Huang Yong Ping
in conversation with Rohini Malik and Gavin Jantjes
Fondation Cartier, Paris, 8 March 1997.
Translation by Hou Hanru.
RM You have been living in Paris for
seven years why did you decide to leave China and come to Paris?
HYP It was not a decision, but I was
invited to participate in the exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre in
RM And you then decided to stay ?
HYP I received more invitations to work
in France, to participate in exhibitions, give lectures, and I also
received a grant for one year. There were also invitations to work
elsewhere in Europe.
GJ For Europeans you may be seen as
representing the Chinese nation, do you want to be seen as its
HYP There is something positive and
negative in this. I never refuse to be considered a Chinese artist, and
Chinese is the only language that I speak, but I always have to say that
I do not represent China. How can one person represent so many different
peoples and cultures?
GJ Could you to tell me a little bit
about the herd of animals you've created for your exhibition here at the
HYP For the last few years I have been
working with animals, mostly insects, live insects. On this occasion
I've made a model of an animal rather than using living things. Also
this animal is my creation, its my own creature. Using animals is a
symbolic or metaphoric way of dealing with society or reality. The work
is about the reality in which we live today rather than animals
GJ The human relationship to animals is
about us using them, both as food and as tools, how do you use animals?
HYP It's a very interesting question
actually. When we talk about the relationship between man and animals
usually we just say man uses animals, man is superior to animals,
period. But my way of using animals is taken from Chinese mythology in
which man and animals are mixed together, using each other. They eat
each other to form a kind of food chain. Man is actually not superior to
animals, rather both are on the same level and open to the same danger.
Man is threatened by animals and animals are threatened by man, so they
face the same dangers.
GJ In Europe we have what's called
"Mad Cow's Disease". Is this work about viral infection and
the transmittance of diseases between man and animal?
HYP Of course you could say that. However
my work is a transformation of the situation, here cows eat sheep, sheep
eat man and man eats cows. There's a cyclic game in progress.
GJ The cow is quite monstrous, in scale
and appearance and the sheep are almost mythical, ethereal.
HYP I created three levels of height in
the work to symbolise this. You have the height for man which is lower
than two metres, then the sheep which are a little bit higher than two
metres and the cow is more than five metres high. The measurement
symbolises the situation. But this work is realised by man and for man
as a visitor to the work, it's not made for sheep!
GJ The cow has four horns instead of two
and very long ears. It echoes the pre-historic, like an animal from
"Jurassic Park". Is there something mythological about the cow
or does it refer to an ancient past, or even science fiction perhaps?
HYP I always make work in reference to
something, for example to Chinese culture, and this time I refer to a
famous mythological book called "Shan Hai Jing". This book
describes a cow, a strange kind of animal called a "Zhu Huai",
which translates to means a hybrid pig. This cow/pig has four horns,
pig's ears, human eyes and makes the sound of a baby. I picked up on the
four horns and the pig's ears. This animal eats man of course, and this
myth also mentions sheep which eat man. The sheep which eat man usually
have four horns, but in my piece the sheep have no horns. This work is
entitled "The peril of sheep", but actually when you look at
sheep they are not that violent, so it raises the question, is this the
peril of sheep, the peril of cows or the peril of man? It invites
GJ You've mentioned that your work very
often has a connection to a social subject or some kind of social issue.
The issue in question is food. You've made a work in the "Parisien(ne)s"
exhibition for Camden Arts Centre in London entitled "Da Xian",
"The Doomsday". It uses a traditional Chinese porcelain rice
bowl, enlarged to an enormous scale. In these rice bowls you have placed
contemporary foodstuffs all dated with the expiry date of July 1997.
Could you tell us about this work?
HYP Of course you can't actually separate
this work from the context of England in 1997. We all know of the
relationship between Hong Kong and Britain in 1997. I tried to bring a
number of issues together. The food plays the role of a reminder. It
reminds us of limitations. Food is not like earth or wood which can last
for a long time, it always has a limit. It reflects human history or
society. Everything has a limit in history, society and in life. I had
to create a relationship between these issues through an image, and the
image here is the bowl. The bowls and the images on the bowls are very
important. Actually, the bowls are not the traditional Chinese bowls. I
have chosen porcelain bowls made by the "oriental" East India
Company. The motifs on the bowls are theirs, done in a traditional
style. What is interesting is that in these images you have a lot of
flags of the colonisers. Interesting also is that my enlarged bowls
actually look like hemispheres of the earth. It gives the impression of
the earth wrapped in all these flags. These images reflect the
imagination at the height of colonialism in the late eighteenth century
or early nineteenth century. I tried to connect these things, making a
series of stepping stones, from the food to the bowls to the flags,
they're all linked together.
GJ This idea of the colonial flag
wrapping the world is a very intriguing notion. The images on the bowls
represent the coloniser pretending to be elsewhere. It could also be
read as a form of packaging, a wrapping of the world, in the same way as
the foodstuffs inside the bowl are wrapped and dated. The objects on the
inside date the end of a colonial situation in 1997. The images on the
outside of the bowls date high colonialism. Both have marked
limitations, both come to an end.
HYP I think your interpretation is a good
supplement to my work. My work has such a radiative way of transmitting
its message. Its a very good reaction to the piece.
GJ There are three bowls and I wonder why
that number, why not one or two. ?
HYP The bowl is a public image which
belongs to everyone. Everybody is entitled to a bowl of rice, it doesn't
belong to one person. So there's a big difference between one and three.
Three suggests a plural number.
GJ Another reaction that I have to
"The peril of sheep" is also connected to colonialism. The
spread of mad cow disease from sheep to cow to man, talks about the
movement of things and here it's not only across species but across
territory. Mad cow disease is claimed to have its origins in England
because of the mad way the English fed their animals. It's now
spreading, possibly across the whole of Europe. This notion of movement,
of infection, resides in both "The Doomsday" bowls and the
"The Peril of Sheep".
HYP It's the same kind of displacement as
my own life, I'm Chinese and I'm living here, I'm showing in England and
also in France so its the same kind of movement.
GJ You are an artist "at home"
here in Paris, France yet away from home. Do you locate yourself
geographically where you work? Is the place you feel most at home in
art, rather than in a geographical location?
HYP This is a complex subject. I always
emphasise that you bring your earth and water with you wherever you go.
When you have a home, a stable home somewhere, you don't have to move.
The question of location doesn't arise. But when you start moving
around, become displaced or a migrant, the question of home is raised.
Then you have to consider what is your earth, what is your water. So
actually when you travel you don't have a home but you need a home, and
there are two kinds of homes which I can now imagine, a mobile home and
a fixed one.
RM In the creation of many of your works
there appears to have been a crossing of borders, both in terms of
physically moving from place to place, but also more conceptually in
terms of ideas. I wonder if, perhaps, you could talk about this in
relation to specific works, and also more generally as a way of
approaching your creative practice as a form of "crossing
HYP There is a physical border between
countries. But there is also a more personal border of our selves. The
question is how to go beyond the limit of ourselves, beyond our own
borders. These two kinds of borders very often overlap: when you cross
the border to another country, at the same time you feel you are going
beyond your own self, beyond your own borders.
RM Do you perhaps see yourself as a form
of 'bridge' and your work also as a 'bridge' between and across borders
HYP The image of the bridge is a
beautiful metaphor. On the bridge you have two points, two ends.
Normally we think a person should have only one standpoint, but when you
become a bridge you have to have two. This is also a kind of explanation
for the concept of crossing the border of the self: as one person, you
should have many standpoints. Between these two points, there is one
that is more stable, your original personality and another point which
is less stable, floating. This bridge is always dangerous.
RM Dangerous, but at the same time
doesn't it suggest new possibilities?
HYP For me, the notion of danger is not
negative, but positive - it creates the possibility to open up something
GJ. There's also the belief that because
we have this mobility to move from place to place, the artist functions
more and more like a "passeur", like a ferryman transporting
the audience or public from one idea to another, from one cultural
experience to another. Do you feel that you are acting like a "passeur"?
HYP Yes of course there is this dimension
of transporting things, but every work is a reaction to the specific
context of a different place. Its not a simple act of transferring a
thing from one place to another. Every new location requires a new
reaction to its specific context.
GJ In another piece, which you made at
the Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie in Paris you constructed a
bridge with live snakes and turtles on either side and there was no way
that they could cross this bridge because of its steep curve. Yet the
work addressed the idea of two locations, of different ideas and
identities, and harboured the possibility of bridging those disparities.
The viewer is invited to think laterally about location and difference.
HYP Of course the animals cannot go
across the bridge but the bridge exists to suggest a spatial
communication. This link exists to create a space for communication
between the two parts even though people can't cross. Of course complete
comprehension is impossible, but communication as a misunderstanding or
half understanding, is a way of communication as well.
GJ Communication between worlds is something that arises very often in
your practice. Your early piece, now some ten or more years old,
"The history of modern art and the history of Chinese art washed
two minutes in a washing machine", has as its central feature the
bringing together of two dynamic worlds.
HYP I made a series of works washing
books, essentially to reveal my lack of trust in absolute communication
through language. The fact that people rely on languages for
communication more than anything else, I want to show a suspicious
attitude towards this. This was the main concern of this kind of work.
GJ The notion therefore of an
"internationalism" as it is spoken about in the West is a
notion one should treat with a lot of suspicion. Is this what you're
HYP This suspicion is not only focused on
art, but basically on the economic and political dimension of so-called
'internationalism'. You will find that international companies, or even
the United Nations, create a number of illusions. This doesn't mean that
we should deny internationalism in favour of nationalism. Nationalism is
even more dangerous than internationalism, but on the other hand there
is perhaps always a kind of nationalist motivation behind claims for
internationalism. I think we should do something about that and not to
be too naive. For me, internationalism can't be separated from two
things: anthropology and the history of colonisation. Anthropology and
anthropologists could only have been produced and invented in the West.
That was the situation in the past, now things are changing. In the
reality of today, we have to look at the relationship between
internationalism and international enterprise. I think internationalism
is basically a Western notion, and we have to be very careful when using
it. When we're dealing with internationalism in art we should try to
consider it in this context. Internationalism is a utopian idea. Utopia
is very important in art. We all wish to realise a new internationalism,
but how to do this in reality is another question.
GJ The process of washing or cleansing,
the wiping away of a notion of history, cancelling a notion of identity
and culture and replacing it with some alternative fragmented
internationalism, does this not allude to brainwashing?
HYP The action of washing has various
implications and meanings. Yet what should be emphasised is that the
reason I'm washing is not to clean but to make dirty. The notion of
"dirty" internationalism is always good and "clean"
internationalism is always bad.
GJ In other words a thorough mixing; an
engagement which is not about cleansing and making pure, logical and
transparent, but something which is quite mixed, confused or incoherent.
HYP Because such a dirty confusion
creates a distance from your subjectivity.
GJ There's another piece which addresses
the notion of movement, food and time. "The Indigestible
Object" was made with rice in three states, raw, cooked and in the
process of decomposition. Hou Hanru wrote about this work as an
"entropy"1, your art and the art world in a state of
continuous re-emergence and change. In this piece we recognise the flow
of time. In a number of your works there's a time sequence that makes
one aware of transformation and change.
HYP It's always very important to include
process in the reading of the works, to understand the works as a
process rather than a an art object. It's like a book that one has to
think about and work one's way through, one can think of it as a
passage. The image of 'passage' is quite similar to that of the bridge,
a transformation from one point to another. In such a process there is a
limit, a determination. The process determines the kind of
transformation which should take place between those two points.
GJ You move to a place, make work,
transform site-specific spaces. As viewers we visit the sites of your
work, we move, we change our consciousness. Process is therefore also an
important part of how the work is received.
HYP It was a very important aspect of
'"Indigestible Object". What actually happened is that people
had to enter the tunnel with all these different states of the rice on
the floor, it altered their perception totally. It looked like you're
walking through someone's intestine. We've mentioned food and language
in this discussion and actually for me food and language are two basic
aspects of culture itself, its food and language which decide what
culture we have.
GJ Absolutely. Just as any description of
taste can never be perfect, taste for each individual is different, and
therefore the translation for each individual is one remove from the
absolute. We may all agree that something is salty, but some of us may
like saltiness and others may not. Translation is a very important
factor in interpretation and consciousness.
I think it was Franz Fanon who said "To speak a language is to
assume a culture"2 , that's one idea I want to hold onto. The other
idea is that food seems to be the last terrain in which we hold onto a
traditional sense of identity. We talk about eating
"authentic" food. There are specific cuisines which have a
particular taste and this remains the last anchorage we have when we are
swamped by notions of globalism. In which everything is supposed to
taste the same.
HYP If you identify with the language of
a new place that's one thing but if you also accept totally the way of
eating, and the food, of another culture, it means you identify
completely with this culture. You have changed your identity. That is
GJ I am what I eat?!
HYP What is surprising is that in the
past the colonisers created schools and education in the colonies, they
tried to make the other people assimilate to their culture through
language and education, but what is surprising is that nobody ever
mentioned that we should assimilate the food. So you can see Chinese,
Indian or French restaurants, whatever, all maintaining their own
speciality and this is a very surprising phenomenon.
GJ Yes, the other surprising phenomenon,
if we're talking about a notion of globalism changing our lives, is that
we're inferring that when French, German or Dutch people go out and eat
Chinese, they are in fact not only consuming but they are also assuming
notions of a cultural otherness.
HYP But there's an interesting
difference. You accept the food but it doesn't influence your way of
thinking, so you can digest it. But when you accept a new language it
influences your way of thinking, your culture, it's another story. You
have to distinguish between these two things.
RM I am interested in the role
"chance" plays in the realisation of your work, and how this
relates to the Western notion of the artist as a visionary and
autonomous creator. For a number of works you used the 'Yi Ching' as a
way of determining how to proceed.
HYP I've always been very suspicious of
the role or status of the artist as an autonomous creator who creates
something from nothing. By resorting to the notion of chance, one can
have access to enlightenment. It also has to do with my own cultural
background. In China, the individuality is not so important. In terms of
philosophy, traditional Chinese philosophers never said "I
say", but always said "our ancestors said". It is a way
of accessing reality. This is the reason I use the 'Yi Ching'.
RM Through your interest in various
philosophies, Daoism and Zen Buddhism, as well as Western philosophers
from Wittgenstein to Foucault and Derrida, has there been some sort of
cross-over and dialogue in your understanding and interpretation of
these different ideas and perspectives?
HYP We have to know that when we look at
something new, we are looking at something that already exists in
reality. When you are reading something so-called 'foreign', it is
something which already exists in your own culture, in your self. I
can't read any foreign language, so I only have access through
translation, which is sometimes very fragmented. But it is not so
important whether it is a fragment or the entire translation. What is
important is that it reminds me of what already exists in my own
GJ We never translate fully even though
we may assume to get everything across, there will always be different
nuances of meaning. Looking at a four-horned cow, my translation will be
different to somebody who understands Chinese mythology, who can
actually tell where the four-horned cow with the pig's ears and the
human eyes comes from. Do you have a problem with the impossibility of
translation or do you see its potential?
HYP Even every time I try to translate my
own work it's different.
1 Hou Hanru "Entropy, Chinese artists, Western Art Institutions, a
new internationalism" §87/88 Global Visions - towards a new
internationalism in the visual arts, ed. Jean Fisher, Kala Press,
2 Franz Fanon "Black Skin White
Masks" §13 trans by Charles Lam Markmann Granada Publishing 1970
Huang Yong Ping in
dialogue with Gavin Jantjes. 1998
copyright: INIVA 2003