Huang Yong Ping’s art is an entire ontology in itself. It’s a universe unto itself, and like the universe itself, it’s a complex system generated out of paradox and perplexity, which endow it with ultimate dynamism and vitality. His art is powerful but intelligent, revealing the essence of existence: that the truth of the world is that there is no unique ontological truth. The world is an eternal dilemma and paradox. And it makes sense only when this paradox exposes itself. Art is a way to reveal this and proves that such an understanding and its revelation are the means of achieving ultimate freedom, beyond the obsession with pursuing the truth. Huang Yong Ping’s art incarnates this perfectly because his acts are always “betraying” his concepts, and this is the very center of his conceptual universe. His works always involve a deferring process.
Early in 1989 Huang Yong Ping made the following statement to explain his involvement with art exhibitions and thus with public art activities:
Taking part in an exhibition always means that there will be a deficiency somewhere, no matter how meticulously and thoroughly you think it through—in just the same way that any talk reveals its own insufficiency. There is nothing bad, however, about deficiency or insufficiency. On the contrary, it is where the living force behind every exhibition (exhibitions are a form of showing off or overexposure) and every talk lies. When I took part in that exhibition in February 1989 [China/Avant-garde], I showed hardly anything, other than two examples of my work (from the Washing Machine and the Roulette series) that I brought with me. Although these two pieces were both small in size, and realized in a rather unsophisticated way, my participation in this exhibition was extremely successful—simply because it had no effect at all. It was almost as if I had not been there at all. In other words, I didn’t have any influence; I was excluded from the power of influence (i.e., to attract people’s attention), either by myself or by others.
Through this example, we can get an idea of the question of power in art, of how art can get away from power without becoming another power itself. The outcome of my participation in an exhibition (whether in the past or in the future) is not something I can plan or imagine from the beginning; it is similar to talking: the motivation or desire that triggers a discussion won’t have a direct influence on its end (outcome). It is appropriate to compare this process to that of a chameleon’s changing color: talking is, from the beginning to the end, subject to constant change.
It’s true that Huang Yong Ping’s way of “creating art” and “showing art” goes totally beyond planning and expectation. It’s uncertain and uncontrollable, and his works always end up deferring and even betraying his original concepts and formal structures. Subject to a process of constant transgression and deconstruction, they often end up “unformal” and even dematerialized, like an iceberg melting into water. Although inevitably spectacular and even sublime, they are often failures formally despite the huge effort on the part of the artist to make them successful, like a kind of ultimate failure doomed by destiny itself. What remains as traces along the way, from plotting to achievement up to the final “failure,” is nevertheless radically exciting and provocative and absolutely beautiful. Huang Yong Ping’s works prove that the destiny of the world is ultimately inescapable, reminding us, however, that destiny can never be separated from chance and accident.
The following scenarios are true stories, extracted from Huang Yong Ping’s working process. They can be seen as perfect examples of such a negotiation between artistic intention and final destiny. His works are often carefully planned and prepared, but at the moment of realization, they are systematically turned into something completely out of control and evolve toward unknown ends. Speed, accident, chance, and change hence become the decisive elements. They are essentially antiart.
Xiamen Dada: Rethinking Authorship, Language, Knowledge
In the mid-1980s Huang Yong Ping was the leader of Xiamen Dada, a gathering of artists from his hometown of Xiamen. This group has certainly been the most subversive collective in the history of Chinese art, with immense influence on China’s revolutionary avant-garde art movement of the last two decades. The most remarkable actions the group carried out were its “group exhibitions” of 1986. The first event took place on November 23, 1986. In front of the Cultural Palace of Xiamen, the artists set fire to all the works that had been shown in their exhibition held in the previous month, declaring, “Dada is dead; beware of the fire!” In an accompanying statement, Huang Yong Ping claimed: “Artworks are for the artist what opium is for men. Until art is destroyed, life is never peaceful.”
Later on, in December 1986, the group held another exhibition, at the Fujian Art Museum. Instead of showing artworks such as paintings and sculptures, as they declared they would in their application to rent the space, they moved the construction materials from a neighboring court-yard into the galleries and installed them in the same configuration. They announced:
This is a delimited, aggressive, and continuous event… . The fact that these objects are flooding the [Fujian] art museum clearly shows that it’s an action of attack. And what is being attacked here is not the audience, but their opinions on “art.” Likewise, it is not the art museum itself that is under attack, but the art museum as an example of the art system… . [This artistic event] suggests some radically different concepts and the importance of realizing these concepts quickly. It seems redundant to ask whether or not an object shown officially at the art museum is an artwork, and the producers of these objects also think that it is meaningless to affirm that they are artworks. In this exhibition, we come empty-handed and, in the end, leave empty-handed. This is an exhibition of works without “works.”
Clearly Huang Yong Ping and his friends were deeply interested in the issues of emptiness, nothingness, and chance. These elements gave them the greatest possible freedom to depart from any preconceptualized approach and work with the opportunities that arose at the last minute. In this way they were able to transgress the linear order of things, which is the very core of established modernist culture and is also central to the capitalist and socialist reforms that helped reshape the political, social, economic, and cultural landscape in China in the 1980s. It’s no surprise that they concluded: “Xiamen Dada is kind of postmodern.” Their main point was to emphasize the necessity to turn away from the rationalist, modernist definition of art and the related institutional system as well as, more profoundly, the discursive system.
Huang Yong Ping thus naturally embraces the examples of Marcel Duchamp, Dada, John Cage, Michel Foucault, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Joseph Beuys, Fluxus, the I Ching (Book of Changes), Taoism, Chan (Zen) Buddhism, and all other deconstructive strategies that offer alternatives to the mainstream modernist conception of the world, blending them together. This blended result does not, however, by any means produce what might be regarded as a more progressive, positive, or better outcome. Instead, it throws the product into an even more precarious and risky situation, suspended between unknown fates. Everything is in permanent flux. Change is the only “truth.”
In 1986 Huang Yong Ping wrote:
To regard art as the incarnation of Tao and Chan merely means that they are relatively close to each other, but not equal. The histories of Taoism and Chan Buddhism also show us that they are constantly facing change, just like everything else in the world. Thus, Dada is profound. Dada claimed that it was not adding another movement to the list but was opposed to all movements. This is a paradox: Dada is against itself. Thus, “wherever troops are stationed, thorns and brambles grow, in the wake of a great army, come years of calamities” (Laozi, Tao Te Ching). Yet what comes in the wake of years of calamities?
Chance and Change: The Roulette Wheel
This question, which can never be fully answered, lays a foundation for a discussion of Huang Yong Ping’s further development, artistically, intellectually, and methodologically. His artistic activities have become an ongoing negotiation with an impossible inquiry into the nature of truth. In the early period of his activities, Huang Yong Ping conceived and produced a great number of devices to carry out such an inquiry. He understands that the only way to approach reality is actually to escape from it and engender a distant but related link with it. Chance is the central element in the making of such a contradictory relationship. The ideal form to embody such a conception of chance is no doubt something circular and in permanent motion. Inspired by the Chinese fortune-telling tradition and gambling, Huang Yong Ping designed and produced a series of roulette wheels with indications ranging from I Ching diagrams to everyday gestures. These devices, once put in operation, generated completely unexpected instructions directing the actions of the artist. The role of the artist became that of a simple executor of the instructions. His “artworks” were thus materialized as the most uncanny and inexplicable combinations of various elements, including his Four Paintings Created according to Random Instructions (1985) as well as the absurd objects that result from such instructions as “tying up a soft object” or “vinegar and wax.”
The roulette wheel is not a simple gambling device, however; it is first and foremost a machine that allows for a philosophical approach to the unapproachable universe. The content of the instructions is deliberately determined upon more reflective consideration of the limits of the artist’s relationship with his products; it involves a mediation between the possibility of making sense and the impossibility of grasping the truth. As Huang Yong Ping has explained, to introduce all the tricks of the game of chance is to “allow the action to be free from the intervention of judgment made by the eyes and the brain. I believe in the limitation of the brain, however, and hence I reflect on the question of ‘losing oneself.’” He continues: “In approaching a question, [the] entries [on the roulette wheel] can serve as titles, memoranda, concepts, or inspiration; they can be read straightforwardly or backward or be simply incomprehensible. This big roulette wheel provides many possibilities, and the possibilities I have will be greatly different from those others have. However, they still cannot go beyond the world I live in—this is where the limits are.” He accordingly designed a series of rules for using the roulette wheels, reminiscent of spiritual rites. Echoing Wittgenstein’s understanding of the limitation of language vis-à-vis the world, Huang Yong Ping, through such a device of chance and change, pushes us to confront the fundamental paradox of our own existence.
Such revelations of the ontological paradox, like the “linguistic turn” in philosophical history prompted by philosophers such as Wittgenstein, have generated major changes in art history, especially in the context of China’s movement toward modernization since the early 1980s. Huang Yong Ping, as we have seen from his subversive performances, has never limited himself to ontological and metaphysical reflections. He is actually a straightforward political activist. If politics can be understood as a realm far larger than that of power games for social control and can instead be seen as essentially a question of discursive structure and its influences on the social system and human life, including imagination and creativity, then debates on artistic activity, especially in the context of the intensive social transformation that took place in China in the 1980s, are inevitably political in nature. Politics is, on the one hand, closely related to the world of discourse and images and, on the other, reliant on the structure of the institution. Questions of the tensions and negotiations between traditional and modern, between East and West, between social engagement and individual freedom, between the rational and irrational, and so on, are certainly the most urgent and challenging political tasks lying before every artist. There has been much exciting and intensive debate, polemic, and even conflict in the art world, often resulting in political oppression and resistance. This has been a major driving force in the making of the Chinese avant-garde.
Huang Yong Ping has by no means hesitated to take part in these debates. His answer to the question goes totally beyond any “normal” expectation, however, transcending conventional logic. On December 1, 1987, following the instructions from his roulette wheels, he decided to wash two books in a washing machine for two minutes in order to solve the endless problem of choosing between the traditional and the modern, between East and West, and so on. The two books were Wang Bomin’s History of Chinese Painting and Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting. Through this simple but radical gesture, Huang Yong Ping, within the space of two minutes, came up with a highly efficient, and extremely provocative, solution to such a “historical” question. The chaotic and “dirty” paper pulp was hence turned into a clear statement about a historical riddle. At the same time, it was a totally subversive challenge to the conventional wisdom of culture in general. As Huang Yong Ping confirms:
Book washing is somewhat similar to Wittgenstein’s view of language. He once said: “Now and then, some wordings should be removed from language and be sent to be washed—and after that, they can be brought back into communication.” What I do can be summed up as the following: “washing” is both the method and the goal, because I don’t believe that language can be brought back into communication after having been washed. In other words, communication is in reality a “dirty form.” In addition, “book washing” is not about making culture cleaner; rather, it tries to make its dirtiness more evident to the eye.
It’s a new “cultural category”: unreadable humidity.
Clearly Huang Yong Ping is seeking a totally new way of interpreting issues of cultural politics. He is searching for an alternative to the conventional, rational, linear, and historicist weltanschauung that has dominated the global history of the modern and contemporary eras. Through this light and rapid gesture, he seeks to liberate our languages, imaginations, and hence life in general from a highly oppressive but comfortably accepted system of logic and value. By proving that “culture can only become dirtier after being washed,” he exposes us to reality, to the face of destiny itself.
Assaults on the Institution
Huang Yong Ping has not been satisfied with simple, straightforward provocation and subversion, however, but has developed much more complex and profound strategies to negotiate with the history and reality of political and ideological oppression. He chooses to stand with the intellectual minority and invents his own ways to intervene into reality, through both intellectual discourse and social action.
It is commonly understood that the discourses of the powerful have been incarnated in all kinds of social structures and institutions, including the dominant discourses on the complicated relationship between East and West, bred from the contradictory process of negotiating the tradition of Eurocentrism and the necessity of modernization. In the field of contemporary art, this complicated relationship has been materialized in the history of the art institution and its current forms. Naturally Huang Yong Ping has chosen to deepen his engagement with such ideological and political issues by launching assaults on the established forms of the institution, first in China and, later on, internationally.
Huang Yong Ping’s interventions in this domain have been among his most confrontational and directly subversive. We have seen the examples of Xiamen Dada “exhibitions.” For the exhibition China/Avant-garde in 1989 (China National Art Gallery, Beijing), he and his Dadaist friends proposed a project to attach the architectural structure of the National Art Gallery and draw the whole building away from its original site with a tricycle as a direct attack on the institution. As Huang Yong Ping wrote in the passage cited earlier, this is a way to “get an idea of the question of power in art, of how art can get away from power without becoming another power itself.”
As Foucault has pointed out, the modern institution is by nature a device for surveillance and social control. The history of modern intellectual and social revolutions has always been connected to the efforts to subvert and bury such an establishment of power. In reality, however, every artistic, intellectual, and social revolution has resulted, ironically, in the reproduction of the institution in a new form, often no less oppressive than the previous one. Understanding this perfectly, Huang Yong Ping suggests, without much illusion of creating a utopia, some more efficient strategies for such an impossible negotiation: “The biggest restriction on artists by the art museum is in fact the artists’ intention to exhibit at the art museum. Thus, the most efficient way to escape from the art museum is to encircle it completely and to launch sudden attacks followed by equally rapid retreats. This includes using the following approaches: infiltration, dispersion, disturbance, displacement, confusion, and inducement. To exhibit on the edge of an exhibition, to exhibit on its empty ground, and to exhibit in places not destined for exhibitions.” Huang Yong Ping moved to France in 1989 and established himself as one of the most remarkable artists on the international art scene. He has maintained his approach to the question of the institution and his strategy of guerrilla-style intervention to deconstruct it. This has become increasingly important as a core of his repositioning in a new cultural context. In the 1990s he carried out a series of interventions in international, mainly Western, institutions, using alternative values and deconstructive elements to resist the hegemonic structure of established museology, especially to demonstrate possible ways to subvert the dominance of Eurocentrism and the ideological appropriation of the “other” that is often implicit in the West’s curiosity about non-Western cultures.
In projects such as Reptile (1989; fig. 10), Should We Construct Another Cathedral? (1991; fig. 11), Unreadable Humidity (1991; fig. 12), Library Canteen (1992; fig. 13), Kiosk (1995; fig. 14), and Floating Kiosk (2000; fig. 15), Huang Yong Ping has pursued the strategy of book washing as a means of invading institutional spaces, which are often protected against damage by elements such as humidity in order to safeguard art objects and therefore the value system of art itself. His introduction of such an alien element upsets the normal functioning of the institution and its ideological system of meaning production. The “unreadable humidity” has created moments of panic when it seems that the institution itself has lost its meaning, while other systems of meaning production—assuming that the meaning of cultural and artistic products can be sensed only when one is willing to confront the possibility that one is dealing with a realm beyond the limits of language itself—are being “smuggled” in and temporarily established.
Fortune-telling, via the roulette wheel, has also been introduced in institutional spaces, for the same reason. For Huang Yong Ping, the references to Chinese and other non-Western traditional spiritual practices not only introduce the element of chance as a way to disturb linear logic but also, more importantly, offer a new way to search for the truth, a parallel way beyond the grasp of the Eurocentric vision of the world. It’s also an alternative to the contemporary technology-based methods of obtaining the “truth,” such as electronic imaging and communications media such as television, which are increasingly becoming the major framing force of our idea of the truth. Through non-Western spiritual and physical practices, one can access the truth of the world from a completely different angle and be freed from the hegemony of mainstream discourses. This awareness has helped Huang Yong Ping develop projects such as The House of Oracles (1989-1992) and especially Roulette Wheel for the Semicircular Hall (1993; fig. 16), in which he caused parts of works by other artists in the exhibition to seem to disappear. In fact, many of Huang Yong Ping’s works are actually the result of his use of various fortune-telling practices, referring to the I Ching and other Taoist classics. This forms a veritable alternative conceptual system, parallel to the Western worldview, with its scientific bias.
Huang Yong Ping’s interventions into institutional spaces are generally site-specific—or, more precisely, they are site-specific critiques. They target the most essential aspects of each venue and context. In 1992 he realized the project Indigestible Object (fig. 17) for an exhibition entitled Small Medium Large Life Size at the Centro per l’arte contemporaneo Luigi Pecci, Prato, Italy. After consulting the I Ching, he understood that the project had to do with the question of digestion, namely the capacity and limitations of the institution’s “digestion” of art. In the central hall of the museum, he built a long tunnel. Four hundred kilograms of cooked rice were spread on the floor along the length of the tunnel. They were the result of a weeklong cooking process. The fresh part was still steaming, while other parts started rotting and stinking. This obviously posed a challenging problem for the institution: a museum can receive and “digest” all kinds of artworks. Can it digest rice, however, the most normal food for a Chinese person?
Huang Yong Ping did not stop at such a provocative gesture but has continued to develop more various and precise gestures to negotiate with institutions of all kinds. His artistic language is also evolving, becoming more flexible, ever-changing and unfathomable, immaterial, and formless, creating a new order of things out of chaos. Like entropy, it oscillates between fullness and emptiness, growth and decay, appearing and disappearing, changing and remaining, so that all the materials are endowed with renewed vitality.
At key moments, Huang Yong Ping does not hesitate to turn “normality” upside-down. The project The Overturned Tomb (1994; fig. 18) for the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, is probably the most obvious example of this: behind the galleries showing the museum’s Asian collections, he installed a replica of a traditional Chinese tomb and turned it so that the underside faced the sky. He notes: “Tomb = Museum. The overturned tomb … is a denial of the concept of the museum itself.”
Reintegrating Humankind and Nature
Huang Yong Ping’s transgression of the order of things goes further, challenging the borderline between nature and the human-made world imposed by the positivist modernist conception of the universe. He tends to reinterpret the world vision in the merging of both worlds, which has deep roots in Chinese and other non-European cultures. Chinese medicine—which considers the human body to be organically connected with nature and uses mainly natural elements, including animals and plants—has become a very important reference for him. This has considerably extended his field of action in negotiating the institutional space and its discursive-ideological system.
Major works such as The Pharmacy (1995-1997) and Theater of the World (1993) have marked a new phase in this direction. Huang Yong Ping’s interest in medicine can probably be traced to his earlier project Reappearance of the Red Cross (1991; fig. 19), however, which has been a bridging effort, blending the Chinese concept of life and death and Foucault’s reading of the gaze at death and the birth of modern medicine. The Pharmacy, which takes the form of a gourd, the symbol of traditional Chinese medicine, in turn sums up such a search for an alternative reading of medical history in order to propose another way to understand life, culture, and modernity. Huang Yong Ping argues that traditional Chinese medicine—which combines things that are ordinarily considered to belong to separate, unrelated categories of knowledge—is in fact a highly efficient and reliable system. It has been marginalized and abandoned by modern knowledge and its institutions. Now, as he proposes, it’s time to bring it back as a catalyst to provoke a fundamental shift in perspective on the world.
Huang Yong Ping has also shown an interest in banned, taboo aspects of the natural world—including such creatures as insects, snakes, and turtles—regarding them as a central element of a new order of things. This is particularly relevant to his questioning of the institutional definition of art discourse and social relationships. After a long residence at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany, in 1993, he came up with an impressive and even shocking project, Theater of the World. He built an arena-like “theater” and put into it hundreds of insects, reptiles, and other animals of different kinds and let them coexist. As one would expect, they regularly practiced the natural law of survival of the fittest and consumed one another. This is actually a quasiliteral metaphor for the violent, competitive relationships that exist in both the art world and everyday life. Watching the animals battling, one was struck by the very destiny of life. At the same time, the introduction of live animals into the strictly guarded space of the art institution implies an ultimate subversion of its morality and power system. It may also remind us, however, that coexistence of humankind and nature is still prevalent beyond the Western, “civilized” world.
In the last decade, Huang Yong Ping has created a completely original zoological realm, using both live animals and reproductions of animals, from both the real world and the imagination, often referring to ancient Chinese legends such as Guideways through Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing) and Sage Who Embraces Simplicity (Bao Pu Zi). For him, resorting to such an alternative zoological category demonstrates the necessity to introduce other ways to understand the truth of the world and to categorize things. This fantastic zoological repertoire has become a key element in his work, providing a unique tool for him to approach diverse issues, from metaphysical and historical topics to geopolitical questions, and to come up with unexpected and creative interpretations and critiques.
The transgression of the boundary between humankind and nature also puts Huang Yong Ping himself in a totally original position. He is now at once an artist, magician, fortune-teller, alchemist, healer, teacher, philosopher, and writer. The question of identity, as an individual and an “artist,” is now being seriously raised. As with Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy and Joseph Beuys and the shaman, Huang Yong Ping is creating a new role for himself as he continually oscillates between himself and the various extensions of his identity. This clearly defies the conventional status of the artist.
Migration, Cultural Difference, and Identity
Huang Yong Ping’s art can exist only as long as it is evolving and changing. Performativity is its essence. This allows him to develop continuously evolving strategies to deal with the urgent question of cultural identity, which has been brought to the forefront of current cultural and geopolitical negotiations by both postcolonial conditions, particularly migration and multicultural reality, and the globalization of economic life. Identity has in fact been a major topic in contemporary art since the end of the cold war, when the global political landscape began to go through a fundamental restructuring. In the Western world migration and internal changes in the social structure are replacing the ideological confrontation between communism and capitalism as central political issues. Identity is by nature a paradoxical issue, however. It’s a necessary construct for position taking, but it’s also essentially a completely unstable fiction. How does one play the game of balance and generate real political meaning out of this negotiation?
As an immigrant to the West, Huang Yong Ping has had firsthand experience and an intimate understanding of the question and, in his wisdom, has answered it in highly creative ways. He understands that it is necessary to rely on a temporary reconstruction of the self in order to survive the surrounding pressure. In the meantime, it’s even more necessary to develop a deconstructive strategy as a means of negotiating the question of identity from the perspective of movement, evolution, and opening toward continuous reinvention and achievement of freedom from cultural clichÈs, both individually and collectively. Questioning the relationship between the self and the other is always a dynamic process of confrontation, exchange, negotiation, and regeneration. It’s by nature a process of cultural hybridization. The self is a permanent search for an other. Disidentification is in fact implicit in the notion of identity.
To open a space of existence in a new social context that is dominated by an “other” culture and sociopolitical system, it is important to affirm certain aspects of cultural difference that are carried within one’s trajectory of migration. This not only can help one claim one’s right of existence and expression but can also help create a truly multicultural and just society based on acceptance and promotion of cultural differences—an ideal contemporary cosmopolitan society. As an individual artist with a Chinese background, Huang Yong Ping naturally focuses his reflections and actions on this question, critically and provocatively. Based on this, his art becomes a search both for strategies of resistance to the hegemonic powers and for propositions for a new picture of cultural difference.
Considering resistance as a central strategy in the negotiation with reality, Huang Yong Ping has adopted a wise strategy: utilize the given resources of one’s own culture to consolidate one’s own position and to affect the other’s position. He systematically draws on Chinese cultural traditions to deal with everyday reality in the West and hence generate a new self and to influence the restructuring of the social context. He says:
In my opinion, the mutual influences among different cultures are very important. “West,” “East,” “self,” and “other” are not fixed concepts that never change. On the contrary, these concepts can be displaced. When I was in China, I was more interested in the West than I am now, in the sense that I regarded it as a source for the “other,” a source of imagination; on the contrary, I am talking more about Chinese thoughts now. This is probably due to the fact that now I am living in a Western context. On the one hand, “to beat the West with the East” represents an opposition to West-centrism; on the other hand, “to beat the East with the West” is to oppose a return to pure nationalism. Of course, this kind of shift in focus often stems from a change of context.
To develop a practice that questions both West-centrism and pure nationalism, Huang Yong Ping began with a series of works that directly relate to his personal experience as a non-Western immigrant traveling across the borders between the West and other parts of the world. He has developed an approach that, on the one hand, reconstructs rather realistically the experience of border crossing and, on the other hand, explores in an unexpected fashion the historical background and cultural conflicts associated with that experience. By integrating both of these aspects, he has been able to develop a more critical engagement with issues that have become crucial in an increasingly globalized world.
Huang Yong Ping’s project Human Snake (1993; fig. 20) refers directly to an event that took place when he was visiting the site to prepare the work. A boat with more than six hundred Chinese refugees bound for the United States was stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard in international waters. After several days of diplomatic negotiations as well as more public debate between the authorities and defenders of human rights, while the fate of the boat people remained in suspense, the Mexican government agreed to accept the refugees and immediately deported them back to China. This allowed the United States to avoid giving each refugee a political asylum hearing, which would have been required had they landed on U.S. soil. Understanding such an event as a typical example of the destiny of those who are trapped by the “American Dream” and other illusory projections of life in the West, Huang Yong Ping raised questions about the real significance of the “ideal way of living” propagated by the West as a sign of its superiority. In a very realistic manner, he set up a scene of the sinking boat carrying the Chinese refugees, or “human snakes” (Chinese slang for people who are smuggled), facing a long net with a light box in the shape of the map of the United States at the end. This piece was shown at a time when there was fervent debate on the issues of illegal immigration and human rights.
The question of immigration in the West has a long history that is closely related to the legacy of colonialism as well as to the current international economic and political situation. The phrase “Yellow Peril” was coined in the late nineteenth century to describe the supposed threat to the United States posed by immigrants from China and Japan. In a work entitled Yellow Peril (fig. 21)—included in one of the first exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art in the West, Silent Energy, at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1993—Huang Yong Ping provocatively introduced hundreds of locusts into the entrance area of the museum. The insects, which are feared because of their pattern of migrating over long distances in destructive swarms, can be seen as a metaphor for Chinese immigrants, who have been regarded as catastrophic invaders in the West since the colonial era but are actually victims of Western expansion and exploitation of the non-Western world.
Similar revelations can also be found in Huang Yong Ping’s other works from the same period. One of the most outstanding examples is his installation Passage (1993), which occupied the entrance to the exhibition space at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow. This work is a direct result of his own experiences as a non-Westerner traveling across Western borders. At every passport control point in Europe, in what appears to be a naked form of discrimination, one has to choose between a line marked “EC Nationals” and a line marked “Others.” Huang Yong Ping, naturally, had to take the queue for “Others,” which regularly resulted in more intensive questioning by customs officials. Proposing that the European public have the opportunity to share such an “exceptional” experience, he installed signs reading “EC Nationals” and “Others,” which were exact replicas of the signs at the Glasgow Airport, above both entrances to the galleries, each of which was blocked by a large animal cage. Inside the cages, remains of fresh foods consumed by lions at the zoo and their excrement were left on the floor. On the first day of his stay in Glasgow, Huang Yong Ping had visited the local historical museum and found out that a lion caught in Africa during the colonial era was exhibited there as a kind of a relic of the glory days of the British Empire. The lion also reminded him of the lion statues that are placed in from of Chinese buildings as guardians. His “realistic” installation had a startling impact on viewers when they stepped into the gallery and had to decide which gate to enter. Am I an “EC National” or an “Other”?
Religion and the Relativity of Values
Although identity is certainly a central question for Huang Yong Ping, as a Chinese citizen living in the West, he never limits his investigations to his own personal experience. Rather, he understands the issue itself as a laboratory for the reconstruction of contemporary society into a truly multicultural playground in which cultural confrontations, exchanges, and even misunderstandings are driving forces for interactions among people from different parts of the world who share the same space. As with his shifts from artist to “magician,” from philosopher to fortune-teller, he also navigates the swirling sea of religions. Never embracing any belief system, he instead deepens his exploration of identity by drawing on different religious sources in order to prove the relativity of values represented by different beliefs and cultures and the necessity of their coexistence. At the same time, he is keenly aware that religious differences and coexistence are a key element in the formation of the current geopolitical situation, which is often paradoxical and conflictive. Chinese religious and spiritual traditions such as Taoism and I Ching and even popular superstitions are of course essential reference points. In almost every work, one can discover and decipher the influences of such traditions.
Huang Yong Ping has also taken an interest in Buddhism, a major global religion that originated in the East. The constant and limitless transformation of Buddha corresponds perfectly to his concept of the universe as a process of incessant change, which is also the very core of Taoism and other Chinese religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions. The image of Buddha is central to works such as Bamboo Buddha (1995; fig. 22) and Thousand-Armed Guanyin (1997; fig. 23). Instead of seeing Buddhism as a form of belief, however, Huang Yong Ping systematically connects it, as he does with other references, to the question of cultural confrontation and exchange, which is the foundational condition of our contemporary globalized society. In his statement on the Münster project, he explains his reasons for relating the Guanyin to Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (1914) as well as to a sculpture of Christ in a local church: “The idea is based on the congruence of form between things that are different, but which also resemble one another.” He concludes: “My project is concerned with change and transformation of form and meaning. Here East and West, art and religion mix with one another.”
Living in Europe, especially in a city like Paris, one intimately experiences the coexistence of and negotiations among different cultures, religions, and social values. In the current context, the confrontation between the West and the non-Western world, especially former colonies; between Christian religious tradition and Islam; between Western-style democracy and other forms of social organization, is not only an intellectual and geopolitical issue. It is also imprinted on every moment of everyday life and is actually a pressingly urgent issue. As a Parisian, Huang Yong Ping is particularly sensitive to this urgency. Shortly after the attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in France in 1995 and 1996, which marked the reemergence of terrorist threats against Western society after nearly two decades of peace, he came up with projects such as Three Steps, Nine Traces (1996; fig. 24), From Gare de l’Est to Gare de l’Ouest (1997; fig. 25), and Floating Kiosk (2000; fig. 15), which clearly refer to the current conflicts between the West and Islam. Instead of taking a simple, clear-cut moralist position vis-à-vis these events, however, Huang Yong Ping attempts to reveal the highly complex, ambivalent, and unsolvable entanglement of historical, cultural, and political forces that have generated this monstrous situation. Referring to both Taoist tradition and Islamic terrorism, Three Steps, Nine Traces brings together the footprints of Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed to “dance” across a minefield. With its sense of ritual and almost poetic beauty, the work dynamically demonstrates the real nature of such conflicts as a result not only of friction between different religions but also of postcolonial political manipulations. His other works from this period echo, from specific points of view, this audacious revelation.
History and Reality, Past and Present
Huang Yong Ping’s interventions are highly realistic and energetic. What they seek to articulate, however, is by no means a literal description of the real. Instead, they focus on revealing the complexity hidden behind appearances. Manipulating and transforming the meanings and metaphors of different signs and images, he favors change, uncertainty, transient states, floating, flowing, and transformation of meaning. His works are highly performative, uncontrollably oscillating between material and immaterial, between understandable and unfathomable. This is clearly a strategy to negotiate for free expression in a world that is increasingly obsessed with institutionalized security, transparency, and stability, opening up a space to propose alternatives to established social and cultural values.
We are living in a time of global restructuring triggered by the end of the cold war. Although parts of the world have seen unprecedented prosperity driven by the modernization and globalization of the capitalist “free market” economy, almost all societies, both Western and non-Western, are going through radical divisions between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. All of this is providing a new context for contemporary artists and their engagements with reality. Having put the question of postcolonial reality and related issues like migration and multiculturalism at the center of his ideas and work since settling in Paris in 1989, Huang Yong Ping has inevitably become deeply interested in the new geopolitical situation. Deconstruction of established power systems—both political and discursive—has been the starting point of his involvement in art making from the very beginning, and his critical insights into these issues have made his work particularly powerful. His work derives much of its impact from the tension between his hyperrealistic demonstrations of significant, often spectacular, events and his “metaphysical,” deconstructive interpretations of these events.
Huang Yong Ping has a profound interest in history and has adopted a strategy of referring to historical events or sources to shed light on the contemporary world. In many of his works that address questions of migration and postcolonial reality, he systematically explores the connection between the past and the present, between the locality and the event, to provide an alternative understanding of the current situation and to trace its historical roots. For example, the year 1997 marked the ultimate end of the British Empire with the transition of Hong Kong from a British colony to a Chinese territory. In that year Huang Yong Ping was invited to produce a new project for the exhibition Parisien(ne)s at Camden Arts Centre, London. Perfectly grasping the connection between the geopolitical event and the location, he realized the installation Da Xian—The Doomsday, which consisted of three large-scale replicas of porcelain bowls fabricated in the nineteenth century by the British East India Company on which Chinese-style landscapes of Western concessions in China were painted. The bowls, which also implicitly represent the globe cut into two hemispheres, were filled with hundreds of foods and drinks bought from local supermarkets, all of them stamped with a freshness date of July 1, 1997. Clearly they announce the end of British rule of Hong Kong. On July 1, 1997, the colony reverted to Chinese rule after more than a century under British control. It was the doomsday for the entire colonialist enterprise.
With the end of classic colonialism, however, we are actually witnessing the rise of an even more wide-reaching and violent neocolonialism: new geopolitical structures have been created to facilitate and defend the expansion of global capitalism, dominated by powers that represent the interests of the West. Reexamining the historical roots of the transition from colonialism to postcolonialism or neocolonialism can help us understand the nature of the current political and economic situation. Huang Yong Ping, sensitively reacting to these developments, has conducted such a reexamination in several of his works. Warehouse (1998; fig. 26), ∆ (1998; fig. 27), and 11 June 2002—The Nightmare of George V (2002) directly resonate with Da Xian—The Doomsday in their critical and ironic demonstrations of the historical roots of the neocolonialist conquest of the global economy.
China’s recent economic boom and the rise of its international status are probably two of the hottest topics around the world today. This miraculous modernization is also an extremely contradictory and complex phenomenon, however, leaving a country torn between third world reality and the ambition of gaining global power. Of course, it’s also a result of direct negotiation with a global market economy dominated by transnational capitalism and neocolonial ideology and political powers. China’s spectacular growth and empowerment can be seen as a model for the entire non-Western world in its effort to contribute to the restructuring of the world order. In the meantime, as with every success story, the price that the country has had to pay has been extremely high. In fact, the Chinese economic miracle has been created at the risk of the “bubblization” of the economy itself as well as radical social division and conflict.
After a decade of living and working abroad, Huang Yong Ping returned to China for the first time in 2000 to work on specific projects. He immediately became aware of the paradoxes behind the impressive and exciting phenomenon of the country’s unprecedented economic boom. He was invited to realize a new work for the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, the first-ever international contemporary art biennial organized by a public institution in China. While actively participating in an event that has decisively improved conditions for contemporary art in China, he still, however, firmly maintained his critical stance. After closely examining the relationship between Shanghai’s history and its present-day situation—the city has served as an urban laboratory for colonial civilization and postcommunist modernization as well as for China’s integration into the global market system—he produced two projects that demonstrate the ideological contradictions inherent in such a development. At the side entrance of the Shanghai Art Museum, which had been the Jockey Club of the British concession, he replaced the lampshade with a new one in the form of a pith helmet (fig. 28).
In the main exhibition hall, he set up a huge installation entitled Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank, which was a small-scale replica of a famous edifice on the Bund. Originally this English imperial-style building was the headquarters of the colonial Shanghai Bank (now Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation, or HSBC). Under communist rule, between the 1950s and the 1990s, it served as the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government building. Now it has again become a bank, the headquarters of Pudong Development Bank, which is a major investor in Shanghai’s new economic development zone. Huang Yong Ping’s intervention was extremely simple and economical: he simply reproduced the structure in the center of the gallery, building it entirely from sand. During the three-month run of the exhibition, the imposing edifice kept falling apart slowly. Clearly, it was a highly subtle but radically open critique of the whole “miracle” of China’s boom and the global expectations surrounding it. It’s as efficient as the very object of its critique—the booming economy itself.
In later works such as World Factory (2001; fig. 29) and Flying Bowl (in collaboration with Shen Yuan, 2002; fig. 30), Huang Yong Ping has continued his critical demonstration of the mechanisms of economic globalization and the myth of urbanization in the postcolonial/neocolonial context, both within and outside of China.
As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued in their influential books Empire and Multitude, we are living not only in a time of global empire but also in an age of global war.14 This global war is being waged in economic and political terms, and it also, more and more often, results in direct armed confrontation and aggression. The recent “terrorist” attacks in the United States and Europe and the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, among many other less spectacular and mediated conflicts, are obvious incidents of this kind of real warfare. This situation, needless to say, has not escaped Huang Yong Ping’s notice. While offering pointed critiques of the established superpowers and their ideologies, he has also occasionally used these events to demonstrate his personal belief that the destiny of the world is based on eternal contradictions and conflicts.
Early in 1992, in his exhibition The House of Oracles, Huang Yong Ping showed an installation piece demonstrating the inevitability of the first Iraq war. In a more recent work, A Football Match of June 14, 2002 (2003; fig. 31), he refers directly to the American-led war to “liberate” Afghanistan from the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, showing how this “liberation” has provoked a veritable clash of civilizations. The work consists of a football field on which armed American solders are shown playing against veiled Afghan women in the shadow of a huge meteorite that looms over their heads, surrounded by hundreds of bats. As the artist has stated, this is a dreamlike image of the world we are living in today.
Free Expression and Censorship, Destruction and Reemergence
Many of Huang Yong Ping’s works offer straightforward commentaries on current events, in some cases reproducing the actual events of warfare and similar incidents. Sometimes his works provoke real-life confrontations. His use of “abnormal” materials such as animals, insects, and decaying organic matter has regularly led to censorship under the pretext of “humanistic values.” There have been incidents in which his works were forbidden to be shown at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (1994) and in Manifesta 1 in Rotterdam (1996), places where freedom of expression is promoted as a fundamental social value. What is even more interesting is that versions of his recent Bat Project have been systematically censored in China between 2001 and 2003. Those who censored these works are merely diplomats representing countries that pretend to defend human rights as the principal bargaining chip in their diplomatic “warfare” against “totalitarian” countries like China.
This ironic story happened in the most unexpected way. Huang Yong Ping was preparing a new project for a Sino-French public sculpture exhibition in 2001 in Shenzhen when he heard the news of the first diplomatic crisis between China and the United States since George W. Bush had become president. An American spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane in Chinese airspace and was forced to land at a Chinese military base in Hainan. After long negotiations, the Americans had to dismantle the plane and ship it back to the United States, while the crew was released later on. This event attracted great public attention in China and provoked a nationalist fury against the American superpower. Huang Yong Ping decided to reconstruct the plane as his work for the public sculpture exhibition as a commentary not only on the negotiation between the superpowers but also on the function of power in general. In Shenzhen, he built the end part of the plane. A year later, he built the front part of the plane for the first Guangzhou Triennial. These two presentations were forbidden because of protests by French and American diplomats. The last part was completed in Beijing in 2003 but, once again, censored due to similar diplomatic pressure. What is most important about the event for him is not the conflict itself, but the dismantling of the plane and the way it was shipped out of China. He proposed to dismantle his replica of the plane in a totally different way: instead of dismantling it according the structure of the plane, he simply cut it into segments. Pointing out that such a project evokes a sentiment of anti-Americanism in the current global context, he further explains:
In early July, the Americans packed up the dismantled plane and left China, marking an end to this news event. I wanted to keep this event going in China, however, to make it “unfinished,” as if it had a “tail” it could not get rid of.
All political events are easily forgotten, inasmuch as politics is always temporary. Situations are constantly changing; therefore, people forget the old to make room for new developments. When we talk about politics, it is as if we were talking about art. In the same way, when we talk about art, we are always talking about politics at the same time. But art is not politics; it tries to stand up against the course of time and to allow something that is supposed not to be kept to stay there… .
In my view, a dismantled airplane symbolizes above all power and high technology. Instead of showing the decline of power or the incapacity of high technology, it signifies power at its peak and high technology with a bright future, because power at its peak is always linked to its decline, and the omnipotence of high technology cannot be separated from its incapacity.
If the spy plane had been repaired and openly and honorably flown back to the United States, it would have been a rather ordinary and dull ending. When an airplane is dismantled and transported by another aircraft, however, the whole process in itself resembles a “work of art” in my eyes. Very often, real-life situations have opportunities of being turned into “works of art,” but we must wait patiently. “Dismantling” is important, because it’s as if power itself were being deconstructed. The way the Americans dismantled the spy plane was structural and rational, whereas I dismantled the plane in an irrational, nonstructural way. I cut up an airplane as if I were slicing a loaf of bread.
Yes, cutting up the plane as if one were “slicing a loaf of bread” is such an “easy” gesture, yet it represents such a heavy and sublime task. It’s a typical Huang Yong Ping-style “performance”—immense but always fluid, heavy but always empty, violent but always poetic, critical but always ironic, subversive but always close to truth. All of this points to the ultimate destiny of life: that everything in the world is in constant flux and that life, turning around in endless circles, is an eternal dilemma, while destructive acts like wars are probably part of the process of regeneration, of creating a new world, and that this makes the efforts of the “multitude” (to use Hardt and Negri’s term) meaningful. As Huang Yong Ping has written in reference to Bat Project: “A piece of work, prohibited, destroyed, or dismembered, always carries with it the desire and the possibility for another attempt at display, or reconstruction… . Generally, destruction itself plants seed of a re-emergence.”
In 1999, at the dawn of the new millennium, Huang Yong Ping presented a monumental project for the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, One Man, Nine Animals (fig. 32). A man standing on a Chinese south-pointing chariot points his finger toward the pavilion building.18 On the roof of the pavilion, nine fantastic animals derived from the Taoist classic Guideways though Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing) appear to be flying over us. They are prophets who have come to our contemporary world from the remote “mountains and seas.” Their monstrous but fascinating images represent different kinds of hybrids between vice and virtue, and they are informing us of the message of the future: In our time of global warfare, we have only two options—to fade away in the smoke of the conqueror’s guns or to destroy such a war machine in order to generate a better world. These options can never be separated, however. One can only eternally negotiate between them and carry on with one’s journey across the globe. And the globe is always turning …
Huang Yong Ping has prepared a wonderful guidebook for such a journey. It’s called A Travel Guide for 2000-2046. In this book the surface of the globe has been peeled off and cut into a double-headed spiral form. The resulting map of the world is marked with labels designating natural disasters and other major events that are predicted to occur in various parts of the world between 2000 and 2046. At every step along the way, one may encounter the luckiest blessings of nature, and the next step may bring the worst catastrophe. The road to the future is exciting but always precarious. Change is the rule. Better that you bring the guide with you, even if it cannot make you feel safer.
1. Huang Yong Ping, “Art/Power/Discourse” (1989).
2. Xiamen Dada, “Statement on Burning” (1986).
3. Huang Yong Ping, “Preface to the Events Exhibition That Took Place at the Fujian Art Museum” (1986), trans. Yu Hsiao Hwei.
4. Huang Yong Ping, “Xiamen Dada-Postmodern?” (1986).
6. Huang Yong Ping, Notebook 01 (1980-1989).
7. “To Beat the West with the East and to Beat the East with the West,” Huang Yong Ping interviewed by Hou Hanru, August 1992.
8. Huang Yong Ping, “Project to Escape from the Art Museum” (1989), in Notebook 01.
9. In Roulette Wheel for the Semicircular Hall, Huang Yong Ping asked the other artists in the exhibition to participate in the project by allowing him to choose objects in their installations using numbers indicated by the roulette wheel. He then hid the objects in containers so that they disappeared from the public’s view.
10. Huang Yong Ping, artist’s statement, The Overturned Tomb (1994).
11. On these classics, see the lexicon.
12. “To Beat the West with the East.”
13. Huang Yong Ping, in Contemporary Sculpture: Projects in Münster, 1997, ed. Klaus Bussmann, Kasper König, and Florian Matzner (Stuttgart: Gerd Hatje, 1997), 223, 224.
14. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), and Hardt and Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).
15. Artist’s statement in Huang Yong Ping: Un cane italiano (Luxembourg: Beaumontpublic, 2003).
16. Huang Yong Ping, statement on Bat Project, 2001, for the exhibition Transplantation in Situ: The Fourth Shenzhen Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition, Shenzhen, China, trans. Yu Hsiao Hwei.
17. See Huang Yong Ping, statement on Bat Project / Bat Project II, in Z.O.U.: Zone of Urgency, the Fiftieth Venice Biennale (Paris: Ullens Foundation, 2003).
18. On the south-pointing chariot, see the lexicon.