PRINT January 2020



Xiamen Dada event, outside the Cultural Palace of Xiamen, Fujian, China, November 24, 1986. Photo: Wu Yi Ming.

IN 1989, Huang Yong Ping traveled to France at the Centre Pompidou’s invitation to take part in Jean-Hubert Martin’s “Magiciens de la terre,” widely remembered as the “first truly international exhibition of worldwide contemporary art.” The artist decided to stay in Paris. Thirty years later, his life, cut suddenly and prematurely short, has left an indelible mark on art history.

Huang was born in 1954 in Xiamen, a city in southern China. From 1978 to 1983, he studied at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art). By the time he moved to Paris, Huang had already established himself as one of China’s most prominent avant-garde artists from the so-called first generation after the Cultural Revolution. In the mid-1980s, the economically restructured and newly “opened up” nation came into contact with a deluge of foreign ideas, and many artists eagerly embraced self-expression as an antidote to the realism of previous decades. Huang, however, had already transcended this opposition, using aleatory methods and tools like dice and roulette wheels to satirize the myths of creative autonomy and individualism.

Huang Yong Ping, Theater of the World (detail), 1993, metal, wood, warming lamps, electric cable, insects, reptiles. Installation view, Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany.

In 1986, he became a founding member and de facto leader of Xiamen Dada, a collective that would be responsible for a series of radical provocations directed at the authority of museums in China. Following the group’s exhibition at the Cultural Palace of Xiamen in 1986, Huang and other members publicly burned their works in a square outside, declaring, “Without destroying art, life will never be peaceful.” Later that year, Xiamen Dada launched what Huang called an “assault” on institutional culture by misleading curators about their planned exhibition at the Fujian Museum. The actual show, consisting mostly of building materials scavenged from nearby construction sites instead of paintings and sculptures as promised, was on view for about two hours before museum administrators took it down. In his most important work from this period, Huang put two books (Wang Bomin’s History of Chinese Painting [1982], and the 1979 edition of Herbert Read’s Eurocentric survey A Concise History of Modern Painting [1959]) into a washing machine for a two-minute cycle. At the time, the artistic community in China was grappling with how to reconcile traditional Chinese culture and Western modernity; this work was Huang’s answer. Ideas of “mixing” and “stirring”—which the artist often invoked when we discussed his work—became central to his practice during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Reptile, 1989, Huang’s contribution to “Magiciens de la terre,” featured two tombs made from the pulp of newspapers pulverized by a washing machine.

Huang began to draw on ancient Chinese talismans and the mysterious rigor of the I Ching, which offered a shape of thought that could hold its own against Aristotelian logic and its offshoots.

Huang was an avid reader of Chinese and Western philosophy; for him, “mixing” and “stirring” went far beyond the mere juxtaposition of superficial cultural signifiers. They were a means of staging a confrontation between deep-rooted intellectual systems. The artist, by this time living in Paris and exhibiting in numerous international shows, began to draw on ancient Chinese talismans and the mysterious rigor of the I Ching, which offered a shape of thought that could hold its own against Aristotelian logic and its offshoots.

Huang’s incorporation of live animals into his works, most prominently in his 1993 installation Theater of the World, was also inspired by the I Ching and by shamanistic practices in ancient China. That work, which featured various species of reptiles and insects fighting and devouring each other in a terrarium, was exhibited to the consternation of animal-rights activists in the Guggenheim’s 2017 exhibition “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World.” Eventually censored in the very show that bore its name, Huang’s installation used animals to allegorize conflicts within human society. The gladiatorial enclosure afforded the audience a lofty, panoptic viewpoint that removed them from the battle royale within and forced them to ponder a question: Can we move beyond the limits imposed on us by historical time and cultural specificity and look at planetary conflicts, even death itself, from a perspective of detachment and indifference, like the one espoused by the Taoist world (天)?

In 1999, Huang represented France at the Venice Biennale with One Man, Nine Animals, an installation of wooden columns crowned with zoomorphic statues inspired by the Classic of Mountains and Seas, an ancient Chinese bestiary. Interpolated amid the Neoclassical architecture of the French pavilion, the pillars emerged from a profound reflection on his Chinese identity, and also offered a trenchant critique of the Orientalist fantasies of the West. From this point on, Huang’s work became occupied with grand narratives of history and myth: from the legacy of Western colonialism to the clash of political ideologies, from Noah’s Ark to the assassination of Bin Laden, from the Opium Wars to the War on Terror. At the 2016 Monumenta at Paris’s Grand Palais, Huang exhibited Empires—a swelling installation juxtaposing a leviathan metal serpent skeleton, several hundred shipping containers, and a supersize replica of Napoleon’s bicorne hat—its bewildering excess evocative of the disquieting effects of globalization.

Critically and historically engaged, yet obstinately complex and polysemic, Huang’s art has opened the minds of its viewers. The artist introduced us to new dimensions of thought while quietly exiting the stage, leaving us with the grim reality of deepening sociopolitical and cultural conflicts. 

Translated from Chinese by Aria Huang.

Fei Dawei is an independent curator living in Beijing and Paris.