With freedom of speech, artistic censorship and human rights at the centre of global concern with the arrest of Ai Weiwei, Huang Yong Ping’s show at Nottingham Contemporary, a young, highly influential contemporary art space run by Alex Farquharson just north of London, could not have come at a more pressing or pertinent time. Huang has been the target of protested censorship in the past, but has escaped the fate dealt to his contemporary – in part because he left China for France decades ago, and in part because he expresses his political views through his work, rather than his actions. Instead of brazenly speaking out and fighting for political and cultural freedom (which, as we have witnessed does not always bode well), he has remained silent and largely out of the spotlight, instead letting the work speak for itself.
The diasporic artist, born and trained in China, has made Paris his home since 1989 when he was invited to take part in the highly influential (and slightly problematic) exhibition, ‘Magiciens de la terre’ at Centre Georges Pompidou. He is described either as a French artist or Chinese artist, depending on what institutional powers are in control, and it is clear in his work that he, too, struggles to negotiate his own identity. Hybridity defines both his life and work as he constructs fantastical creatures and architectural imaginings by combining loaded visual references from Western and Eastern mythologies, religions, and contemporary cultures.
‘Bat Project IV’ is a highly contentious piece that dominates the exhibition – it is the remnants and legacy of a former work that was subject to brash censorship in 2001 when it was pulled from the Fourth Shenzhen Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition and again in 2002 when it was banned from the Guangzhou Triennial. The disputed claims and basis of the decisions to forcefully withdraw the work was a wholly political and highly unreasonable matter, much like the incident that spawned its inception.
In 2001 Huang Yong Ping set out to reconstruct segments of an American spy plane that crashed into a Chinese fighter jet. In the aftermath of the incident, the plane carrying sensitive information was grounded in China and an international relations struggle ensued. Eventually the plane was allowed to return to American soil – however only by being decapitated, dismantled and shipped back dishonourably in pieces.
‘Bat Project IV’ holds the traces of this story – an archive of material relating to the incident, its aftermath and the fate of Huang Yong Ping’s project. The hundreds of bats that inhabit the space symbolise a psychological divide between the East and West. Bats represent happiness and good fortune in Eastern mythology, and are considered a dark, rabid creature of the night in Western culture, the latter made quite clear in the shuddering response of the local audience to the preserved flock. One wonders how the reaction would differ if the work had been shown in Shenzhen.
The strength of Huang Yong Ping’s work lies in the animals – they provide a point of entry and are the key to his poetic metaphors. Taxidermied creatures that exist between species, cultures and meanings, they can only be understood subjectively; admittedly with my knowledge, dominated by western culture and ideas, many of the subtle references escape me…
In the installation ‘Marché de Punya (The Market of Merits and Virtues)’ an elephant lies dead in front of a typical street shop market stall selling traditional Chinese carvings and banal household items – this symbol of wisdom and strength is overtaken by excessive economic expansion and forces of globalisation, the plasticisation of the western world defeating a power of nature.
While I may not relate to the cultural references present in many of the works, I quite knowingly grasp onto the concept of displacement and struggles with identity as a foreigner living in a place that is not my natal home. While the cultural divide between England and its colony is not nearly as drastic, and the language spoken (mostly) the same, there will always be differences, and a process of assimilating the divide. Since moving abroad my awareness of Canadian identity has become heightened; particularly in relation to the neighbours in the South – a complex arisen from the deluge of inquiries that come from American friends and the vast amount of cultural differences we have surprisingly found. Interestingly enough, it is this relation that Huang Yong Ping alludes to in the work ‘Amerigo Vespucci.’
As an Italian bulldog, titled after the gentleman who arguably discovered America, urinates on the wall, the puddle that collects on the floor resembling the American landmass. The line of demarcation between the floor and the wall signifies the border between the United States and Canada, whose fluidity Huang Yong Ping sees as implying ‘extensiveness and overflowingness;’ an example of all limits and borders as one drips into the other. It is this border that I relate to, the hardening of its fluidity in the past decade something I have experienced – a landmass seemingly becoming more and more divided as its borders are reinforced.
So what comes of all of this and where does it leave us? With political plays of power using citizens as pawns. Cross-cultural struggles for identity in a post-globalised world. Controversy and censorship at the forefront of the arts. Heady? Yes, and fitting indeed.