Huang Yong Ping and Shen Yuan in Paris
Opening two years after the sudden death of Huang Yong Ping, a joint exhibition by the late artist and his partner Shen Yuan, who co-curated the show according to Huang's detailed notes, is deeply moving.
Exhibition view: Huang Yong Ping and Shen Yuan, Is Paris Burning?, kamel mennour, Paris (9 December 2021–29 January 2022). Courtesy kamel mennour.
A sense of intimacy abounds at kamel mennour, where Is Paris Burning? (9 December 2021–29 January 2022) unfolds the gallery's two spaces at 5 and 6 rue du Pont Lodi in Paris, the artists' adoptive city over the last 30 years.
Inspired by the eponymous book published in 1965 by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre about the liberation of Paris in 1944 (and adapted to cinema by René Clément a year later), the exhibition articulates themes of historical, artistic, and biographical significance.
Shen Yuan's installations Yellow Umbrella/Parasol (2017) and Samedi (2019)—the latter title translating to Saturday, when the gilets jaunes would demonstrate in France—recall war models reconstituting historical battles in museums: dioramas that carry the stigmata of past confrontations in burnt and deserted battlefields.
Previously shown at Tang Contemporary Art in 2017 as part of the artist's join show, Hong Kong Foot, Yellow Umbrella/Parasol features miniature umbrellas and tents that lay like withered flowers over four wooden tables, recalling the umbrella movement that erupted in Hong Kong in 2014.
The three customised ping pong tables composing Samedi recall the 'Ping-Pong Diplomacy' event in 1971, a successful table tennis competition that thawed relations between the U.S. and China. Small fluorescent yellow squares are spread like confetti across one table, recalling little yellow vests.
Is Paris Burning? is a monument in memory of an iconic partnership.
Each table seems to extend signs of resilience while standing in for symbols of competition and negotiation. The second takes the form of a shallow water tank, where a colony of live black fish are small enough to swim without being caught in the oversized net that is submerged in the water.
History is also at stake in Huang Yong Ping's suspended installation American Kitchen and Chinese Cockroaches (2019), previously shown at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow in 2019.
This monumental installation refers to the so-called 'Kitchen Debate' that took place at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, when U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev debated the merits of capitalism and communism in front of a model of an American kitchen.
More than 60 years later, those standardised kitchens have invaded Chinese households and the Cold War has shifted into a Trade War between the U.S. and China.
The history featured in Is Paris Burning? is coupled with references to Marcel Duchamp, who has influenced the work of both artists. Namely, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (1967) by Pierre Cabanne inspired Huang to launch the groundbreaking art movement Xiamen Dada in 1986 in Xiamen, his native city.
Flèche (2019)—a suspended replica of the top of the Notre-Dame's spire, which was burned down in 2019—recalls two early Duchamp readymades: the protruded shape and greyish metallic aspect of Porte-bouteilles (Bottle Rack) (1914) and the suspended and oblique position of Porte-chapeaux (Hat Rack) (1917).
Levitating like a rocket in space, Flèche endorses French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's 1859 design, which didn't conform to the original architecture of the medieval edifice.
In the next room, Huang's Chevalier du XXIe siècle empaillé (2019) bears an irrational connection to Étant donnés (1946–1966), Marcel Duchamp's very last installation revealed post-mortem to the public according to his wishes.
Made just one month before his sudden passing, this fibreglass cast of Huang's body wearing a hoodie is mind-blowing. Riding a taxidermied lion, the artist reads a Chinese version of Plato's The Republic.
Shen Yuan shares her late husband's interest in Duchamp. Pêcher l'air de Paris (2020) directly refers to the artist's Fresh Widow (1920), an obstructed French window transformed into a readymade, whose title points not only to the 'fresh widows' created by the First World War, but to the artist herself.
By suspending an empty glass vial with cut face masks on one side of a thin wood stick crossing the half-open window, Shen Yuan's work also riffs off Duchamp's Air de Paris (1919) while bearing witness to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
A spider and its metal wire nest is attached to the other side of the wood stick; it recalls The Wise Man Learns from the Spider How to Spin its Web (1994), a work by Huang that also pays tribute to Duchamp.
But there, spiders also infer a connection to Louise Bourgeois, whom Shen Yuan references in a quote on one gallery wall about Bourgeois only receiving recognition once reaching retirement age. A perfect example of how these two artists at once diverge and converge, as if articulating the philosophical tradition of yin (陰) and yang (陽) and its interconnected and oscillating forces.
Collaborating and sharing similar interests without mimicking each other, Shen Yuan and Huang Yong Ping recall another famous couple from the last century: Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, whose Stravinsky Fountain (1983) next to the Pompidou Centre has become an iconic spot in the City of Lights. In its own way, Is Paris Burning? is its own kind of monument in memory of an iconic partnership. —[O]