House of Oracles


Huang Yong Ping’s first retrospective at the Walker Art Center, House of Oracles, presents a spectacular body of work that combines a Dadaist repudiation of (Western) art history and a Taoist experimental methodology. Chinese-born but living and working in France, Huang’s sculptures and installations borrow imagery from Chinese and Western art history and mythologies, commenting on the legacy of colonialism in an increasingly globalized world. Featured on the publicity for Huang’s exhibit is “The Nightmare of King George V” (2002), a large-scale sculpture with a tiger, an elephant, and a royal seat. Here the artist pokes fun at Britain’s King George V, who traveled to Nepal in 1911 on a hunting expedition. The king allegedly shot and brought many tigers back to Europe for display. In Huang’s “Nightmare,” the tiger strikes back, and the hunter (colonizer) becomes the hunted (colonized).

Another work of art that captures attention is “Theater of the World” (1993), a terrarium with a glass top shaped like a turtle carapace, which houses a variety of small reptiles and insects. The audience peers into this world, unbeknownst to the creatures inside. As a friend of mine (and infamous editor of this Arts column) observed, the “Theater” could be read as a microcosm of the whole exhibit: peering into that world' (and the life forms within) was much like gazing at Huang's artwork (and by extension, gazing at the artist himself). In this interactive sculpture, the viewer becomes part of the artwork, and is forced to acknowledge his or her own positionality.<br /><br /> Throughout his body of work, Yong Ping comments upon the long-standing tradition of Western art audiences gazing on exoticothers.’ Traditionally, art venues pleasured audiences with depictions of primitive' orexotic’ peoples from far-off lands and cultures.' Artworks functioned as windows (or space/time compressions) between the largely white European or American audience and the distant land depicted. The European and American fine art worlds are gradually opening their doors to artists from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and countries of origin. The postmodern/postcolonial period in art history bears a new form of appropriation; one in which artists may be ethnically diverse, but art is still appropriated by the capital leverage of patrons and institutions.<br /><br /> Huang stretches the boundaries of aChinese artist’ or Chinese art,' sometimes with work that is more heavily influenced by Western art, and sometimes with Chinese iconography with which he critiques exoticism. Despite his harsh and poignant criticism of colonialism in "Nightmare," "Theater" and other works, the Walker cannot help but treat the artist as a rarity brought in from a safari hunt. In a documentary in the exhibit about the artist's career, one of the narrators--art connoisseur Jean-Hubert Martin--describes hisdiscovery’ of Huang in China, “deep in the countryside of Xiamen.” To Martin’s “great surprise,” Huang had “an impressive knowledge and understanding of the original Dada movement.” Martin decides to bring Huang to Paris. He concocts a cunning plan in which “[u]nder the aegis of a supposed artist forum, Huang and his artworks were granted access into France by Chinese officials. Without this subterfuge, they could not have made it through customs.”

This is not to say that Huang Yong Ping had no agency in his portrayal or his exodus to Europe. Quite to the contrary, Yong Ping owns the documentary, and the content of the video footage is a conscious inclusion: the artist is not a passive victim of colonialism. Huang instills a sense of discomfort within the viewer when we construct ethnic others,' or imagine ourselves accompanying Martin's pioneering voyage "deep in the countryside of Xiamen."<br /><br /> The Walker and the art world in general, on the other hand, are not above criticism. Is the recent inclusion of artists of color, third-world artists, and women artists supposed to make us forget the way we have been historically excluded, and except for a handful of tokens, we are continually excluded? Are we supposed to ignore that we are still branded asother’ art, neatly prepackaged for the viewer’s understanding and pleasure? While the Walker has done a lot to revamp its look, and remain hip in the eyes of Minnesota’s elites (and elite wannabes), little has been done to engage marginalized artists, viewers, educators and communities. As an institution, it cannot help but commodify art and artists, putting price tags on culture, and turning our identities into property to be owned and controlled by those who can afford it.

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