Our Dinner About Huang Yong Ping

Creepy, crawly Darwinism: Huang Yong Ping's 'Theater of the World'
Nick Vlcek

"The House of Oracles," on exhibition through January 16 at the Walker Art Center, is a retrospective devoted to Chinese-born French artist Huang Yong Ping. It's a big show about big ideas containing similarly sized works of art--a life-sized elephant, an enormous gourd, an imposing model of the former British Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation made out of sand (a sand bank, hee hee). It's one of the Walker's best shows in quite a while, and the sort of thing that one wants to talk about at greater length than the walk to the parking lot allows.

To that end, we gathered a small group of folks--people interested or active in the arts but no certified visual-art critics--to chat over dinner about the exhibition. On hand were Mingjen Chen, president of the Chinese American Association of Minnesota and a collection and focus guide with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (through which work Chen was tapped by the Walker to guide a few group tours of "The House of Oracles"); Aditi Kapil, an actor, playwright, and director about town; Jim Bovino, one of the members of the experimental theater-and-music group Flaneur Productions; and me, the senior arts editor here at City Pages. At one point a mildly besotted participant--not me--knocked over a glass of water, but other than that the confab went pretty well. Okay, it might have been me. Here is a very partial transcript:


Dylan Hicks: Jim, since you just saw the show today, do you want to start with some general impressions?


Jim Bovino: I was struck--and I'll plead ignorance here but venture out anyway--by a really interesting connection between Eastern philosophy and the Western avant-garde. [Huang Yong Ping's] rootedness in Taoism is so connected to Marcel Duchamp's open-ended and random art-making practices and his mistrust of answers. And of course people like Merce Cunningham and John Cage were very influenced by Eastern philosophy.


Aditi Kapil: In the notes to [The Wise Man Learns from the Spider How to Spin a Web], he said something like, I looked at these texts about Duchamp, I saw these pictures, I decided what I thought they meant, probably misunderstood the whole thing wildly, but that's okay.


Jim: Yeah, he only knew Duchamp from a photocopy of Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp. It wasn't by any means a comprehensive picture. I wrote down a quote from his notes to that piece: "I consider this kind of 'fragmentation' to be more reliable than 'completeness.'"

Dylan: I talked to [Huang Yong Ping] briefly on the phone through a translator, and I asked him about that whole fragmentation and distortion thing. His response, to paraphrase, was that all of our knowledge is fragmented and limited, but that doesn't stop us from doing things.


Mingjen Chen: It kind of reminds me of one of the philosophers, Zhuan Zhi. His idea is: You see a mountain, but then there's another higher mountain--you don't know what's on the other side; there could be something else.


Jim: There was all that taking two seemingly disparate elements and creating a third thing. Theater of the world--the one with the snakes and the lizards and the insects [ed.: The piece is a turtle-shaped cage containing a variety of live insects and small reptiles, left to fend for themselves. Now that the piece has been up for a while, it also contains a variety of dead bugs.]--apparently none of those creatures actually cohabit in the wild. They're all exotic to one another. So he's taking a real chance, because they may just go and devour each other. He's making a statement--well, maybe he's not, but I can infer a statement--about how the world works, how people confront not only different cultures, different points of view.


Aditi: I was grateful to have been warned that there were bugs in the show, because I have a bug issue. But I thought, It's okay; they'll be in an art piece. So I walk in that room [containing Theater of the World], and I could hear the bugs but I hadn't gotten to that piece yet. All of a sudden a locust walks by my foot. I walked up to the guard and said, "You have live bugs here?" She said, "Yeah, right there." I said, "No, I mean wandering about." And she said, "Oh, sometimes they get away."


Jim: What happens if one of the scorpions gets out?


Aditi: Yeah, and then I started thinking: If that's the theater of the world, then who are these ones that have escaped?


Dylan: I know that piece was working on several levels, and that it was also inspired by Jeremy Bentham's panopticon and all that, but I found that I struggled with my own literalism. I was trying to match the creatures with their geopolitical representatives. So I was thinking, which one is the U.S.?


Aditi: The lizard [laughs].


Jim: Whatever Huang Yong Ping's statement was or wasn't, though, there's nothing he can do to control the behavior of those animals. You can put them in there, but then you don't know--is the cricket gonna chew off the lizard's toe?


Dylan: Well, you can predict what their behavior will be.


Jim: But the minutiae of their behavior you can't control. They're live animals, and they're not going to adhere to your set principles.

And when Aditi looks over and here comes a locust, the whole panopticon reference is subverted by the jailbreak. The idea that we're looking in on this contained world is subverted by those accidents, which seems very much in keeping with his aesthetic, of introducing randomness and so forth. I mean, maybe they drilled a little hole in the cage.


Mingjen: I come in from the direction that I'm not familiar with contemporary art. I didn't know about Marcel Duchamp until I came to this exhibit. I'm one of those people that goes to a contemporary art museum, and some of it I would appreciate, and some of it I would have that classic reaction--Oh, I could do that. But this one, I just completely fell in love with it.

He said that when he was in China, he had aspirations to learn more about Western art but when he was in the West now, he's more interested in Chinese traditions and philosophy. I'm the same way. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, I heard about Chinese in America, and I was really surprised by how conservative the Chinese in America are--they observe more of the Chinese traditions than people in Hong Kong at the time. People who live with tradition on a day-to-day basis don't really think about following it, but in America, it's more important for Chinese to observe traditions.


Aditi: Did anyone else have a favorite piece?


Jim: No, but I don't have a favorite anything. I don't like superlatives.


Dylan: You're the best guy for that.


Aditi: I had a piece that gave me the shivers. It was the one with the manuscript pages going through the wall [Manuscript Goes Through the Wall]. Maybe it's because I'm a writer and the printed word and paper means so much to me, but I loved the fact that I could think about what was on the other side of the wall.


Jim: It created tension, because there's text on the other side of that wall, but you can't get to it. There's a theme emerging, partly connecting to the insects getting loose: What happens in the other world? What happens in that area that you don't know about? Especially if you consider all knowledge is fragmentary. He plays with that beautifully throughout.


Aditi: And I want to think something I wrote would go through a wall.

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