An Homage to Huang Yong Ping
Huang Yong Ping (1954–2019), founder of the influential conceptual art group Xiamen Dada in the 1980s, passed away on 20 October 2019. Widely regarded as one of the most important voices in global contemporary art of the last three decades, Huang’s untimely passing leaves an irreplaceable void. M+ is honoured to hold some of the artist’s most significant works in the museum’s collection.
The below text was originally written in 2016 by Doryun Chong, the M+ Deputy Director, Curatorial and Chief Curator, for the artist when he was the winner of the prestigious annual Wolfgang Hanh Prize given by Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, where Chong was the guest juror. The text, meant to be a laudatio (or laudation, homage), was delivered at the award ceremony and the opening of the artist’s solo exhibition on 12 April 2016, and was published in the exhibition catalogue.
We are pleased to present this reprint in English and Chinese with the permission of the author and Museum Ludwig. It has been translated and edited to fit house style.
Last December, in the announcement of the 2016 Wolfgang Hahn Prize, I wrote the following words: ‘Huang Yong Ping has traversed not only many countries and cultures but also a fantastic range of topics and chronologies in his work. His oeuvre is a singular achievement, noted for its often awe-inspiring physical grandeur, incredible iconography, and rigourous intellectualism, which alter our view of the world and our sense of how we exist in history’. These are breathlessly extolling words, if I may say so myself. To substantiate this statement would require far more space than I have here on the occasion of this laudation, but both this short text and small but insightful exhibition give some indications of the expansive universe that is the work of Huang Yong Ping.
Let me take you back to the early years of Mr Huang’s art, via an even earlier moment. Most of you here already know that we are celebrating the centenary of the birth of Dada at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich; some argue that it was already born in New York the year before, but let’s not get into that. In 1986, exactly seven decades after the anti-art and anti-reason, creation-through-destruction artistic movement came into being in the midst of World War I, Huang Yong Ping, the subject of this laudatio, and his colleagues staged a destruction event in the Chinese city of Xiamen in southeastern Fujian province. The group, which was in existence from 1983 to 1989, was named Xiamen Dada, and the event consisted of its members gathering and burning their artworks in a funeral pyre in front of the Cultural Palace of Xiamen.
A month later, the group took over the exhibition hall of the Fujian Art Museum, filling it with construction materials they hauled in from a nearby building site. Taking place during the time China was thawing from the wintry days of the Cultural Revolution, and as part of the efflorescence of avant-gardism called 85 New Wave, Xiamen Dada’s activities were arguably the most iconic—or iconoclastic—episodes in the now-celebrated dawn of Chinese contemporary art.
Everything changed just a few years later in 1989—in China as well as the rest of the world—and also for Huang Yong Ping. He was invited to participate as one of the three Chinese artists in the landmark exhibition Magiciens de la terre in Paris, a groundbreaking show that introduced to the West a glimpse of the pressure cooker of artistic creativity fomenting in China. For Mr Huang, this was only one of many firsts in a remarkable career, which since then has criss-crossed all over Europe, the United States, Asia, and beyond. Let me mention just a few more from the long list of milestones and accolades he has accumulated in the last quarter century. In 1997 at Skulptur Projekte in Münster, Germany, he unveiled the work 100 Arms of Guan-Yin, a colossal hybrid of a blown-up bottle rack, referencing the infamous 1914 readymade by Marcel Duchamp and the multi-armed bodhisattva of mercy; the sculpture continues to stand as one of the few permanent works remaining from the decennial exhibition of temporary sculptures. In 1999, Huang—along with Jean-Pierre Bertrand—represented France, his adopted country, at the Venice Biennale. He pierced, somewhat controversially, the central rotunda of the neoclassical pavilion with nine soaring wood pillars mounted by monstrous imaginary beasts inspired by the peculiar ancient text Shan Hai Jing, or ‘Classic of Mountains and Seas’, which dates back to the fourth century BC. In 2005, a career survey organised by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis premiered and subsequently toured throughout North America before opening in 2007 at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing; this was arguably the first-ever full-scale museum retrospective of any artist in China. Since then, Huang has been active as much in his home country as in Europe, and the most important institutions in the still-emerging museum scene in China have been clamouring to show his work. He just opened a large exhibition at the Power Station of Art, a prominent new institution in Shanghai, and he is about to reveal what will surely be a landmark installation at the Grand Palais in Paris, Monumenta 2016. He joins the illustrious roster of artists—including Richard Serra, Anish Kapoor, and Ilia and Emilia Kabakov—who have already tackled the august space of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century crystal palace for the 19th century cultural capital of the world.
I do not mean to just present you with a long list of Mr Huang’s professional achievements. Much more crucially, in the world of contemporary art, he has been an unrivalled builder of bridges between cultures and civilisations. He has done this through means that proved to be controversial at times. We could certainly add to the above list of career milestones his 1994 work Theater of the World, staged by the Fondation Brigitte Bardot, and the protest against it. What was this work? It incorporates live animals and insects, including snakes, toads, tarantulas, and millipedes, inside a turtle-shaped cage functioning as a gladiatorial arena; the architectonic sculpture was inspired by the Panopticon, an ideal architecture of imprisonment and surveillance, which was conceived in the late eighteenth century by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham and made notorious by Michel Foucault. The work was ultimately never shown at the Centre Pompidou, where it was supposed to be included in a group exhibition, because it was shut down on the opening day. Censorship would accompany the work at least twice more over the ensuing years. In all of these instances, what was not understood was that the work, though undeniably a ‘theater of cruelty’, was not out to shock for the sake of shock but is a powerful metaphor for the state of the human—and natural—world. Considering the state of things at this very moment, we may say that the work has proven to be a prophetic statement. I should add that it was included in the 1999 exhibition Kunstwelten im Dialog here at the Museum Ludwig, co-curated by none other than the current director, Yilmaz Dziewior—without it being censored.
Now, please indulge me as I mention one of the most unforgettable moments in my career as a curator. In preparation for Mr Huang’s 2005 retrospective, House of Oracles, at the Walker Art Center, where I was working at the time, we were looking to create a new commission titled Bat Project IV. As the number in the title suggests, this work was to follow three previous iterations: Bat Project, Bat Project II, and Bat Project III, which had all been produced and shown in China in previous years—and all been censored. The three works recreated to actual scale, respectively, the fuselage and the tail, the cockpit and the left wing, and the right wing of an airplane: to be exact, the Lockheed EP-3 American spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea in 2001, setting off a tense diplomatic crisis between the United States and China. The story of Mr Huang’s straightforward intention to make a likeness of the American airplane, which was repeatedly thwarted by censorship, is encapsulated in the work Memorandum on display as part of the present exhibition at the Museum Ludwig. What we tried to do in 2005 in the United States was build the fourth and final iteration with a part of an actual Lockheed EP-3 plane. This involved a trip taken by Mr Huang and me to an airplane junkyard in the Mojave Desert in California, and, to make a long story short, we succeeded in locating a real cockpit and producing a sculpture that incorporates it, documentation of the saga of the drawn-out effort to make an artistic representation of a plane, and hundreds of taxidermied bats to boot! In our increasingly topsy-turvy world, where crises are heaped upon more crises, perhaps this incident from fifteen years ago has long been forgotten. But this deliberately uncomplicated artistic decision to make a representation—a literal traffic collision as well as a civilisational clash—would, in my estimation, remain as one of the most remarkable episodes in the contemporary art history of the first decades of the twenty-first century.
I have spoken of the multiple censorships that have befallen Mr Huang’s artistic endeavours over the years, both in the West and in China. I believe it is safe to say, sadly, that censorship is a reality we will have to contend with now more than before, and in years to come, as old political orders crumble and new political regimes solidify themselves; as the post–World War II and post–Cold War idealism proves to be either bankrupt or ineffectual; as new structures of values assert themselves on the basis of allegedly traditional morals; and as the fragile balance of the world order that has been in place over the last several decades falters and the world fractures. Increasingly, we will need to defend artistic voices, and we will need artists who will brave potential censorship. (Not that Mr Huang is the kind of artist who deliberately courts acts of censorship or is bent on using his art for the purpose of political antagonism.)
Here, let me also quote the words of the director of the Museum Ludwig, my esteemed colleague Yilmaz Dziewior, about this prize: ‘The selection of Huang Yong Ping is an important course-setting decision for the profile of our collection. . . . I’m very delighted that the Wolfgang Hahn Prize is being awarded to him in 2016—it’s a long overdue decision! His work is of enormous significance for the expansion of our collection’. The ‘expansion’ he speaks of is an indispensable requirement for any serious contemporary collection in a global age. I heartily second this conviction especially because the meaning as well as the duty of being global has become infinitely complicated in the last few years, and this makes our institutional commitment to look beyond our comfort zones and into the increasingly unknown, discomfiting, and even incomprehensible, urgently necessary. Other works included in this exhibition clearly demonstrate that Mr Huang’s oeuvre is nothing if not about such philosophical expansions. Palanquin, for example, is a trenchant reminder of colonial master-slave dialectic disguised as a lyrically airy sculpture, while Huit Chevaux de Léonard de Vinci déchirant un porte-avions (Eight Horses of Leonardo Drawing Apart an Airplane Carrier) brings together references to the Italian Renaissance master, a ‘barbaric’ Chinese torture method, and a modern weapon of military might and destruction.
Without ever sacrificing either iconographical ingenuity or sculptural mastery, Mr Huang’s work shows us what is not familiar and soothing. For this reason, we celebrate him and artists like him. We need our artists to be bards for our contemporary times, speaking uncomfortable truths and reminding us of convenient oblivions. As more years go by, my belief that Mr Huang is an extraordinary exemplar in this regard continues to strengthen. Thank you, Master Huang, for giving me yet another occasion to show my admiration for your art, and your vision of the infinite past, the troublesome present, and the unknown future.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories.