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  • Oct 21, 2019

Obituary: Huang Yong Ping (1954–2019)


Chinese-French artist Huang Yong Ping died on October 19 in Paris, at the age of 65. Known for his provocative and powerful works, the esteemed Xiamen-born artist is regarded as a key figurehead for Chinese and international avant-garde art.

A significant contributor to China’s first generation of contemporary art, known as the ’85 New Wave Movement, Huang remained at the forefront of contemporary Chinese art even after his relocation to Paris in 1989 following his participation in the seminal exhibition of international art “Les Magiciens de la Terre,” at the Centre Pompidou. He was one of the first Chinese artists to employ art as a strategy that he developed through his art and writings. Huang played a critical role in shaping the theoretical discourses of the ’80s with regards to the deconstruction of the modern consciousness, such as his iconic The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987), for which he transformed two art history books—one on classical Chinese paintings and one on Western modern paintings—into pulp in a washing machine. This was not only a collision of culture but also an abolishment of their mutually exclusive linear histories. Admired for his radical approaches to cultural and political issues, Huang’s fantastical, witty, and at times discomforting works span four distinct phases during which he challenged various entities with his views of the mutated world in “anti-artistic affectation,” “anti-self-expression,” “anti-art,” and “anti-history.” 

Originally trained in oil painting at Hangzhou’s Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Huang was inspired by Dadaism and Surrealism, and founded the Xiamen Dada group in 1986. Equating the philosophies of Marcel Duchamp with that of Chan Buddhism, he highlighted the paradox of such European and Asian juxtapositions. In the 1990s, with his move to France, his conceptual installations grew in size while he continued to explore cultural clashes with his take on “striking the East with the West, striking the West with the East,” the theme of his nine-column mythical beasts installation at the France Pavilion of the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999. Huang was the first non-French artist to show in the France Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. 

In the early 2000s he returned to China with his “Bat Project” series (2001–04), installations of full-scale aircrafts, controversial at the time due to its reference to a 2001 incident where a United States military spy plane crashed in Hainan. In 2005, the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis gave him a mid-career retrospective “House of Oracles,” which, following its premier in Minneapolis, subsequently travelled to MASS MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, as well as to Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. In 2016, his commissioned Empires, comprising of 305 shipping containers and a large hat modelled after Napolean’s “Bicorne,” encircled by a 254-metres-long snake, was installed at Paris’s Grand Palais for the seventh edition of the Monumenta series. 

Huang was recognized for his influential role in Chinese contemporary art, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s 2017 exhibition, “Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World," co-curated by Alexandra Munroe, Phil Tinari, and Hou Hanru. Huang’s Theatre of the World (1993), a reality-provoking ecosystem installation meant to feature live reptiles and insects, lended its name to the show although the insects and reptiles were ultimately removed from the sculptural cage after an outry from animal-rights activitists. 

In his more than three-decade long career, Huang created artworks that spanned a diverse range of media and topics across national boundaries, with his works acclaimed for their eminent qualities and philosophical takes on the incorporation of art with life and politics. His many awards include, among others, Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (1999) and the Wolfgang Hahn Prize (2016) awarded by Ludwig Museum, Cologne. His works are in the collections of major museums, from M+ in Hong Kong, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane.

Huang is survived by his wife, artist Shen Yuan, with whom he had also collaborated on exhibitions. Huang’s work is currently on view in a group exhibition “The Coming World: Ecology as the New Politics 2030-2100,” at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, until December 1.

Lauren Long is ArtAsiaPacific’s news and web editor.

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