As regimes rise and fall in the age-old battle for domination, the world teeters on the edge of a black hole. ‘There is always hope,’ says Huang Yong Ping at the opening of 'Empires', his bespectacled eyes crinkling at the edges in a smile. ‘To get to optimism you have to understand pessimism.’ For this year's Monumenta, the Chinese-born artist and godfather of contemporary art in China fills the nave of Paris’ Grand Palais with a colossal landscape of global supremacy.
‘Art "in-situ" takes on new meaning here,’ says show curator Jean de Loisy. ‘Everything is connected to location.’ For Huang, ‘it’s important to consider the history of the space beyond the space’. Set on the axis of power, the Grand Palais lies between Les Invalides and the Élysée Palace, with an oversized bitumen replica of Napoleon’s bicorne hat turned to École Militaire like a compass of power.
A cliff-face of containers, symbolising the worldwide trade revolution, greets the viewer like an unyielding wall of power. Eight islets of containers dot the 13,500 sq m space like skyscrapers, reaching up to the roof. The space becomes a self-contained world, hungry for the authority that’s tethered to the French flag pinned above.
A 254m-long metal snake skeleton weaves its way around the containers like a rollercoaster, mimicking the flowing curves of the interior and the ascent and descent of civilisations. Shadows of the serpent and of the nave’s ribbed waves, intertwined in a game of snakes and ladders, are thrown across the concrete floors.
The snake’s head swerves back, its jaw locked open in a snarl at Napoleon’s hat that sits precariously on the arch of power, of triumph. ‘Napoleon’s hat [read: seat] is empty. Everyone wants to fill it,’ says Huang Yong Ping. ‘But power is a fine balance.’