Huang Yong Ping, From C to P

I wrote this review following last month’s trip to New York, where I bounced between CAA madness, the falafel cart across the street from the Hilton, and the rest of the city. I suppose it was written with publication in mind, but I missed the monthly pitch/deadline cycle. Still trying to figure out what kind of voice I want to occupy in those kinds of publication spaces…

In a follow-up to his first retrospective at the Walker Art Center in 2006, Huang Young Ping’s replicas of architectural monuments—here, the Coliseum and the Pentagon—stand together as proud, defiant symbols of state power situated in one of Chelsea’s most formidable spaces: Gladstone Gallery. Both are finely crafted of raw earthenware, fired in a kind of Raku-style that has charred each crumbling column, archway, and military barrack in a manner that mimics the gradual weathering of buildings—or rather, their holocaust.

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Colosseum, 2007 Ceramic, soil and plants; 89 x 217 x 298 1/2 inches (226 x 556 x 758cm). Image courtesy Gladstone gallery.

The artist has supplanted these sites of dynasty and death with an array of palms, ferns, and succulent varietals. Cheap Ikea-style palms splash into the air from underground chambers where beasts once lay chained. Tiny cacti are now spectators watching on with rapt attention. Limp leaves wilt into the center of our nation’s command post. “Nature” colonizes its maze of corridors and interior passageways, converting them into botanical curiosities. Huang isn’t so far off: Soft, sponge-like grass does sprout from the Coliseum’s nether regions. The Pentagon’s innermost chambers open onto a park traversed by walkways and dotted with shrubbery; they appear as a friendly oasis in aerial photographs, yet in reality proffer no more freedom than a locked courtyard in a mental institution or retirement facility. Most laughable, however, is the wild divergence between plant species: Even the blackest of thumbs will recognize that they require separate climatic conditions in order to survive, let alone thrive. Here they are doomed, each and every one, coaxed slowly towards decay by the fluorescent lights overhead and the frigid February air that sweeps through the gallery. Huang has written an epitaph: Here Lies the Entropy of an Empire.

Jeremy Bentham’s plan for the Panopticon penitentiary rises to mind while circling around models that sit fairly close to the ground, thus making visible their entire interior. In transforming these icons into decorative planters for a weekend hobby, Huang de-centers the power structures implied by their architectural forms and individual histories. Again, he simply reveals what is already known: Gladiator-slaves battled on the Coliseum floor, while government workers lunch on the Pentagon’s lawn. Those wielding the most power peer in to these central spaces, not out of them.

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Pentagon, 2007 Ceramic, soil and plants; 19 3/4 x 216 1/2 x 216 1/2 inches (50cm x 550cm x 550cm). Image courtesy Gladstone gallery.

Huang Yong Ping’s models function as concise visual and political statements. Unfortunately, the rest of this small exhibition pales in the shadow of these works.

A handful of bulbous urns stand at attention just inside the entranceway, glazed in the vibrant, earthy tones common of outsized topiary pots found in import shops or gardening centers. They offer a rather unremarkable greeting. What else to do then but to peek inside? Unlike the Coliseum or the Pentagon, these ceramics stand at awkward, sometimes inaccessible heights. Straining en pointe, one’s own nose meets that of a wolf. Peering into another cavern, one finds it lined entirely with bats poised for takeoff. While these taxidermied friends add a bit of menace to an otherwise docile group of objects, they read as simple sleights of hand when positioned nearby Coliseum and Pentagon. Likewise, a long scroll of elegant drawings serves here as little more than supporting material. Architectural plans, if you will.

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Image courtesy Gladstone gallery.

Yet the urns and drawings do serve one particular, yet perhaps less visible purpose. Huang was once a leading member in Xiamen Dada, an avant-garde movement that arose from China’s Cultural Revolution during the 1980’s. Though their historical context obviously differed greatly from that of their European counterparts, Xiamen Dada employed similar strategies—manifestos, performances, and actions, for instance. Their collective practice melded Western and Chinese tropes in a hopeful bid for a new Chinese identity. The underlying facetiousness of Dada practices still echoes throughout Huang’s work.

Coliseum and Pentagon challenge political dynasties by suggesting an analogy between the ideological and generational takeover of the white house, and an amphitheater first built under the sequential rulings of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Yet he did so by using materials (fired clay) often associated with traditional Chinese art forms. Likewise the urns and drawings executed fluently in ink and watercolor, though visually out of place here, nevertheless enable Huang’s own clever version of “strategic essentialism.” Huang Yong Ping employs ancient techniques to form an acute critique of Western power. He uses the past to reveal the present, and the sense of humor maintained while doing so performs his most insidious gesture yet.

Huang Yong Ping
From C to P
Gladstone Gallery, New York
On view from February 17 to March 17, 2007

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Filed under Contemporary Art, Criticism

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