(Paris.) The Seine flooding this June threatened several museums along the river. The Louvre and the Orsay decided to close for a week, the Grand Palais a day only. The day before we arrived in Paris, to be precise. Luckily, these were just precautionary measures, and all got back to normal soon. The deluge was rather not a publicity stunt to sound the bell for the last days of Huang Yong Ping’s Empires, talking about how all empires must be swept away in time. Many believe Empires could be the very last edition of Monumenta, a series of art shows that have ruled Paris from the Grand Palais seven times since 2007. Though not always great in all respects, Monumenta is a must in the Parisian exhibition calendar. The idea is as simple as convincing: For six weeks, one monumental artwork invades the unique venue in (almost) the heart of Paris, to be never shown again afterwards.
This years, Chinese Huang Yong Ping had the honour (and Kamel Mennour Gallery the expense). Entering, you believe yourself carried away by the rains, right down to Marseille, or Rotterdam, Hamburg, Montevideo, Shanghai... Walls of shipping containers block the views, reaching from the floor up ten or twenty metres. If you have ever been to a harbour in real life, you immediately know this is art, not reality: The raster is much more varied, Huang Yong Ping is painting with objects. Not even experienced harbour workers will recognize all the different colours and company names on these capitalized, i.e. standardized, boxes. In real life, of ten containers you see, about eight carry the colour and label of one of two or three big players only. The colourful pattern at Grand Palais looks so much the nicer (upon research, you’d probably find, these local variations are owned by the big boys too). Each container has a biography, you can tell from the smell, the rust and the oil stains. But there is no place for sailor romantics in our world.
Continue down the narrow corridors and keep your eyes upwards, you’ll perceive a giant lizard, or dragon, dinosaur, anaconda, Godzilla, - well: a skeleton squatting on top of the container towers. Just like that ape on the Empire State. Almost in a circle, it’s contemplating its tail with open jaws, while a couple of unimpressed Parisian pigeons take a promenade between the teeth. The Palais de la Découverte on the other side of the street, or the National Museum of Natural History in Jardin des Plantes has even more skeletons like this. With a difference: the one at Grand Palais is made from hard plastic and hollowed out like a bird’s bone, so the beast could potentially fly (and dinosaurs were birds, after all). No bone marrow, but a solid metal bar inside lends stability to the structure. There are also authentic harbour cranes standing around, closed off, not to mount for the public, and suddenly, in the centre, right between head and tail, a monumental black something bridges the space. An oil spill like a Damocles’ sword? No, upon closer inspection it turns out to be a Napoleonic (not Beuys-ian) felt hat with a medal on the side. That was another empire. It doesn’t really exist anymore.
The Chinese dragon, the rising empire in the East is dominating world trade, or the old Empire of surpassed technology - no matter how important they still are, ships are no longer state-of-art, running slow on petrol - whose remains refuse to decay to the future amusement of techno-palaeontologists? We’d go for the first interpretation. Shipping, logistics, the backbone of world economy is jockeyed by a hungry dragon (wasn’t there also a tiger some years ago, and a bear still before that?). A simplistic interpretation, an in-your-face metaphor, but, there is no more to it, indeed. On work, one world, one globalization.
Chances are, the companies producing the material used for the sculpture are Chinese (owned) also. And if it’s not the Chinese, the French complain of being fed to Arab investors, so this might be generalized to an old empires vs. nouveau riches scenario.
There is some empty space left, the monster is not monstrous enough for the monstrosity that is the Grand Palais. Explanatory videos, Ikea tables, chairs and lamps to read catalogues of other projects of Huang Yong Ping suffice not to fill the emptiness. The store offers a container shaped pencil box, Napoleon hats, books on China – “The history of Chinese Intelligence Agencies” - and even some art related items.
Do monumental art shows befit a country in crisis, economically and under threat of terrorism? We’d say “yes”, without a doubt. It would be sad if there’d be no other Monumenta in one, two or three years time (this unpredictability belonged to the series ever since the start).
When buying our ticket, we chose a double feature with Carambolages, one of the other shows currently running at Grand Palais. Doing this, you need to decide for a precise date and time of your visit, but doing this, the scanner did not accept our ticket to Monumenta... Thank you again to the ticket intern who let us pass, this is not evident in a contemporary art venue. Carambolages is an experiment, a game of arts. Take one work, no matter what, and put another one next to it that has something in common – a technique, a form, a topic. Continue, and create a serpent of a hundred works, an artistic centipede. “Dominoes” would be an equally good title. Art from all continents and ages is circling through the corridors rather arbitrarily. If you like art, and did not come to Grand Palais because you’re on holidays, the Louvre was closed, and being in Paris you need to “do something cultural” (your girlfriend insisted), you'll find at least one work to your liking. Because everything is there.
It’s a desacralisation of art, not only in the religious – or only decent human – sense, as in the case of a preserved Mayan head – but also with respects to art itself. Or see it as a museum of humanity, with relicts collected by an alien species after the apocalypse. All meaning has been extracted and only the essence of manmade artefacts remains.
One example from somewhere in the chain: An Afghan carpet displaying a Kalashnikov (late 20th Century) leads to Bertrand Lavier’s Black&Decker because a Kalashnikov shares some design traits with a hedge trimmer. Then comes a Kiribatian sword followed by a Wounded Man (Hans Wechtlin, 16th Century, looks like a St. Sebastian, which in turn could lead to a Metro station...), and another painting of Time Cutting Amor’s Wings. It makes sense, in a sense. But if you locked an elementary school class into a library with some picture books of World Art History, they’d come up with another chain of works, that does not make any less sense. And they’d get paid less than the curators of this show.
Maybe it was only a matter of time, until somebody came up with the idea, but now that it has done, can we please just continue with something else? It has to be feared, the concept sets a precedence. It doesn’t demand any knowledge, is purely visual, knowledge is even an inconvenience. It thus befits a world where everybody watches pictures on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram without ever reading the texts that come with them (occasionally they still do).
Monumenta: Huang Yong Ping – Empires, 8 May-18 June 2016
Carambolages, 2 March-4 July 2016
Grand Palais, Paris
World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism