Magazine article Art Monthly

Huang Yong Ping

Magazine article Art Monthly

Huang Yong Ping

Article excerpt

Huang Yong Ping

Barbican Curve Gallery London June 25 to September 21

Armed conflict is the first impression one has upon entering Huang Yong Ping's new work Frolic. Large metal spears with ornamental carvings line the walls and huge mushroom-shaped sculptures punctuate the minimalist space. But this is Huang Yong Ping: prop master and expert in cultural estrangement. The objects are actually the dramatically enlarged implements, needles and pipe-bowls used in the consumption of opium. They form an introduction to Huang's critique of Britain's illegal escalation of the opium trade in the early 19th Century. Despite an import prohibition on the drug by the Chinese government, Britain persisted with its trade operations via the East Indian Trading Company, continuing to supply millions of addicted Chinese. Huang's work deals largely with the clash of cultures and this, his fourth foray into Sino-British relations, is his sharpest yet.

An equally oversized opium pipe leads into the second section, where a larger-than-life statue of Lord Palmerston 1784-1865), British foreign secretary and twice prime minister, lies awkwardly on a makeshift bamboo opium bed. The statue was obviously cast to be placed on a plinth (it is a copy of the one in Parliament Square), but now lies toppled over, gesturing impotently towards the large opium pipe. The 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad influenced Huang's choice of this prone position, but only as the latest example of the spectacle and propaganda that surround such an oversignified event. It's the kind of blatant symbolism that drives much of his postcolonial work, such as the installation Passage (1992/2005) in which two giant animal cages are stuck halfway through passport control gates labelled 'EU Nationals' and 'Others'.

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The final section of the exhibition, reproduced at life scale, immerses the viewer in an opium packing warehouse complete with floor to ceiling drying racks, East India Trading Company branded crates, weighing scales and hundreds of opium balls in protective clay casings. Here, sheer scale imposes a sense of commodity and trade, made sinister by the knowledge that this drug trafficking was aggressively promoted by Palmerston's government in order to settle the debt with China for, among other things, large quantities of tea. Palmerston twice took Britain to war with China over the issue, resulting in the takeover of Hong Kong. Huang's earlier work Da Xian--The Doomsday of 1997, which is not a part of this installation, picks up at the end point of the long colonial narrative with the handover of the territory. …

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