in a washing machine. In doing so, he is attempting to reconcile two traditions often seen as antagonistic. The act of cleaning the books may seem as iconoclastic as an auto-da-fé, but the subversive quality of the act has little to do with wiping out dissent. Instead, Huang seeks to activate a philosophy (and then an aesthetic) of correlation, which has its roots in traditional Chinese philosophy, and the idea that no situation is monolithic but rather always composed of two entities that both oppose and complement each other. One could characterize such a phenomenon, and therefore Huang’s practice, as enlightenment through difference. Referring in his work to different cultural traditions, he does not seek exoticism or to provoke cultural antagonism, but proceeds by rebounds and detours to relocate our understanding of modernity. His attempt includes his awareness that any questioning of knowledge and language also questions the established social and political orders.