Entering the nave of the Grand Palais’s gargantuan 1900 glass-and-steel exposition hall for Huang Yong Ping’s site-specific installation Empires, viewers confronted a clifflike, 56-by-197-foot wall of stacked shipping containers, their squarish, outward-facing ends resembling a multicolored pixel pattern. As Pascal Lamy, former director of the World Trade Organization, notes in the exhibition brochure, shipping containers and the Internet are “the two engines of globalization.”
In the labyrinth beyond, one encountered a total of eight such “mountains” (the figure signifying cosmic totality in Chinese numerology) as well as a traveling crane of the sort used to load and unload containers (305 were in the show), a giant Napoleonic hat set like a skewed lintel on a triumphal arch, and a polished metal, elaborately twining 820-foot skeletal serpent, its countless ribs rhyming with the building’s curved latticework ceiling and its unhinged jaw gaping ambiguously toward both the arch and its own tail. Curated by Palais de Tokyo president Jean de Loisy, the immersive show was the seventh annual entry in France’s appropriately titled “Monumenta” series, previously assayed—with varying degrees of critical success—by Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Christian Boltanski, Anish Kapoor, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, and Daniel Buren.
The 2016 selection committee must have had little doubt about how Huang would deal with the potentially intimidating problem of more than 145,000 square feet of uninterrupted exhibition space, topped by a 75-foot-high domed glass roof and bounded on one side by an enormous Art Nouveau staircase and walkway. The Chinese-born artist began his career in the mid-1980s as a conceptualist who built spinning devices to randomize the act of painting (thus combining Duchampian forms and chance operations worthy of John Cage with ancient Chinese divination techniques); led members of the Xiamen Dada group (slogan: “Zen is Dada; Dada is Zen”) in burning their works after an exhibition; and literalized cultural intermingling with his book-mashing performance/sculpture, The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987).
But from the time Huang participated in the Centre Pompidou’s now legendary 1989 exhibition “Magiciens de la terre”—after which he stayed on in Paris, due to the Tianamen Square Massacre back home—his cerebral approach has often taken spectacular and monumental form. When he represented France at the Venice Biennale in 1999 (the year he became a French citizen), Huang erected huge wooden pillars in and around the pavilion, some going through the roof. His June 11, 2002—The Nightmare of George V (2002) consists of a taxidermied tiger and elephant. “The Bat Project” (2002–05) involved several full-scale replicas of a downed American spy plane—some partial, some whole.
In Empires, Huang clearly suggested that the primary expression of the imperial impulse today is international commerce. At the top of one of the mountainous stacks was a container bearing the logo capital. The triumphal but misaligned hat was of the sort that Napoleon wore at the Battle of Eylau, where the human costs of his victories first began to seem too much for the nation to bear. The snake, a creature associated with evil, seemed ravenous for the militaristic symbols of hat and arch, and for its own nether end, with its prospect of ouroboros-style self-renewal and self-reflection. But, for better or worse, the serpent was already dead, already an outsize memento mori of bones.