Walker Art Center: A Chinese Homecoming


"Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank" No.4
Courtesy of the Walker Art Center
“Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank” No.4

by Doryun Chong

In the dawn of the Walker blogs, I had the privilege of writing the first post on the Visual Arts site. Some of you, our faithful readers, may remember my little adventure in the Mojave Desert in search of a used airplane part. You may also remember the very slow march of the elephant sculpture down the Hennepin Avenue through the Walker’s main entrance, down the sloping Hennepin Lounge, then up the stairs into Gallery 4. Both of these rather unusual manoeuvres were accomplished in preparation for the 2005 exhibition House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective, which the Walker chief curator/deputy director Philippe Vergne and I organized. In the last two years since the end of its run in January 2006, I’ve been often approached by our local audiences, who told me that it was one of their favorite exhibitions at the Walker (despite the fact that they knew nothing about the Chinese-born, Paris-based artist).

You may be surprised to learn that the exhibition is still on view. The airplane cockpit, the elephant, and other works have traveled to three subsequent venues, rather slowly but surefootedly, across the North American continent then crossed the Pacific Ocean: first, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams, then the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC, and finally the spanking new Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, opening on March 22, 2008. Yes, that’s right–Beijing, China. Founded by Guy & Miriam Ullens, dedicated Belgian collectors of Chinese contemporary art who long dreamed of bringing their collection to the country of its origin, the Center is an ambitious institution that strives to bring international art to the heart of the emerging superpower and also to give in-depth treatment to the important contribution Chinese artists have made to global art in the last three decades or so. The center opened its doors in last November, and House of Oracles is only the second exhibition. The magnificent exhibition space was remodeled from a former ceramics factory in an East German-built industrial complex known as 798, now also known as the Dashanzi Art District.

My first visit to 798 was a little more than two years ago, in November 2005. The district had been in existence for a couple of years by then, and the future Ullens Center was a cavernous, evacuated space, with a soaring (I’m guessing, about 50-60 feet-high) ceiling and a now defunct industrial kiln/chimney. The on-site engineer explained to me how the space will be remodeled–a big exhibition hall here, a smaller gallery there, the office up there, etc.–which I, while nodding politely and sympathetically, could not really visualize. Many things had happened between the 2005 visit and when I attended the opening of the Center in November 2007. Certain things were still the same, or more and more of the same–for instance, the acrid yet strangely fragrant, hallucinogenic smell of burning coals and leaded gas that hover over the sprawling metropolis. And the proud capital city of People’s Republic of China keeps on expanding in a clearly measurable way but with a mind-blowing velocity. Beijing is one of the most centralized and organized cities I know of (I realize that that sounds totally paradoxical), with the Forbidden City and the Tian’anmen Square at the dead center and concentric circles of “ring roads” rippling out into yesterday’s suburbs and surrounding villages and quickly turning them into today’s peripheral hubs. In late 2005, the area around 798, which is located on the northeastern corner of the city between the Fourth and the Fifth ring roads, still felt a bit sparse. In late 2007, it was as busy as any other business districts far closer to the city center. Trying to recall what things were like a month ago in China these days is a completely futile exercise. I digress.

Late night on March 17, I arrived again in Beijing after a 15-hour-long flight from Minneapolis via Tokyo. The next morning, I walked from my hotel to the Ullens Center. All looked very familiar since I had been there only four months prior. Except that a giant sand storm engulfed the city–something that happens in the Northern part of China as winter changes into spring. Brutal. At the Center, the installation of “House of Oracles” had been going on for almost two weeks, with the artist and two of our veteran exhibition technicians, Phil Docken and Bob Brown. I have to admit that I was a little worried when I first saw the Ullens’ spectacular main gallery, which had been left more or less intact from the original structure, because a lot of space with a high ceiling isn’t necessarily a good thing for showing art. That is, even when art is the size of an airplane. It was rather ironic that even Huang’s “Bat Project 4”–the sculpture that actually incorporates the used airplane cockpit we found in Northern California–seemed dwarfed by the hangar-like space. Yes, their gallery is that big. Nonetheless, Huang is a master at dealing with spaces (as anyone who saw the exhibition at the Walker or at any other subsequent venues would know). He designed a couple of enclosed rooms inside the mammoth hall, and I was immediately struck by the incredible sightlines he was ingeniously creating with various combinations of works in the exhibition.

Thus I was reminded of how fortunate and privileged I was to be part of the incredible journey of this project. I got to see the enormous “Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank”–a scaled replica of the 1920s’ colonial Beaux Arts-style building in Shanghai made out of a mixture of sand and cement–going up four times, and slowly crumbling each time, as a regenerative metaphor of the enduring legacy of colonialism. In Beijing, thanks to the ample space we had, we were finally able to erect this 20-ton work completely in the round (in the three previous versions, the backside had to be against an existing wall of the building). I got to see “Python,” a more than 50 feet-long wood skeleton of a cosmic serpent, rising and falling, dancing up and down in four different spaces. And I got to see four reincarnations of “Theater of the World,” a gladiatorial arena filled with insects and reptiles left to their own devices that sparked at-times heated exchanges between our blog readers (the piece was shut down by the British Columbia SPCA on the day of the exhibition’s opening in Vancouver).

The opening of this Beijing presentation, I can say, was a truly historic occasion, because this was not only the first Walker-organized exhibition to go to China (in fact, Asia), but also the first full-scale retrospective exhibition of a Chinese artist to take place in China. Thanks to the incredible commitment on the part of the Ullens, the comprehensive monograph the Walker published to accompany the exhibition was translated in full into Chinese–another first for us. I don’t want to sound too self-congratulatory here, but this exhibition and tour has been a truly special event of which Philippe and I couldn’t be more proud.

At the same time, I feel a little bit sad. Perhaps it’s only natural. Having witnessed the exhibition’s evolution over more than four years, I was seeing its final arrival in perhaps where it all started and where it always meant to come back to. And I was able to this in the company of a remarkable artist–the most generous and wise soul I know of. (Most Chinese audiences who came to the exhibition’s opening called him “Huang Laoshi,” i.e., “Master Huang.”) But you can’t have too much of a good thing. All good things must come to an end. So I bid you farewell, Master Huang.

À bientôt.
Zai jian!

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