Opposites and Connections
Huang Yong Ping: Bâton Serpent III: Spur Track to the Left
Power Station of Art, Shanghai
18.03.16 – 19.06.16
Translated by Richard Dobson
‘We are not just looking at art, or talking about something in art history. We should care more about it. This may not be the task of art, but try to do it.’1 Standing at the exhibition site, I think of this statement by Huang Yong Ping. Artists, after all, are not anti-terrorism experts or economists. He cannot provide a solution to a problem, but only a perspective from which to view it.
The exhibition has brought together twenty-five works by the artist over the past two decades. In addition to the visual impact, Huang’s large-scale installations also give the audience much food for reflection on the nature of opposites and choices. There is a certain correlation among these works. As curator Hou Hanru has pointed out, Huang Yong Ping has brought his discussion and criticism of the world’s ruling powers and their destinies down to a more precise, and comprehensible, level. From the integration of China into the world economic system, to the changes in the global war on terror, he draws out and deconstructs the representative symbolic images of world historical events in recent years, leading us to participate in a broader and more ontological inquiry about the destiny of the world: how to choose a direction for the way forward? Left or right? Faced with the inevitability of things, can a ‘correct’ choice even exist? The antagonisms generated by the works themselves create a profoundly meaningful uncertainty. Perhaps ‘uncertainty’ is the very meaning of the work – not just the different interpretations of the work by the audience, the curator and the artist, but also, possibly, the ‘uncertainty’ of choices. These works are full of fluid changes, as the artist believes, and a single thing is susceptible to infinite change. The works generate endless paradoxes and cross-connections amid a large number of scattered and suspended installations, ruins and gardens, myths and realities, expressions of power and menace and, ultimately, an endless quest for regeneration.
As of 2016, the process of globalisation has not ceased to accelerate, and updates in technology and the Internet, like catalysts, continue to drive it forward. Conflicts between different cultures and traditions, religions and beliefs, political systems and ideologies, have also become increasingly prominent. The works Three Steps, Nine Footprints and Head are very focused on exposing such conflicts. Three Steps, Nine Footprints is a large installation, completed in 1995. Each step bears three types of imprint and is divided into sections of twenty-four steps, to reflect the walking technique from the Taoist ‘Steps of Yu’ ritual, also known as ‘three steps, nine footprints’. It evokes the artist’s imagery of the ‘three-legged walk’, for the three major religions – Buddhism, Christianity and Islam – wandering through the world. Surrounding the seventy-one footprints are five rubbish bins, brimming with everyday objects. These serve as a reminder of the 1996 terrorist attacks in the Paris Metro, and of the way that terrorist attacks have since grown in frequency all over the world. Dusty rubbish bins and huge footprints hint at the emergence of various tensions between different civilisations, during the course of their development. Works describing the status of the world are still accurate. It can be said that they are created from historical world events, and large historical events can often lead to more extensive thinking. The anti-terrorism and religious issues in this particular work reflect the conflicts between people, and between the individual and society. There is also a great deal of discord between humans and animals, and between humans and nature.
There are numerous animal specimens in Huang Yong Ping’s works, and he uses them to create a very compelling artistic language. Before discussing Head, it is worth taking a look at Sheep, as well as Yellow Peril, another, later, masterpiece. In Sheep, bamboo supports elevate the sheepskin composition above the heads of the people who form the ‘flock of sheep’, and in this ‘flock of sheep’ a monster bearing a resemblance to a cow stands out. More precisely, this is a four-sided animal, dressed in leather, with a cow’s head and a pig’s ears surveilling the watching sheep. This work is connected with the European ‘mad cow’ incident, and represents the cycle in which ‘people eat cattle, cattle eat sheep, sheep eat people’.
Here, ‘sheep’ and ‘cattle’ are mythical monsters, and ‘people’ really are the perpetrators and victims of this myth, in which ‘people’ will be eaten by ‘sheep’. This work uses allegory as a way to present us with the question of whether mad cow disease is a ‘sheep’s curse’, a ‘cow’s curse’, or ‘man-made’. The confrontation between man and animal is indirect but it is more prominently displayed in Head. Head ( 2012 ) consists of the heads of a dozen animal specimens – including wild boar, horse, deer, rat, lion and fox. Arranged from large to small, they are propped up on metal poles protruding from the corner. The far end rests on a red cloth, which acts as a backdrop and pointer to the violence implied by the work. It clarifies the roles played in the relationship between animals and humans, and offers a reflection on the relationship between the large and the small, and the strong and the weak, as determined by the natural laws of survival. It questions who the real master is – whether animal or human – and seeks to establish the nature of the forms of domination, and the reasons behind them.
What with the conflict between humans, and the conflict between humans and animals, and humans and nature, one cannot help but wonder whether it really is possible for the entire world to exist in harmony.
All the works in the exhibition not only contain elements of conflict but are also linked. Upon entering the exhibition hall, the first thing one sees is Head. The Spur Track to the Left turns out to represent not only the overall concept of the show but also the signpost for the visitors’ route through the show. On the first floor of the exhibition hall, ‘Ehi Ehi Sina Sina’, a huge prayer wheel that rotates at a constant speed, doubles up as a blender for many works scattered throughout the exhibition, and generates a whirlpool of different themes across the first and second floors. In addition to having this connotation, this work also regulates and controls the space, and connects with other works in the exhibition. If the curator had, indeed, wished to indicate a fixed route through the exhibition by means of this installation, the very size of the work disrupts the original intention, to a certain extent. At a given point it is possible to see not only the works in the immediate vicinity but a number of more distant ones as well, with their implication that there are many possible routes through the exhibition rather than only one, and that none of this, in essence, affects the nature of the overall visit.
From viewing the entire Bâton Serpent exhibition it is evident that there is a comparatively large number of works on display, and a wide range of content related to cultural, religious, political, economic and other aspects; thus many of these works turn out to be more obscure than would appear to be the case at first sight. Fortunately for the viewer, the exhibition guide provides information about the cultural background of the individual works, thereby making it easier to reflect on the nature of each and the range of contradictions it contains.
1. ‘Can art have a direction?’ – Huang Yong Ying’s Bâton Serpent III exhibition transcript, 2016.
2016年3月18日 – 2016年6月19日
整个展览的作品不仅有对立，也有联系。进入展厅最先看到的便是《头》，这个“左开岔道”的铁轨由此成为展览的整体构想，也是展场参观线路的引导。展厅一楼的Ehi Ehi Sina Sina，这个巨大的、旋转中的转经筒不停匀速自转，成为搅动整个展览诸多作品、不同主题的一个漩涡，贯穿着展厅一楼和二楼。《蛇杖》这件作品除了本身内涵之外，在此次展览中也起到调节、控制着空间，并连接呼应了其他作品。展览如果按照策展人的想法，是有着一定的参观路线。但庞大的装置作品，一定程度上将这种参观路线给打破。站在某一点，不仅能看到此处的作品，还能看到远处的某个作品，因此参观路线存在着多种可能，实质上并不影响对于整个展览的参观。
1. 本刊，《艺术可以有方向吗？金黄永砯“蛇杖Ⅲ”展览对谈录》J。《画刊》2016年（ 6 ）。