The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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Huang Yong Ping’s ZIL 135K

A recent article by Michelle McCoy noted that Huang Yong Ping relinquishes authorial control by turning art against itself, “This introduces what is perhaps one of his prime motivations—to create paradox.” Tracking the Bat Project, Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art (2006)

Considering this motivation, Istanbul would be fertile grounds for such work. Huang’s Construction Site touches on the historical city’s paradoxical relationship to Islam. If the history of religion proves anything, it might be that it too has the potential power to turn against itself, though not always with the self-awareness modern art has enjoyed.

The artist’s work in Istanbul is thus broadly site-specific, and imposingly large scale. As part of the Entre-polis exhibition at Antrepo 3, Construction Siteenvisions a cocked, half-cloaked minaret poking out from a veil of sorts. The title suggests an imaginary jobsite where a half-erect tower has yet to find firm footing. In it’s precarious position, the appendage resembles a missile more than a mosque.

A member in the colossal family of obelisks and pillars, minarets project power phallically. Seen here in a state of near realization, the tilted and obscured installation references many things at once. Above all, the semblance of veiled weaponry insinuates religion’s violent and repressive side. But Huang’s “secret weapon” displaces radical Islam’s present-day radioactivity by also referencing Cold War pastiche, calling to mind the images of poised warheads and boxy Soviet missile trucks that drove the paranoid imagination of a previous generation.

For his part, Huang self-effacingly calls upon his position as a tourist. Recalling a trip to the Hagia Sophia, the artist describes his fascination with historical alterations of the fifteen-hundred-year old building. It was the largest domed church for a thousand years before transforming into a mosque in the mid-fifteenth century. In the wall text he writes, “The history of the Hagia Sophia has shown an example of how a site of archi-tecture of one kind of spirituality can be trans-formed to host another one. Certainly, there is not a single spirit-uality which remains unchanged in any given site.”

As the artist sees it, religious institutions are works-in-progress—construction sites. A living metaphor, the physical transformation of the Hagia Sophia undermines the prerogatives of orthodoxy. Belief systems for Huang Yong Ping represent matricies of mutation in their visual vernacular. Like a word with multiple meanings, Huang’s sculpture works in the visual language of ideogram, living out a formal singularity while symbolizing multiple things. Religious structures in this light behold the violent or erotic as stagnant shapes living in a cultural (paradoxical) state of transformation.

A more close-up view of the sculpture reveals that the minaret was constructed in a heavy metal resembling cast iron. Unlike Huang’s impermanent materials used to ensure a deterioration of substance along with significance, this piece seems indestructible. Proving again his subtle political flair when it comes to materials, the sculpture’s heaviness touches on the unconscious burden of asymmetrical war: faith-based conflict is contingent on the durability of customary beliefs and xenophobic angst. The unbreakable minaret realizes modernism’s worst fears.

The lasting importance of religion though, seems wrapped not only in conflict, but its paradoxical allowances—always fermenting what it subdues. Mutability is art’s starting point for Huang Yong Ping. And here he exposes it in the contemporary nature of a sacred thing, which, regardless of history, deceives what it is on the face of it (an evolving sign).

Tourist or not, Huang Yong Ping ‘reads’ architecture. The Hagia Sophia is apprehended as a Dadaist assesses a readymade, and as a philologist surveys a text—as a series of epochal symptoms written on the outside of things, in society’s margins. His sculptural language maintains modern art’s legacy of detective work, exposing moral dilemmas in the slow but astonishing cultural overhaul ‘advancing’ each new age. To his end, Construction Site presents a minaret as a solid form overburdened by its own weight and a fluid symbol ebbing simultaneously towards competing interests.

Huang Yong Ping conflates many of the inter-cultural concerns one would expect at a biennial addressing global war. Standing beneath Huang’s visual obelus, one feels the leaden weight hovering above like a precarious tree felled in a storm. Surely this sensation isn’t so distant to those who actually face war. I have to admit processing global war didn’t happen much for me with the art in the biennial, but imagining being crushed by the minaret seemed about as close as it came. Our chance connection to violence is always there though, isn’t it—as the shared threat defining our age and that defense and war is built upon?

Huang Yong Ping’s connection of war and religion is ultimately a more lighthearted approach to these brooding questions. With Construction Site he touches on the theme of chance that has guided his work in the past, visualizing the element of uncertainty that plagues spiritual growth, and urban growth for that matter. Considering how vulnerability and religion connect in our era, it is worth considering what a critic of religion said over a hundred years ago, dispelling the idea of free will, “our body is but a social structure composed of many souls.”

ZIL 135K

ZIL 135K

ZIL 135K

Hagia Sophia