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Walker Art Center



Institution Walker Art Center


The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes
Chinese tea box, paper pulp, glass
T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2001


On December 1, 1987, Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping placed two books into a washing machine
and washed them for two minutes. One book was titled The History of Chinese Art by Wang Bomin
and the other was a Chinese translation of The Concise History of Modern Painting by Herbert Read.
These two tomes were transformed into a pile of unreadable pulp, which the artist dumped onto a
piece of broken glass mounted on an old Chinese tea crate. The original sculpture was accidentally
destroyed a few years later, so he remade it in 1993. The writing on the crate gives the dates and history
of the piece.

For the artist, the decision to put these two specific books in the washing machine is a strategy
for transforming and creating new meanings for both Eastern and Western cultures. Read’s book, like
most Western art history books, categorizes and classifies European and American art into styles,
movements, and “isms” such as Impressionism and Cubism. It follows the tendency for Western historians
and scientists to create a rational order out of facts, events, and philosophies. In contrast, Eastern
philosophies such as Zen or Tao take into account ideas of flux, change, and a balance of rational
and irrational ways of understanding the world. This artwork is not about replacing one tradition with
another; it is about the two overlapping and becoming mixed together after their own structures have
been pulverized.

In this work, Huang uses materials appropriated from sources that resonate with his interest in
both Eastern and Western cultures. His two-minute performance is given up to the chance processes
happening inside the washing machine. The resulting pile of dirty pulp is a metaphor for creation,
destruction, and transformation—strategies he has used repeatedly to question what it means to live
in a global world. When East and West collide, the resulting economic, political, and philosophical
changes make each one more complicated and less pure. Huang describes this as “washing the notion
of culture.”


Born in 1954 in Xiamen, Fujian province in southeastern China, Huang Yong Ping came of age during
the Cultural Revolution,* a time of great social upheaval. By the late 1970s, however, a number of the
tensions had abated and China began to open up to the rest of the world. Censorship was relaxed and
the Chinese art world gained access to information about contemporary Western art. Huang’s artistic
ideas, formed in the 1980s, derived from his study of modern Western philosophers and artists as well
as from ancient Zen and Taoist philosophies. He pondered the strategies he should employ in order to
blend the old culture with the new and ways that he could find both connections and breaks between
his own culture and that of the West.

By the mid-1980s, Huang had become one of the most radical Chinese artists and a spokesman
for an avant-garde group in Xiamen that explored the ideas of the European Dada movement and
other important critical art tendencies. In 1986, this group held its first public exhibition featuring traditional artworks as well as installation pieces combining various everyday objects. After the exhibition
closed, the group decided to burn all the works in a huge bonfire. Huang drafted their statement, pointing
out that the purpose of burning the artwork was to emphasize that art exists as spiritual process,
not in its materialistic products. During the 1980s, he pioneered a new art that shattered conventional
methods in both Chinese art and Western art.

In 1989 Huang took up residence in Paris. Before this move, he had often used Western art ideas
and methods to counter Chinese “official” art and institutions. Since coming to France, he has tended
to use traditional Eastern ideas and practices to undermine European habits of thinking and cultural
stereotypes. For example, at times he has used chance processes such as spinning a roulette wheel
and consulting the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination and philosophy, to determine how
an artwork should be made. By doing so, he attempts to remove rational thought and the originality of
the individual artist from his work. In other installations and actions, he takes on issues of colonialism,
globalization, and political strain between the West and the rest of the world. Some of his works have
been censored for political reasons in both realms.


China has a rich cultural and national history dating back almost 4,000 years. In 1949, the People’s
Republic of China established a communist government under Chairman Mao Zedong. By the 1960s
the government had become conservative and bureaucratic, and some felt the revolutionary fervor
was being lost. Over the next 10 years, the Red Guard, mostly young people who were zealous about
the early teachings of Mao, led the great Cultural Revolution by leading demonstrations, creating
upheaval in the educational and economic systems, and arresting those suspected of being disloyal
to the revolution. Relations with the outside world were virtually severed. Countless ancient buildings,
artifacts, antiques, books, and paintings were destroyed by the Red Guard in order to eradicate old
ways of thinking, and the production of art in China was tightly controlled by the socialist realist regime
during this period.


Have you traveled to or lived in a different country? List both good and difficult aspects of moving
between more than one culture.

What is a hybrid? How is paper pulp like a hybrid? What do you think cultural hybridity means? How does this artwork express it?

Huang used an ordinary household process to create this work. Do you think the resulting piece is art? Why or why not?

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Rights: © 2005 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: June 4, 2010