Before I came to Beijing, the only images I had of Chinese art were of landscape paintings and calligraphy scrolls. But when I went on adventures to Beijing art districts like the 798 Art District, I realized that Chinese art wasn’t that limited. China now has a thriving contemporary art scene that is as astounding as its economic boom.
It isn’t just about ink paintings anymore; contemporary Chinese artists have expanded their range and adopted Western styles to inform and broaden their work.
Typical of this broader range was “The House of Oracles: A Huang Yongping retrospective,” which was exhibited at the then-newly-opened mega-space in 798, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Drawing from both Western and Eastern methods and ideologies, Huang Yongping, a Chinese-born French visual artist, created installations that were so large as to enmesh viewers in a whole other universe, where issues faced by both China and the world are brought to light. By mixing gravity with playfulness and insight, he provoked in viewers both thought and laughter.
A life-size tiger jumping atop an elephant and a large-scale crumbling sand model of the old HSBC building in Shanghai speak of colonization and the impermanence of empires, new and old. Questions of identity are raised when, further down the exhibition, viewers are asked to choose which passage they would rather go through: one marked “national” or one marked “other.” But the presence of cages with feces and gnawed bones in both passageways suggests that either choice is fraught with its own dangers, and that a choice of one passage now also means the choice of the other in another place and time.
A piece called Two Typhoons consisted of gigantic twin scrolls, one written in Sanskrit, the other, Arabic. It recalled the continuing strife taking place in the Middle East and in Tibet.
Although Huang employs Western methods, he is also deeply influenced by his Eastern heritage. Chan Buddhism, Taoism, and the I Ching continue to play a significant role in his mindset and in his pieces. Upsetting the usual view of artist as creator, he lets fate take a major role in his art process. By consulting the I Ching for his projects, the artist is guided in his work and his process in a way that seems opposed to Western art practice. A tent filled with divination tools and roulette wheels, which once served as Huang’s studio, was included in the exhibit to highlight this unique facet of the artist’s life.
By stepping aside and allowing the internal order of events (particularly those that seem to happen by chance) to manifest itself in his works, he expands the viewer’s idea of what art and life are based on. Many of his pieces clearly flow directly from these Eastern principles.
A living installation, where tarantulas, snakes, scorpions, and toads are thrown together to survive or die, draws inspiration from a section in I Ching that focuses on decay. Darwinian theory and the Taoist idea that the world is in a constant state of becoming are illustrated dramatically in Theater of the World.
But perhaps The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes, one of the simplest works in the exhibition, is the most emblematic of all these questions on globalization and multiculturalism. By throwing a Western art history textbook and a Chinese one together in a washing machine and exhibiting the resulting mulch, he leads viewers to think that experiencing one culture in contrast with another is just the beginning. It is in the adding of one to the other—until their eccentricities become so thoroughly mixed as to form their own uniqueness, or perhaps return them to their original unity—that we truly begin to appreciate what globalization means.
At the end of this adventure, I realized that globalization isn’t just about what happens over us, in countries or economies. It is also something that happens within us as we begin to realize and appreciate our differences and then go beyond them to see underlying commonalities.
Print ed: 12/08