Grieving Yong Ping
Yong Ping, we ran all over the world to hold exhibitions, and now in Paris for your last journey
Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris, October 29th, 2019. Photo by Xu Bing
It was only after the Buddha of Bamiyan was destroyed that people realized the importance of art. We were forced to re-contemplate the distance between art and human realities and recognized the significance of such distance. It was only after Yong Ping was gone that the art circle realized a big loss to the art world. People started to know him again only to find out how little we know about him.
Yong Ping and I met at various exhibitions all over the world. But when I try to describe him and his art in more details, I seem to unable to grasp anything, always blocked by his unique kind of smile that cannot be described with existing vocabulary.
This photo captures the most of him. (source: art.ifeng.com)
Back in 1994, when Yong Ping and Chen Zhen came to New York to prepare their exhibition at the New Museum, they lived in my basement-apartment in East Village which I took over from Ai Weiwei. The fact that the “honor” of having an exhibition in a mainstream museum in New York was first given to our Chinese fellows in Paris made the New York folks a little bit upset. We anticipated to see what they could do. It turned out that Yong Ping transformed the space we were familiar with into an automatic car wash; what was washed clean were in fact the audience. I didn’t know whether he had learned driving by then, but I already learned. For the first time, I was struck by his “undisciplined” art thinking.
In 1998, Zheng Shengtian organized an exhibition for Yong Ping and me at the Art Beatus Gallery in Vancouver. I showed my Square Word Calligraphy Classroom while he presented Terminal. He made a model structured after the Amsterdam airport and put insects and small animals inside – an early version of World Theater which was recently shown at the Guggenheim Museum.
Huang Yong Ping, Terminal, 1998. Installation view at the Art Beatus Gallery, Vancouver, 1998.
From left to right: Yu Xiaohui, Huang Yong Ping, Xu Bing, Huang Chen, Geng Jianyi. Vancouver, 1998. (Source: Sen Wong)
He had strict requirement on the quantity of scorpions, crickets, and small snakes respectively as he had done careful research on the different species. The next morning, he rushed to the gallery to check on the “arena” like a scientist running to get lab results. I found that he always took thing seriously and even looked “cute” at work. There is an anecdote about him among the art circle in Japan: one time, he was preparing an installation titled Emergency Ladder, a ladder of knives; after the work was installed, the night before the opening, the museum owner heard something in the gallery and it turned out that Huang Yong Ping was sharpening the knives by himself!
Huang Yong Ping, Emergency Ladder, 1992. Installation view at “Rebel Without a Cause,” Watari-um Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 2018. Photo: Noriaki Imai (source: tokyoartbeat.com)
After the Vancouver exhibition opened, we went to the airport the following day to head to each of our next exhibition venues. I cannot stand spending time waiting at the airport, so I always get to the airport last minute and sometimes miss the flight. While we were discussing when to leave for the airport, I was struck by him again. He insisted following the rules and arriving three hours before the departure time. I said, “no need!” He replied, “I always do this. My foreign languages aren’t good either. What if something went wrong?” This is the most memorable sentence I remembered of his. A skinny Chinese man carrying luggage or materials traveling around the world – the difficulties he must have gone through. That day, maybe he would pass by the Amsterdam airport again, arriving or connecting flights, to go somewhere else for another marvelous project.
From left to right: Sun Yuan, Huang Yong Ping, Alexandra Munroe, Peng Yu, Xu Bing. Bilbao, 2018. (Source: Sun Yuan and Peng Yu)
Yong Ping lives a simple and low-key life. In life, he was more disciplined and serious than I would imagine. But in art, he was such an unrestrained character, stretching our thinking to both poles. His work and his attitude towards art always push one’s thinking into a corner where there’s no reference or solution. One must somehow adjust their old ways of thinking to enter his work. He is a prophet of times, a magician of thoughts.
Not long ago at the reopened MoMA, Yong Ping’s work and mine were put together again. They were so close that it was impossible to take photos of them separately. It seems to be some sort of destined arrangement, a dialogue, a remembrance of Yong Ping.
October 29th, 2019
Front: Huang Yong Ping, Palanquin, 1997. Back: Xu Bing, Series of Repetition, 1987-88. Installation view at the MoMA, New York, 2019.