Bat Makes Cross-Pacific Journey

Just when you thought contemporary art could get no more puzzling, Huang Yong Ping brings us westerners even more reason to say: “Now I really don’t get it.”

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At the Nottingham Contemporary Gallery, until 26 June, Huang is displaying a handful of works focused on globalisation. As if conceptual art wasn’t difficult enough, he binds together Western modernism with Eastern philosophy and symbolism. The gallery guide states, “his sculptures act as allegories, combining topical with tradition, political with mythology. Examinations of cultures colliding.” This all seems a bit dated, but I suppose if I were pinned behind the wall of communism, then parachuted into Paris, I’d immediately be interested in The Other as well.

The trouble with this process is, using allegories entails the audience knowing the story in the first place; otherwise, the allegory goes wanting. It would be like the Liverpool comedian John Bishop telling the first half of a joke in Greek, then using Mandarin to reveal the punch line.  It’s difficult enough just understanding the man in English!

"Bat Project"

Huang’s “Bat Project” for example, is a remake of a full-scale section of a downed-plane’s fuselage, with stuffed bats hanging upside down from the ceiling of the plane’s skeleton.

The allegory goes like this: the symbol of the bat holds two different meanings: in the east, bats are good luck, while in the west bats are creatures of darkness, a symbol to be feared.

Did you know that? Yeah, me neither. Unfortunately, very few are going to pick up that “cultures colliding” business, unless told by an exhibition guide.

Furthermore, the good luck/bad luck contrast is only a fraction of the story. Art requires the omnipotent third person to follow it, and us, around. If art were smart, it would find a way to eliminate the middle men (like gallery guides) and talk directly to us. In the meantime, the galleries might be compelled to bridge that gap of misunderstanding.

The specifics of “Bat Project” refer to an incident in 2001 where a US Spy plane “bumped” into a Chinese fighter, downing both structures. The plane was called The Bat, providing the hanging bats with an obvious tongue-in-cheek nod to…what exactly? See? I’ve hit the fortified bunker of conceptual art. I can’t get through without a gallery’s insight.

Googling Huang further uncovered an article written by Philippe Vergne of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, on Huang specifically, and cross-culture aesthetics generally. Seven cups of heavy South American coffee later, and a good deal of dictionary help, I took “Bat Project” to be a symbol of change: in this case, from one power structure (America) to the emergence of another (China). To some extent, Huang is a product of his native culture – an escapee from the myopia of communism, into the cluttered world of post-Pop Culture. Out of the frying pan, and into the fire one might argue. (Huang left China for Paris in 1989.)

Vergne’s 7777-word scholarly “article” provided me with an overarching resolution: Huang is a better philosopher than a visual communicator. Without the help of a third person, like a battery of gallery guides, scores of scholarly essays, and just plain old Google, we’re doomed to misfire into reinforced bunkers.

It might be that art continues to move in a direction whereby, eventually, there will be no object to gather ’round and talk about. We won’t have galleries, museums, sculpture, image, film, painting, and the only objects involved will be iPads and laptops. And, of course, coffee. The coffee never goes away.

Inspiration brought to you by Contemporary Monkey.