Visionary ’85 New Wave Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping Has Passed Away at 65

Portrait of the artist. Copyright and courtesy Huang Yong Ping
Huang Yong Ping Reptiles, 1989. Installation : papier mâché, machines à laver 7 x 4 x 3 m. Exposition : « Les Magiciens de la terre », Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, France, 1989. © Huang Yong Ping. Courtesy Huang Yong Ping.
Huang Yong Ping’s Theatre of the World, created in 1987, reconstructed in 1993. Image courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim.
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Huang Yong Ping, famous in the international art world for his provocative and primal art installations tackling hot-button issues, passed away last weekend.

 

Portrait of the artist. Copyright and courtesy Huang Yong Ping

 

Internationally renowned Chinese performance and installation artist Huang Yong Ping, 65, passed away on 20 October 2019. His death was confirmed by Gladstone Gallery, which represents his work in New York and Brussels. Cause of death has not yet been stated.

Born in 1954 in Xiamen, China, Huang emerged from a momentous avant-garde movement known as the ’85 New Wave which arose in China and flourished from 1985 to 1989.

After graduating from the Department of Oil Painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou (now China Academy of Art), Huang returned to Xiamen as a teacher. He became known for his work as founding member of a group called Xiamen Dada who were active in the late 1980s, publishing manifestos and staging improvised performances in the vein of Dadaism. Huang and his group reportedly burned their works and put on extraordinary shows where all the planned exhibits were junked at the last moment and replaced with heaps of rubbish. Their work was met with suspicion from authorities.

Huang’s conceptual and at times humorous way in taking on larger issues is epitomised by his early work, The History of Chinese Painting and A concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987/1993), where he washed two art history textbooks in a washing machine and presented the heap of paper pulp produced  as the artwork. Towing Away the National Art Gallery (1988), is another canonical work by the artist during this period. A photo-collage resembling an engineer’s drawing, Huang came up with an unrealised proposal to demolish Beijing’s National Art Gallery using hemp ropes to demonstrate the transgressive views held by the ’85 New Wave movement.

Along with many of his contemporaries, Huang left China permanently after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. In an interview with the New Statesmen America in 2008, he noted wryly that many of those who stayed behind had given up art and become businessmen.

 

Huang Yong Ping Reptiles, 1989. Installation : papier mâché, machines à laver 7 x 4 x 3 m. Exposition : « Les Magiciens de la terre », Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, France, 1989. © Huang Yong Ping. Courtesy Huang Yong Ping.

 

The year 1989 proved to be a breakthrough year for the provocateur artist with participation in the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France. Curated by Jean Hubert-Martin, Magiciens de la Terre is a significant exhibition in art history because it is one of the earliest attempts to show works by artists who were not based in Euro-America, during a time when global art did not exist as an idea yet. Presented at the exhibition, Huang’s Reptiles, a washed newspaper pulp installation resembling the shape of a serpent, a recurring motif for the artist, is one of his seminal works. Reptiles has been reconstructed  for major international and regional exhibitions since, most recently for the 2013 exhibition “Amoy/Xiamen” at the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon, France and the 2019 exhibition “Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia, 1960s-1990s” at the National Gallery Singapore.

The same year he made his international debut at the exhibition, Huang, then 35 years old, moved to Paris and made France his home. He represented the country at the 1999 Venice Biennale, and was commissioned for the Grand Palais’s Monumenta exhibition in 2016, one of Paris city’s largest and most prestigious art projects. His installation Empires was a skeletal serpent frame weaving in and out of 305 logo-bearing shipping containers under the expansive glass dome of the Grand Palais.

Huang Yong Ping’s Theatre of the World, created in 1987, reconstructed in 1993. Image courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim.

 

Huang’s fascination with reptiles and his uncanny ability to capture primal and mythological creatures with a life-like force within industrial elements drew consistently strong responses to his work, both good and controversial. His work Theatre of the World (created in 1987, reconstructed in 1993) involving live insects, snakes, and lizards preying on one another in a see-through case shaped like a tortoise shell always invited ire. There was major outcry from animal rights activists when it was included in Guggenheim Museum’s Chinese art survey Theatre of the World: Art and China after 1989 in New York in 2017. The artwork was ultimately shown sans animals with a letter from the artist written on an air sickness bag written while on a plane from France.

Huang’s art also incited controversy related to international politics. His series “Bat Project” involved displaying Lockheed airplane fuselages with almost exact resemblance to an American spy craft that hit a Chinese fighter jet. A work from the series which was intended to go on show at an exhibition in the Chinese city of Shenzhen aimed at rehabilitating damaged international political relations, with France co-sponsoring the show. The work was pulled before it went on view.

No amount of pushback, flak or outcry deterred the ground-breaking Chinese artist from taking on hot-button issues related to his country and the world at large. One of his most recent works, Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank (2000), is a sculpture originally shown at the Shanghai Biennale. A 20-ton replica of the Pudong Development Bank, the artist intended for the work to stand as a statement about the legacy of colonialism and its links to capitalism and rapid modern development in China.

 
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