Huang Yong Ping

During the 1980s there was a creative explosion in China that produced a pioneering generation of artists – spearheaded by Huang Yong Ping – that continues to the present day. These artists emerged out of a long period of cultural isolation and operated in a closed regional context characterized by a highly traditional way of conceiving and appreciating art. Talents were home-grown and progressive activities were not the product of an institutional system but rather the result of the will to advance cultural dialog, spread thinly throughout the nation and developed in self-organized clusters. Huang belongs to a first generation of Chinese contemporary artists who abandoned traditional formal approaches and adopted many of the radical aesthetic and conceptual paradigms of the Western avant-garde. After a short period of experimental painting, he turned to a Conceptual form of art inspired by figures like Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and Joseph Beuys. Performance art and an emphasis on transformation in which paintings were burned or readymade books were altered by being washed in industrial machines, became important tools for marking a shift away from Chinese artistic norms toward a new kind of art that was neither nationalistic nor “pure” – an art based on a fusion of Western and Eastern cultural and philosophical ideas. In Huang’s body of work, the position of the individual within an institutionalized context is often symbolized by buildings that represent power. His works are frequently structured around metaphorical oppositions: church/mosque; Christianity/Buddhism/Islam; academic organization/political interest; power/submission. Colosseum (2007), presents the eponymous symbol of the Roman empire in terracotta overgrown by trees and plants. It is a powerful statement on the fragility of power and the continuous dialog between nature and civilization. Each of Huang’s works is like a vessel loaded with intelligent and meaningful reflections on the human condition, and the power of his art lies in the forms, objects, and materials that he brings together. These refer to cultural, philosophical, and folk traditions of both the East and West and are articulated around his refusal of fixed notions about identity, political hegemony, and ethnic difference. For Huang, culture is always in a state of flux. This sensibility is anchored in his understanding of Buddhism, Taoism, and the I Ching (The Book of Changes), whose message that there is no such thing as pure culture (nor purity in general) is reflected in Huang’s relentless introduction of unexpected materials and new constellations of objects into his art. Huang’s influence on contemporary Chinese art is becoming increasingly unmistakable. Indeed, as one of the seminal artists to have liberated the country’s cultural production from antiquated traditions, his mark is present everywhere in the thinking and methodological approaches of today’s younger generation of artists. His appeal resides in the fact that he never abandoned Chinese art and philosophy, but adapted Chinese thoughts and sensibilities into an ongoing dialog with his adopted Western culture. In this way, Huang built a bridge that is now being crossed by many young contemporary Chinese artists, who are developing their art in all directions.