April 14, 2006
'House of Oracles' Looks Back at Huang Yong Ping's Legacy
By HOLLAND COTTER
NORTH ADAMS, MASS. — Everything, everything must change, says the Tao.
Consider the course of contemporary Chinese art. Two decades ago it
barely existed, at least as far as we knew. By the 1990's, it was a
crouching tiger on the international scene, powerful but held back. Now
the tiger has taken a giant leap upward, in value and visibility, thanks
to two wildly successful Sotheby's auctions in the last few weeks, in
New York and Hong Kong.
The results: much talk of money, New China, new stars. Yet one major
figure, Huang Yong Ping, among China's most influential avant-garde
artists, was all but absent from the sales. A former star in descent?
Hardly, judging by "House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective,"
the dynamite midcareer survey at the Massachusetts Museum of
Contemporary Art here. But he is a star of elusive luminosity.
Mr. Huang, 53, emigrated to Paris in 1989 and has lived there ever
since. In addition, his art is not exactly auction-compatible.
Much of his early work is insistently unbeautiful. A piece that he
contributed to "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" at Asia Society and P.S. 1
Contemporary Art Center in 1998 was little more than a heap of mulchy
paper. He made it by throwing two books — an English-language textbook
on 20th-century Western art and a classic Chinese art history book —
together in a washing machine until they became a lump of pulp.
Size also keeps his art off the block. He has come to favor working in
an increasingly grand — some would say operatic, even circuslike —
scale. This tendency is spectacularly evident in the show. The entrance
is flanked by two lion cages, empty except for gnawed bones. A carved
wooden serpent, 140 feet long, twists through the air in the gallery beyond.
It soars over another cage, this one containing a miniature, living
bestiary of lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, crickets and toads. Nearby
is the House of Oracles itself, a large canvas military tent, a
combination of laboratory and studio, filled with circular calendars,
divination instruments, art materials and photographs of Mr. Huang
taking readings from "The I Ching, or Book of Changes."
And this describes just one gallery. Elsewhere you'll find a huge wooden
gourd stocked with herbal medicines, and two upright, columnlike paper
scrolls, one printed in Tibetan, the other in Arabic. Then comes a
startlingly realistic, life-size sculpture of a tiger jumping atop an
elephant, and a model, molded from 20 tons of compacted sand and
concrete, of a European-style domed building. Finally, upstairs, where
the show ends, there's a full-size fighter plane, or half of one, with a
skeletal cockpit and a walk-in fuselage made of plastic and bamboo.
Although Mr. Huang envisioned the exhibition as a single installation, a
total work of art, it is hard to make quick, clear sense of the whole or
its parts. The artist's personal history, however, offers some clues.
He began his career in the 1980's as a painter but was soon on another
track. He and some friends formed one of China's most radical
avant-garde collectives, the Xiamen Dada group. Gleaning information
mostly from imported art magazines, he became a self-taught student of
Joseph Beuys, John Cage and Duchamp.
In the mid-1980's, he invented an automatic painting machine from a
roulette wheel. He also made a series of irreverent alterations to
emblematic images, in one case combining the features of the Mona Lisa
with those of a Leonardo self-portrait. The book-laundering piece is
from around this time. It seemed to imply that art, far from being
divided into West versus East, has always been a crazy-mixed-up thing.
And the job of contemporary art was to destabilize the mix by
eliminating anchoring notions like artist-genius, self-expression and
In 1989 Mr. Huang was invited to Paris to participate in "Magicians of
the Earth," an exhibition that famously broke ground in bringing Western
and non-Western art together. While he was there, the killings at
Tiananmen Square took place, and he decided to stay in France.
As many critics have noted, Mr. Huang's art changed after his move. What
he did in China was ephemeral, performance-based, Duchampian. The work
he has produced in Europe has been more fixed and polished and, drawing
heavily on Taoism and Buddhism, more obviously "Chinese."
Some critics have accused Mr. Huang of pandering to a Western appetite
for the exotic after his move. But his interest in Taoism and Buddhism
followed naturally from his devotion to Cage and Duchamp. Just as
Western art had done in China, Chinese culture provided a degree of
resistance to the European world he was suddenly immersed in. Whatever
the final judgment on the pandering question, the retrospective,
organized by Philippe Vergne, chief curator at the Walker Art Center in
Minneapolis and co-curator of the current Whitney Biennial, is
impressive. It has a complicated sense of newness: you have never seen
anything quite like this art before, yet it feels musty and archaic, as
if excavated from tombs. And unlike his earlier work, it carries a
dense, particular content of stories, myths, esoteric lore and political
There are references to the dangers of immigration (the lion cages), to
nature as simultaneously destructive and healing (the Darwinian
bestiary, the medicine-filled gourd). And there is the repeated image of
the artist as diviner, tactician and impresario, foretelling the future,
meditating his moves, calculating the effects required in the production
of a memorable existential theater.
Certain recent pieces have a barely disguised topicality. The upright
scrolls are the Twin Towers as Towers of Babel. The tiger-and-elephant
tableau, based on 1911 photographs of George V of England perched atop
an elephant during a lion hunt in Nepal, speaks of colonialism — once
local, now global — under attack. The building of sand, based on a
former British bank in Shanghai, is about economic miracles crumbling
imperceptibly before our eyes.
The fighter plane piece upstairs, the show's newest work, was inspired
by a specific event: the collision of a United States surveillance
aircraft with a Chinese military jet over the South China Sea in 2001.
Despite the intense political tension that resulted, China permitted the
spy plane to be disassembled and shipped back to the United States.
Mr. Huang conceived his piece as a study in the enigmatic mechanics of
political power, and he managed to give offense all around. Three
attempts to realize the piece in China were thwarted by Chinese, French
and United States authorities, who all, for different reasons, wanted
the incident forgotten.
Possibly this on-again, off-again history explains why the results,
while striking, feel a bit anticlimactic. Like other very recent
projects by the artist, it is at once too ingenious and too obvious. It
lacks the funky, metaphorical mystery of slightly earlier pieces, with
their language of health and disease, nature and culture, past and
future, seeking balance, forever in flux.
Even at its least poetic, though, his art is very different from what
topped the charts at Sotheby's: post-Maoist Pop paintings that adhere to
Western formal preferences and to an ideological view of China still
locked in cold war formulas. Most of the painters whose work sold at
auction have been producing the same images for 20 years. Mr. Huang,
restlessly moving among themes and forms, has not. His art is about
change, and it changes, and changes again. Duchamp and Cage, those
adepts of Taoist modernism, would surely have understood this. And they
might have recognized Mr. Huang for what he is: not one of the crouching
tigers of the new Chinese art, but one of its hidden dragons.
Photos: ''Three Wings,'' above right, and a section of ''Bat Project
IV,'' by Huang Yong Ping, at Mass MoCA. (Photo by Kevin Kennefick)(pg. E29)
''Python'' (2000), a sculpture of wood and rope, soars at the entrance
of the Huang Yong Ping retrospective at Mass MoCA.
''Bat Project IV'' (2004-5), a plane cockpit with taxidermic bats.
(Photographs by Kevin Kennefick)(pg. E36)
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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