February 27, 2024

Huang Yong Ping in Paris by Ankan Kazi

On entering the gallery one is stopped short by a big rock pushed up against the wall. There is no explanation for the rock squatting, allowing only a little space for the viewer to walk past. However when one does walk into the adjoining room, one notices a small heap of rubble and a hole in the wall. On looking through the hole, one discovers a scene that is wholly incongruent to the gallery atmosphere. It is the dark inside of a cave with projections of bat-shadows and two types of resin sculpture figures- the Buddha and members of the Taliban. Their faces are turned to the darkness, but their forms clearly evoke their identities.

Two things stand out: the narrative leading to the climactic spectacle inside the dark cavern and the pairing of the Taliban and the Buddha. The big rock suggests a violent invasion of the pristine whitewashed space of the gallery. It represents an almost clear and present danger, but refuses to tell us exactly what the danger is. It recreates the obsessive attempt to give ‘us’- the western audience – a view of the ‘real terrorists’.

The pairing of the Taliban and the Buddha is a reference to the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamyan by the Taliban in 2001. According to the Taliban, statues and representations in sculpture are fundamentally un-Islamic. There is definitely irony, therefore, in restoring not just the Buddha in a clandestine cave but also the Taliban. The caves are an imitation of the real caves where the Taliban were hiding out during their long, protracted war against the U.S.A after 9/11. Thus, if one can assume that this dark cave is the usual space for the Taliban, what becomes more ominous are not the figures of the hooded fundamentalists or the shadows of the bats, but the precise rendering of the Buddha itself.

It is as if the Buddha has appeared within the Taliban’s hiding place and is waiting silently for answers to damages done. This reading is given an edge when one considers the cave to be a reproduction of the platonic concept of art and the impossibility of representing ‘reality’ through imitation. ‘L’OMBRE BLANCHE’ is a big sculpture of an elephant, constructed with buffalo skins on structural steel and resin. Unlike the cave installation, this piece refuses to generate meaning. The buffalo skin is crumpled and sags. It winds around the elephant’s feet, perhaps tripping it. It is like the elephant in the Indian legend popularized in John Godfrey Saxe’s poem. Six blind, wise men attempt to ‘understand’ what an elephant is like: one of them falls against the sturdy side of the animal and decides that it is like a wall, another one gets hold of the ear and decides it’s like a fan while another one feels the tusk and decides that it is like a spear and so on, symbolizing the difficulty of grasping every side of an issue of magnitude. Any attempt to interpret and argue will inevitably reflect on the interpreter’s lack and blind spots with respect to the ‘complete picture’. The other exhibits are two series of watercolours on parchments. They refer to ancient Chinese texts and resemble torn parchments, as if recovered from archaeological digs. This extends the underlying theme of exhibition space imitating museum. The elephant could belong to the natural history section, while the parchments purport to shed light on ideas and art in the ancient world. Along with the brooding, frozen cavern- it all adds up to a somber experience that underlines death and danger and is cynical about contemporary history in a manner similar to Damien Hirst.

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