The Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping has drawn the scorn of humane societies for his use of animals in artworks considered to be cruel and disrespectful to the lives of the creatures involved. No such controversy will arise from Circus; all the animals are dead and stuffed. Notable connections remain, however, such as the ploy of the spectacle as a critique of entertainment and religion. Huang Yong Ping’s work seems to suggest that life is a succession of cages and stages one navigates as best one can.
Yong Ping has filled two floors of the Gladstone gallery with three significant sculptural works. The central piece, which is also the namesake of the exhibition, “Circus” (2012), occupies the gallery’s main space on the ground floor. Here, a dozen or so beasts that have been to the taxidermist stand around a bamboo structure shaped like a dome. There is a boar, a horse, a goat, a baboon, a rat, a lion, a bat, and a fox, to name a few. All of them have been decapitated, their necks terminating in stumps that have been flattened and covered with red material. Yong Ping doesn’t make this appear gruesome; there are no overt signs of violence, but it is still unsettling to behold. Headless animals that stand upright have no place in our popular imagination.
A large wooden hand with movable joints like those of a manikin hangs directly over the center of the bamboo enclosure. Rope looped around the fingers of the hand extends down to a monkey skeleton in a little cape. The monkey skeleton in turn controls its own marionette—a smaller monkey skeleton. Both of these monkey skeletons are situated on a raised structure that suggests a stage though one soon sees that this stage is actually the upturned palm of another hand, this one with its digits removed and scattered about the enclosure. Minus the monkey puppets everything is disembodied or disfigured; nothing remains whole. This scenario seems to present the somewhat sinister suggestion that we are under the authority of what entertains us.
Upstairs, visitors find the heads of the animals on a giant skewer. Titled, “Chefs” (2012), the heads are arranged big to small on a metal rod that protrudes from a gallery corner and tapers to a point, its tip poking a red curtain suspended from the ceiling. Though seemingly a sculpture in its own right, the raw materiality of “Chefs” makes it impossible for the work to be considered apart from “Circus.” Who are the chefs? And what is the relationship between the red curtain and the red stumps of the animals’ bodies? Questions such as these have no obvious answers, but rather set in motion a number of associative possibilities. Perhaps the curtain is part of the stage; perhaps the chefs are also the main course; perhaps they’ve served themselves, and what would that imply for the audience?
The third sculpture, “Camel” (2012), is the only animal to have kept its head. Here, a full-size taxidermied camel kneels on a prayer rug with a knitting needle run through its nose. The animal is facing southeast, presumably in line with Qibla, the direction Muslims face when in prayer. Mixing Eastern and Western religions, Yong Ping has shaved a biblical phrase into the hair on the camel’s left side: “it’s easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” In the context of a circus, one has to wonder if the camel is kneeling as part of an entertaining goof, or if this creature should be regarded in terms of its religious context, as a gesture of devotion. After all, both Jesus and Mohammed rode camels. The press release informs visitors that through these works the artist “meditates on an apocalyptic vision of the world.” Such a grim perspective endows the surreal theatricality of Yong Ping’s work with somber shades of bleakness. This is not a circus for the light of heart; it is one for the fatalists and doomsayers.
(All Images: Huang Yong Ping, Installation View, 2012; Courtesy of the artist & Gladstone Gallery)