Huang Yong Ping: 'It’s important for an artist to think about bigger issues'

The provocative Chinese artist on Bâton Serpent III in Shanghai

Huang Yong Ping surveys his work at Power Station of Art
For someone who produces large-scale statement art pieces, Xiamen-born artist Huang Yong Ping is surprisingly reticent. During our time with him at the opening of his Bâton Serpent III: Spur Track to the Left exhibition at the Power Station of Art (PSA), he is quietly reserved, and when he does offer comment it’s in a rapid, hushed manner as if he wants his sentences to be over as soon as possible (at least in the presence of the press, which may be somewhat understandable).

Dressed in all black with circular specs perched on his nose just below a greying comb-over, the wiry 62-year-old is content to let his huge – and hugely impressive – art do most of the talking. Bâton Serpent III, a continuation of sorts from exhibitions shown in Rome (Bâton Serpent in 2014) and Beijing (last year’s Bâton Serpent II), presents two dozen of Huang’s works dating back to 1995, including some that have been modified specifically for the PSA’s colossal space.

huang yong ping psa

‘This exhibition was in Beijing for three months and coming here means it’s kind of the same audience – of course people from Shanghai go to exhibitions in Beijing, it’s like showing to the same people,’ says Huang. ‘So this exhibition had to be expanded, this was very important for me.’

Huang’s expansionism applies directly to his works too. Whereas one of the city’s other major art exhibitions of the moment – the Yuz Museum’s Alberto Giacometti retrospective – features sculptures whose monumentalism defies their often miniature scale, Bâton Serpent III showcases a number of simply enormous pieces of art.

huang yong ping head

Immediately inside the entrance, a menagerie of decapitated taxidermy animals spills out over railway tracks from a train carriage suspended at a 30 degree angle in ‘Head’. A fork in the tracks, a ‘spur point to the left’, gives the exhibition its subtitle. ‘Because the PSA’s space is quite open, I wanted to present several routes around the exhibition,’ says Huang. ‘And maybe this is an intersection, but there’s also a clear forking here – with one track pointing up the stairs and one pointing toward the escalator. You can choose to go left or choose to go right, and that’s why we went with this name for the show.’

huang yong ping in shanghaiHuang’s route toward art world renown began in the mid-1980s when he emerged as a provocative figurehead for the avant garde movement in China. In 1986, he formed the Xiamen Dada collective when he and four other post-modern artists set fire to a series of their paintings at the Xiamen Modern Art exhibition. He further rose to prominence with the work ‘The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes’ around a year later, which, as the name suggests, saw him put two well-known examinations of art (one from ‘the East’ and one from ‘the West’) through a two-minute spin cycle, reducing them to an amalgamated pulp, and exposing the supposed choice for Chinese artists at the time between following Western or Chinese traditions to be a false dichotomy.

Washing machines were prominent again in Huang’s 1989 work ‘Reptiles’, which juxtaposed the white goods with large piles of freshly washed newspapers, and was created for the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Following the events of June that year back home, Huang decided to remain in Paris, and he has resided there ever since.

Religion had long held a fascination for Huang, but based in Europe it became an increasingly prominent theme in his work. At the PSA, a giant whirling prayer wheel towers atop a 12-metre pole overlooking the main hall for ‘Ehi Ehi Sina Sina’, periodically emitting the whine of an air raid siren; ‘Three Steps, Nine Footprints’, on the second floor just beyond a taxidermy camel with a needle through its nose kneeling on a prayer mat, features giant footprints that represent ‘Buddhism, Christianity and Islam stumbling for ward together on the continents of the earth’.

huang yong ping baton serpent in shanghai

Perhaps most provocative of all, ‘Construction Site’, a work that Huang created for the 10th Istanbul Biennale, features a scale minaret hidden behind screens and angled toward the sky a la a cruise missile primed for launch.

huang yong ping at power station of art

‘A lot of these works are old pieces and were made for specific environments, but there are some similarities between them when they’re placed beside one another,’ says Huang. ‘There are some works here with religious connotations, just like there are pieces that make us think of the machinery of the state and problems with the economy and the banks, but they just point to the issues, I don’t want to go into too deep a discussion about these things because I am not a political animal, I’m not an economist. This is a dangerous possibility for the artist – are they just dipping into things they don’t fully understand? – but I hope that these different things have a united vision. I don’t know whether I’ve presented this vision, but the important thing for an artist is to break out of simply art circles, to go beyond just thinking about art and think about bigger issues in the world. It may not be the responsibility of art alone to address these issues, but we should try.’