Invited to Paris in 1989 for “Magicians of the Earth,” a landmark international exhibit at the Centre Pompidou, Huang decided to stay, since the show coincided with the crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Curator Jean de Loisy, then at the Fondation Cartier, which provided housing and studio space for Huang during his first months in France, recalls meeting “a philosopher—a little man with incredible courage and a stupefying degree of culture.” De Loisy (who worked with Huang on Arche 2009) also saw signs of the acute political consciousness that continues to mark Huang’s work. “Bat Project” (2001–05), a series of life-size fuselage sculptures inspired by the U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese aircraft, sparked its own international incident when French, Chinese and American officials, eager to see the episode forgotten, managed to get it withdrawn from two separate exhibits.
By 2005 Huang had represented France at the Venice Biennale and scored a major retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Although he doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the contemporary art world, he calls the recent Chinese bubble “dangerous for art.” He adds, “You have to distinguish the value of a work of art from its price—it’s not the same thing.” Still, producing artworks does take money, particularly in Huang’s case. Mennour, who financed the ark and had the idea to install it in the Beaux-Arts chapel, estimates the exhibit will cost roughly $500,000, a huge chunk of his gallery’s budget. (The piece will be for sale, and Mennour jokes that Pinault would be welcome to buy it.)
Money is just one of many worldly considerations from which Huang prefers to shield himself. He has lived in Paris for two decades but barely speaks French, and he hasn’t seen a movie in almost 10 years. “Music, film and those kinds of things don’t really interest me,” he says, “at least not in theaters. All noises can be music, and daily life is a bit like cinema.”
Huang’s home in the suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine, which he shares with his wife, artist Shen Yuan, and their 14-year-old daughter, is pristine and sparsely furnished, with no art except a piece by the utopian architect Yona Friedman. There are three pets, however: a dog, cat and hamster. How do the animals get along? “Not well,” says Huang with a slight smile. “The dog doesn’t like the cat, and the cat doesn’t like the hamster. They all don’t like each other.” In fact, a few weeks after our interview, Huang decides to give the dog away. Further proof, perhaps, of his conviction that harmony is an elusive prospect for all beings. That includes people who make art. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in China or in Europe,” Huang says. “For artists, there is no paradise anywhere.”