“The work of an artist is to go beyond the standard thinking, to go beyond common human comprehension,” says Huang in Chinese, speaking through a translator during an interview in Paris. “So naturally there will always be people who aren’t able to understand.”
Grand pronouncements like that stand in stark contrast to Huang’s self-effacing personal manner. With his slight frame, thick glasses, oversize denim shirt and soft voice (occasionally punctuated by a high-pitched guffaw), the artist comes across as humility itself. But his uncompromising intellect is evident in his work, which deconstructs the Eastern and Western cultural canons while advancing a wholly modern and rather pessimistic worldview.
To judge by his latest installation—which opens in late October at Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, along with a show at Galerie Kamel Mennour—Huang’s outlook isn’t getting any cheerier. Set in the art school’s stunningly atmospheric 17th-century chapel, a repository for copies of Renaissance artworks, the sculpture presents an apocalyptic take on Noah’s ark, with a 50-foot paper boat full of burned animals. Huang got the idea in 2008 during a visit to Paris’s famed taxidermy shop Deyrolle, just after the notorious fire that destroyed most of its stock. Seeing the charred ostriches, lions and elk, Huang recalls, he immediately thought of the Old Testament fable: “It was as if the animals had survived the flood but not the fire afterwards.” He bought a few of the animals from Deyrolle and went on to acquire or construct dozens more: tigers, turtles, birds, elephants.
The piece, titled Arche 2009 (it contains no sign of Noah or his family), can be seen as a commentary on the various cataclysms now threatening the world and on man’s role in them. “In the Bible, Noah’s ark is protected by God,” Huang says. “It is safe, and even the lions are well behaved. In my boat the animals are burned, and they are fighting each other.” He doesn’t specify what might have caused the fire. “I don’t want to know, exactly,” says Huang. “In any case, the fire comes from within, not from the outside.” Violence and savagery, he adds, are innate characteristics of living beings and lie at the root of society’s problems: “The current economic crisis is a reflection of human qualities. It’s a result of the mad, depraved side of human beings.”
Huang grew up in the coastal city of Xiamen and in the late Seventies went to art school, where he learned to paint in the officially sanctioned style, akin to Soviet realism. After Mao died and censorship policies eased, Huang played cultural catch-up, devouring works by Westerners from Duchamp to Foucault, and in the mid-Eighties he cofounded Xiamen Dada, an avant-garde collective that took inspiration from conceptualists such as John Cage and Joseph Beuys. One of Huang’s works from that period, Four Paintings Created According to Random Instructions (1985), used a roulette wheel to determine the colors and shapes of the images on the canvases. At the time, he says, “I was asking if there was any originality in the act of creating. I wanted to show that you could use chance to replace the role of the person.”