Jan 03 2018

No Looking Back: Profile of Huang Yong Ping and Shen Yuan

by Brady Ng

Portrait of SHEN YUAN and HUANG YONG PING. Photo by Brady Ng for ArtAsiaPacific.

Don’t ask the artist couple Huang Yong Ping and Shen Yuan about their past. Don’t ask about art historical textbooks that have been tumble-washed, crumbling models of financial institutions made from packed sand, or icy tongues that slowly melt to reveal blades.

Don’t ask them about how they define themselves either—should we call them Chinese artists, even though they have been living in France (since 1989 for Huang, and since the early ’90s for Shen)? Don’t ask about censorship that the artists have run up against (which they have transformed into a creative driving force), or “dirty” versus “clean” internationalism, or how the artists avoided the structures of museums and major exhibition institutions for good parts of their careers. These are all ideas that they have unpacked before.

HUANG YONG PINGThe History of Chinese Art and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987, Chinese teabox, paper pulp and glass, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong.

Detail of SHEN YUAN’s Yellow Umbrella (Parasol), 2017, wood, iron, cloth, plastic and paper, 150 × 1184 × 280 cm. Courtesy the artists and Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong. 

Instead, ask about what they’re up to now, because Huang and Shen have a penchant for never looking back. To them, the deeds that have inscribed their names into the canon of Chinese art history are already passé. As artists, the couple is constantly shaped by their circumstances, by the literature they consume, and by the information they interact with.

Their latest creations, exhibited in their show “Hong Kong Foot” at Tang Contemporary Art in Hong Kong’s newly inaugurated H Queen’s building, speak to that attitude. From continents afar, the artists watched the street occupations in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement in 2014, an episode that echoed Beijing’s student protests of 1989—the tumultuous year when Huang left China for France. Three years after the Umbrella Movement, Shen made maquettes of Hong Kong’s street scenes, with barricades, cardboard shelters, luggage cases and other supplies, as well as many, many miniature yellow umbrellas—a symbol of the student-driven protests—clustered at various points in her tabletop settings. In decades of art-making, she never forsook a revelry in kitsch and play in order to recognize and record the sights, sounds and sensations of significant circumstances.

Detail of HUANG YONG PING’s Wax Seal, 2017, mixed media on paper, 33 × 680 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong.

Huang takes a less literal approach in his response, weighing the meaning and absurdity of “sovereignty”—a term that didn’t exist in the Chinese language until treaties had to be drawn up when Western powers colonized swathes of land in East Asia, diminishing the authority of the Chinese imperial court. In Wax Seal (2017), the artist drafts a mock legal document with ink paintings of 35 islands that are part of Hong Kong, recalling how the former fishing village was ceded to the British Empire after the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, and incorporates the artist’s own commentary that was scribbled onto a China Eastern airline air sickness bag.

This was all done to explore one key question that has infected the two: How does one party hold power over another?

They have no answers, but Hong Kong is a fitting location to pose that query, given the tension stemming from Beijing’s incremental influence in the port city, and the local population’s reaction to slow shifts in their way of life. Perhaps one central idea in the artists’ practices—information exchange, and the stickiness and downfalls that come with it—offers a framework for navigation. As Chinese artists, or French-Chinese artists, or diaspora artists, or however we might label them, Huang and Shen are constantly on the outside looking in. Learning about their homeland means looking through someone else’s lens, receiving only filtered news that is interpreted by others who are on the ground—information that is in a way “washed.” In the era of rampant fake news, when even their adopted home’s 2017 presidential election was allegedly tainted by the Kremlin’s influence, notions of hegemony, and how the views of few can shape the opinions of many, are of prime concern.

HUANG YONG PING, Les Consoles de Jeu Souveraines, 2017, iron, aluminium, wood, plastic, fiberglass, papers, straw and animal fur, 370 × 560 × 560 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong.

Detail of HUANG YONG PING’s Les Consoles de Jeu Souveraines, 2017, iron, aluminium, wood, plastic, fiberglass, papers, straw and animal fur, 370 × 560 × 560 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong.

In tangent, Huang and Shen are obsessed with language and its adaptation, with their impressions informed by several milestones in their lives—reading stiffly translated art historical texts in the 1970s and ’80s (Huang has penned some texts himself); weathering challenges faced as immigrants in a new land; and Huang’s retrospective exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2005, “House of Oracles,” being lambasted by a local art critic as “lost in translation.” Where some might see obstacles in these tribulations, the artists found opportunity for reprieve, turning opposition or misunderstanding into their impetus to make art. After all, they are accustomed to a certain disregard for supposed limitations. This is also reflected in their view of how it is meaningless for artists to be pegged based on heritage or birthplace. It was not a choice, as the artists pointed out, that they could alter in any way. Rather, their actions matter much more, and steer their careers beyond the boundaries that have been erected around them since their days as young practitioners.

SHEN YUAN and her work Waterbed, 1989, mixed media, 60 x199 x 89 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong.

It was in the late 1980s that the two carved out their own corners in a nascent, nebulous contemporary art scene in China. The monumental “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition in 1989 saw Shen making installation art for the first time; she unveiled Waterbed (1989), which consisted of a plastic bag filled with water, with a few fish—Chinese symbols of wealth and abundance—sealed within, and placed over a make-shift military bed frame. By design, some of the fish were meant to die and decay within their plastic confinement.

Like many others among the show’s nearly 200 participants, Huang and Shen became leaders in “Chinese” contemporary art. That achievement was recognized last year at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s survey “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” which presented installations by both artists, though Huang’s Theater of the World (1993), a room-sized work featuring a cage meant to be filled with insects and lizards that are supposed to eat each other over the course of the presentation, sat without any living creatures.

As with the artists of their generation who have been outspoken in their views, Huang and Shen are familiar with the mechanics of bowdlerization. “We don’t need to be around,” they said. “The work speaks for itself.” This has been a consistent outlook of theirs; as Huang said 29 years ago after taking part in “China/Avant-Garde”: “My participation [. . .] was extremely successful—simply because it had no effect at all. It was almost as if I had not been there at all.”

Brady Ng is the reviews editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

Huang Yong Ping and Shen Yuan’s “Hong Kong Foot” is on view at Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong, until January 27, 2018.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

HUANG YONG PING, H.K La Peau de Chagrin, 2017, 262 × 184 × 5 cm, donkey skin and steel. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong.