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PARIS — Scattered throughout the cavernous nave of the Grand Palais are mountains of shipping containers. Green, blue, and brown, corporate logos and serial numbers stamped on their sides, they reach up to the resplendent glass ceiling of the Palais, like mounds of oversized Legos.
Snaking through this landscape is a giant sea serpent, its chrome ribs playing off the painted steel tendrils of the columns and vaults of the Palais’s Beaux-Arts interior. In the center of the nave, a gantry crane hoists the monster into the air above a huge bicorne hat, modeled off the one Napoleon Bonaparte wears in Antoine Jean Gros’s painting “Napoléon I on the Battlefield of Eylau” (1808).
Built for the Exposition Universelle in 1900, the site is today home to Paris Monumenta, the initially annual — now biannual — exhibition series that gives a contemporary artist carte blanche to create a large-scale installation in the Grand Palais. Started in 2007, Monumenta’s alumni list is short, although not on art world celebrity — Anselm Kiefer (2007), Richard Serra (2008), Christian Boltanski (2010), Anish Kapoor (2011), Daniel Buren (2012), Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2014) are all previous contributors. This year Chinese-born, Paris-based artist Huang Yong Ping joins the distinguished list with Empires, an installation whose monumental scale is in step with both his predecessors and the direction that his work has taken since the late 1980s.
Born in the south China port city of Xiamen in 1954, Huang was a leading figure in China’s vanguard art movement of the 1980s. In 1989, he came to Paris to participate in the Centre Pompidou’s groundbreaking exhibition Magiciens de la Terre, and elected to stay after the opening happened to coincide with the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Huang has since devoted himself to creating large-scale and ever more elegantly crafted installations. His largest to date explores different historical iterations of empire, the confrontation between East and West, and the continued relevance of mythology and modernism. These themes are played out through the three elements of the exhibition: the shipping containers and crane, the bicorne hat, and the sea serpent.
The shipping containers and crane are the literal implements of global capitalism. Undeniably modern, their arrangement nonetheless is meant to evoke the mountains and valleys of the landscapes found in traditional Chinese painting. The configuration also echoes an ancient Chinese creation myth, which held that the sky was domed and supported by eight giant mountains — like the Grand Palais’s glass ceiling and the eight mounds of containers — erected by the goddess Nüwa (the exhibition literature even refers to the gantry crane as a “goddess”). By rearranging the signs of globalized industry into figures of Chinese tradition, Huang supplants cultural and geographic specificity with the homogeneity of industrial materials; shipping containers replace mountains and cranes replace gods.
Napoleon’s oversized bicorne hat shows a different side of Huang’s work, one inspired by the nihilistic humor of Dada that influenced him as a young art student in China. Enlarged to nearly 50 times the size of the original, the bicorne in Empires looks like a work by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, exploiting the same absurdist spirit that pervades many of the duo’s sculptures. Perched between two columns of shipping containers, visitors who walk under to “wear” the hat are dwarfed by its elephantine dimensions. It is a sight that makes for an apt visual metaphor of the Napoleon complex — that theoretical condition in which inflated egos and overly aggressive social behavior compensate for small stature. By surrounding it with shipping containers, Huang draws a connection between the militaristic and colonial notion of empire that Napoleon represents and the economic policies of today’s corporate enterprises.
But beware — “it’s a trap!” — exclaims the artist gleefully in a behind-the-scenes video. Is Huang implying that the hat is boobie-trapped to fall and capture or crush anyone standing underneath it? Or might he be referring to the gaping jaws of the sea serpent, lurking just a couple hundred feet away? Either way, his warning is a reminder that this sort of covetous power is perilous.
A recurring figure in Huang’s work, the sea serpent is almost always imbricated with multiple layers of meaning that the artist draws from literary sources. In Empires, it suggests both the dragon in Chinese mythology and the Leviathan described in the Old Testament. In Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas equates the creature with envy. Later, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes went on to envision the Leviathan as a metaphor of the absolute sovereign, whose rule, though brutal, is a necessary measure for maintaining the integrity of the social contract. These possible associations allow us to read the sea serpent as a surrogate for the multinational corporation that seeks to exploit untapped markets and exert sustained influence abroad, like the empires of old. In the era of global capitalism, multinationals have arguably sublimated the drives of imperial conquest into economic pursuits that have the appearance of operating under the signs of “development” or “market expansion,” but are similarly linked to a lust for acquisition and domination.
Paradoxically, the shipping containers and gantry crane in Empires were donated by CMA-CGM, a French company and the world’s third-largest container transporter. CMA-CGM’s direct implication in the installation calls the critical dimensions of the artwork into question. When I interrogated him about this, Jean de Loisy, president of the Palais Tokyo contemporary art museum and curator of Empires, insisted that Huang “is interested in the mechanisms of globalization and their implications — he sees the subject as fertile territory for exploration, but he does not take a position for or against it.” Perhaps this is more of that Dadaist irony at play. If so, it continues into Monumenta’s pop-up gift shop — where visitors can buy reproductions of Napoleon’s hat — and to the café — where Coca-Cola, Perrier, and the Chinese beer Tsingtao are available for purchase. As food items, these beverages are imbued with a particular irony by the oft-veiled war that multinationals wage for dominance over various markets. As Huang puts it: “It’s a food chain: they eat each other.”