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Inevitable Empires: Do We Buy Huang Yong Ping’s Vision?

Yes. Monumenta 2016 at Grand Palais, Paris, is over. But some thoughts came out about the majestic installation of Huang Yong Ping, Empires, especially designed for the exhibition and shaped as a monumental reflection on the capitalist reality.

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Yes. Monumenta 2016 at Grand Palais, Paris, is over. But some thoughts came out about the majestic installation of Huang Yong Ping, Empires, especially designed for the exhibition and shaped as a monumental reflection on the capitalist reality.

 The 250-meter skeleton of a giant snake runs across piles of containers and worms its way through the huge enlightened room of the Grand Palais, playing with its spaces, its light, its history. His aluminum ribs echo the iron structure of the dome. Weaving through groups of freight containers, the silvery snake reaches the exit of the palace, with his mouth open in a silent scream and his gaze directed toward a giant reproduction of Napoleon’s bicorne, specifically the one worn at the Battle of Eylau. It is interesting to notice how the bicorne evokes an 1826 satirical oil by Charles de Steuben, titled Les Huit Époques de Napoléon Ier, on show at Carambolages (2 March – 4 July 2016, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin), another exhibition at the Grand Palais, in the section displaying items recalling the theme of dictatorship and imperialism.

 

Monumenta 2016 - Empire, map. Above: Monumenta 2016 - Huang Yong Ping – Empire, photo © http://www.keblog.it . Courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris.

Monumenta 2016 – Empire, map. Above: Monumenta 2016 – Huang Yong Ping – Empires, photo © http://www.loeil2fred.com/. Courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris.

Since 2007, the Grand Palais’s cross-shaped nave has been the scenario for Monumenta, an exhibition showing site-specific works by internationally renowned contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Christian Boltanski, Anish Kapoor, Daniel Buren and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

 The artist Huang Yong Ping (b. 1954), the pioneer of contemporary art in China, settled in France in 1989 from a small harbor called Xiamen, China. Then he started investigating issues such as economics, religion, struggles, and crises, whose fractures he was able to discuss and express through his famous large-scale works, , which is the reason behind his low profile in the art world. Huang Yong Ping was the founder of a radical movement called Xiamen Dada in 1986, an attempt to combine Western Avant Gard with Eastern philosophy and culture – effectively expressed in the motto “Zen is Dada, Dada is Zen” – and represented France at the 1999 Venice Biennale.

 The way the skeleton unfurls among the containers evokes the way in which dinosaurs remains are displayed in Natural History museums. Well, this is 21st century natural history, in which freight containers are the remains of the globalized market economy and we, the public, are an active part of the whole installation. “It is very important that visitors walk around in its belly, because we are the nourishment of the snake,” the artist says (Financial Times).

Huang Yong Ping explores the idea of capitalism utilizing three elements, as a sort of (un)holy trinity: the containers, the bicorne and the snake’s skeleton. The containers represent how fast and easy the binomial goods-wealth is spread (not always in the right areas): they are capitalism’s object and (at times) subject. The bicorne is an icon and a symbol of imperialism’s imposing face, of the power struggles created among and by the protagonists of this violent dimension: it is capitalism’s mode of action. Eventually, the snake is the blind strive to conquering, to gaining, to eating without actually feeding itself; it is man’s delusion of omnipotence towards his possibilities and his will to become eternal through materialism: basically, it is capitalism’s soul, the inner essence of the whole story.

 

Monumenta 2016 - Huang Yong Ping – Empire, photo © http://www.keblog.it . Courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris.

Monumenta 2016 – Huang Yong Ping – Empires, photo © http://www.keblog.it . Courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris.

 

Far from being an umpteenth debate against capitalist reality, Empires seems to show us an unbiased perspective on capitalism and imperialism but also its heavy presence within life, through the magnitude and monumentality of Huang Yong Ping’s installation which grants it assertiveness as well. A landscape as well as a conceptual portrait, the massive work makes its way into the mind of the visitors, suggesting them to admire the disquieting and displacing spectacle that has been created, without actually refusing it. “It’s not up to the artist to judge,” he says, “Globalization, this hunger for power, is part of the human condition and it’s also part of nature, like any natural disaster” (Forbes). Perhaps, Huang Yong Ping’s attempt to resemble human reality as innately evil – à la Hobbes – turns out to be a little uncomfortable. Should we investigate on and question a little more the cultural roots of this “natural disaster”? Do we just trust Huang Yong Ping?

After a B.A. in Art History, I am currently studying Visual Arts and Curatorial Studies at NABA, Milan. I have matured a strong interest in the research and the curatorship and in the anthropological and psychological nature of the visual arts.

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