Thursday, July 17, 2008

A frolic at the Barbican

by Andy Brooks

IN THE 19th century British imperialism used its might to force feudal China to import opium from the India to offset the cost of imports of Chinese silk, tea and porcelain. China’s defeat also led to other humiliating concessions to Britain including the surrender of Hong Kong. This shameful episode is largely forgotten in Britain but not in China and it’s the theme of a vast piece of concept art now showing at the Barbican Centre in London.
Huang Yong Ping is an avant-garde artist who has lived in Paris for over 20 years but his heart in still in China and this new “installation” seeks to convey the meaning of this Victorian drug trade through a series of sculptures that propels the viewer into a 3D abstract painting. It starts with giant pipe cleaners and bowls that lead on to a toppled statue of Lord Palmerston, the architect of the Opium Wars, on an opium bed smoking from a colossal pipe. At the back Huang has recreated an East India Company warehouse packed with crates of drugs and shelves stacked with piles of opium balls.
“I consider the opium trade as a forerunner for today’s globalization: melting trade and the expansion of power. Sublimating the mind, while the body declines. Unveiling the violence and hiding the frolic,” Huang says about this controversial work he’s called Frolic after one of the American clippers custom-built to transport opium to China.
Huang Yong Ping was born in the port of Xiamen in 1954 and he was one of the founding figures of Xiamen Dada, one of China’s most radical avant-garde collectives in the 1980s. Though he is well-known on the international art scene this is his first solo exhibition in Britain which is part of China Now, the largest ever festival of Chinese culture in Britain.

Admission’s free at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, Silk Street London EC2 from 11.00 am to 8.00 pm until 21st September.
photo: Huang Yong Ping with one of his works

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