Hou Hanru curates Huang Yongping’s latest exhibition in Shanghai.
Running from 18 March to 19 June 2016, “Bâton Serpent III” addresses encounters with world religions – including references to Islam, Buddhism and Christianity – in grandiose and dramatic installations, markedly carrying Huang Yongping’s distinctive voice.
Like London’s Tate Modern and Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, the overwhelming scale of Shanghai’s Power Station of Art (PSA) needs art with a the confident sense of its own effect. In his latest solo exhibition Huang Yongping achieves this with theatrical spectacle. Lighting and orientation create impact while meticulous details play out like a drama.
PSA is China’s first state-run contemporary art museum inaugurated for “Reactivation”, the Shanghai Biennale of 2012. The Museum overlooking the river is converted from the former Nanshi power station built in 1985. It is huge with almost 41,200 square metres of gallery space. Without a permanent collection, it can effortlessly support multiple shows simultaneously in different sections of the building.
Living up to the magnitude of the setting, “Bâton Serpent III: Spur Track To The Left” is keenly global in scope and voice. The works on display address the encounters of the world’s religions with curiosity and composure. Through these encounters, Huang suggests potential for change. Even the most substantial and long lasting structures are fallible, according to Huang. He accommodates intractable issues as if they were dynamic, to be shifted, repositioned and tuned like the arrangement of colours in an abstract painting.
Having enjoyed much visibility on the international art circuit, such as the Venice Biennale, Istanbul Biennale and Gwangju Biennale, many of the works have the familiarity of celebrities but here they create new and original configurations. Vitrines of preparatory notes, maquettes and reference materials suggest further reflections and thought play.
Huang has an unerring ability to lead the viewer so that the experience of each work unfolds in a sequence of often-breathtaking impressions. Abbottabad (2013) is first a tranquil vision, a timeless irrigation system sustaining growth, becoming a faintly tasteless planting in faux ethnic terracotta, like the landscaping in a hotel lobby. But, what is this place becoming overgrown, not with plants as assumed at first, but with weeds? The tendency to normalise yields to disquiet. Abbottabad was the location of Osama bin Laden’s compound. Miniaturisation has rendered it accessible while pen jing (bonsai) squeezes growth. In fact we are looking at funerary art, like the entombed copies of domestic environments of the Han dynasty.
Head (2011-16) is the overwhelming tableau that is fist encountered at the entrance to PSA. It presents the carriage of a somewhat dated piece of rolling stock sliced cleanly in half and jacked up at 30 degrees. The occupants – a menagerie of headless stuffed animal – pore out and, without a thought for one another, disperse in many directions. Is it a disaster or a liberation? Two animals pause. A lumbering black bear stops to throw the points, sending the carriage off down the spur track to the left and a lioness settles defiantly on the tracks. She turns her decapitated neck back towards the train, evoking the encounter of the bear and the lioness that has lost her young in the French poem of Jean de la Fontaine.
In the text the bear suggests that rather than bemoaning her own misfortune she would do well to look to the woes of others. The work forms a strong axis against the building’s architecture. In itself this diversion from the insistent orientation of the building indicates that even a certain direction can sustain multiple deviations; both in the light step of the animals, their bodies, headless, and so undirected, or in the railways bringing communication and prosperity to places off the beaten track.
Head explores the horizontal axis, while Ehi Ehi Sina Sina (2000-06) affirms the Museum’s lofty verticality. A tower that has the form of a prayer wheel revolves with the measured speed of mechanical rather than body motion. It has attached a gigantic pendulum swinging like a wrecking ball. The parts of this enlarged object are repeated, dismantled as a sculpture on ground level, Om Mani Padme Hum (2000). The mantra of the title suggests freedom from aggression and greed, yet the lid reveals a spike like a spear, the pendulum tethers the object with a substantial chain and the tightly wound interior scroll seems to hold on to its assets.
Huang’s ability to raise multiple questions with a change of form, such as scale or material, is impressively and directly demonstrated in a model of the Pudong Development Bank on Shanghai’s Bund waterfront. Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank (2000) is cast in a friable mix of sand and cement. The message of the vulnerability of the systems buoyed up by the landmark building is stark. In PSA the model sits on a part of the floor that is cracked and broken, presumably resulting from the removal of the Museum café that formally occupied the spot. It is as if the potential to crumble and fall might spread.
Elsewhere Bugareach (2012), a model of one of the mountains in the French Pyrénées, also cracks open the floor of the museum. The peek provides a plateau of safety from surrounding devastation; a plate preserves the heads of more than a dozen animals. The predicament is intensified by an apocalyptic installation in the same room. Entitled Circus (2012), it includes further headless stuffed animals, a grim reaper marionette and giant wooden hands. A model helicopter hovers cinematically over the mountain. Also above a headless snake coils around some red warning sirens. Stretching the international savoir-faire of the Shanghai audience these are intended to “call to mind the tests that have been carried out in Paris on every first Wednesday of the month since World War II”.
Overlooking all of this is the dramatically lit coiling skeleton Bâton Serpent (2014). The multi-ribbed form, more like a centipede, relates to the Christian bible incident in the Old Testament of Aaron and Moses’ flawed demonstration of God’s power before the Pharaoh of Egypt. The miracle of changing a live snake into a stick is perceived as a trick, easily copied by the Pharaoh’s own people.
The formidable jaws of this beast, big enough to swallow you whole, direct the route to further sections of the exhibition. As Bâton Serpent springs from the history of the Jews, there is some menace in its juxtaposition to Camel (2012). The stuffed animal is found on a prayer mat facing Mecca. The direction, marked at this point, runs through other works in the exhibition. Possibly kneeling in prayer or simply lowering himself to offer a ride, branded on the far side of the animal’s hide are the words from Matthew’s Gospel, reading
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Confusing the sense of the text an outsized needle pierces the camels nose. Close by a further Biblical quotation is inscribed on the underside of an overturned chair: “Nor in the seat of scoffers sit.” Both works suggest hospitality, or at least a pause, but who lead the camel and whose was this chair before it was cast aside?
Oozing out into the corridor at this point a grimy white material bears the stamp of 71 massive footprints. Three Steps, Nine Footprints (1995) is evidence of the crescendo to the exhibition’s religious disquiet. The three types of imprint, representing the three world religions, trace a dysfunctional route. There is no consensus on the right path. Marking the space sealed trash-cans do not offer an opportunity to jettison rubbish and, where they are not sealed to prevent it, might hide a bomb.
This threat of aggression is reaffirmed by another work in the same gallery, Construction Site (2006). The tip of what appears to be a missile peeks above a temporary hording. Closer inspection does not immediately contradict this impression, although it identifies the weapon as a ‘steam punk’ creation. A further shift in perception shows that the object, supported on scaffolding at a 30 degrees angle is a minaret, keeled over in the process of maintenance in a private space.
In every work, Huang is magnanimous in his attention to nuance; to the point of suggesting a faintly chilling detachment, an unyielding attention to detail and effect that finds its equivalent in the shades of religious fanaticism. And yet his is the fundamentalism of art, the creed of Yoko Ono who said:
“Only art and music have the power to bring peace.”
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