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Thursday 14 April 2011

Perspectives On A Charged Political Present: Huang Yong Ping and Wael Shawky, Nottingham Contemporary

Interview by Bethany Rex

Nottingham Contemporary is one of the largest and most ambitious contemporary art spaces in the UK. Designed by Caruso St John architects, the exterior of the building takes its inspiration from the surrounding 19th century buildings of Nottingham, and in particular, from the impressive façades of the Lace Market. This spring, Nottingham Contemporary presents two major exhibitions, by Huang Yong Ping and Wael Shawky. Both give perspectives on a charged political present - from Chinese and Egyptian viewpoints. We interviewed Jim Waters, Head of Exhibitions at the Centre.

First of all, Nottingham Contemporary only opened in 2009 and yet I feel as though it’s always been there. With regard to what you’ve achieved in this time – what’s been the highlight for you?
I think the highlight has been the response from the public to the exhibitions, we feel we have quickly become an important part of the cultural fabric of the city. It was really pleasing to exceed our first year visitor target by over 45%.

One of my favourite things about the gallery is the vibrant atmosphere of the exhibition space. Whilst the work on display is contemporary and current, there’s a refreshing demographic coming through the doors. How does this fit into the overall ethos of Nottingham Contemporary? Are you particularly seeking to engage with new audiences?
I think it also helps having the large windows onto the street, this really helps encourage people through the door, it breaks down the usual barriers. One of our central aims is to bring contemporary international art to a new audience, so it is important that our audience is so varied, and includes a large family audience too – we do work hard to provide things for families to do in the spaces.

Moving on to the Huang Yong Ping and Wael Shawky show how was the idea for this exhibition born? What was the catalyst?
We have been planning the exhibition for more than a year now, and felt that this would be a great pairing of artists, given the issues they both address in their work. For the first time the artists will share one of the gallery spaces – Construction Site by Huang Yong Ping and Al Aqsa Park have a really interesting relationship which will create a very powerful presence in Gallery 3.

With the current political uprisings in the Middle East and the ongoing political unrest in China, particularly considering Ai WeiWei’s recent detention, were there any particular concerns that you noticed amongst the artists?
The timing of the exhibition in relation to Wael Shawky’s work and the recent popular uprisings in the Middle East has been particularly pertinent. Telematch Sadat by Shawky re-enacts the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the event which brought Mubarak to power, who has of course now been ousted from power himself. For Shawky living in Alexandria it has been a first hand experience of the revolution, taking part in demonstrations and protests - we are very grateful that despite this he has still been able to work with us on the exhibition, his work seems more timely and urgent than ever. Although there is no direct relationship between the situation of Ai Wei Wei and Huang Yong Ping’s work, one of the pieces in the show has been the subject of political censorship – involving China, France and the USA authorities – the story plays out in the fuselage of Bat Project IV.

This exhibition will see Huang Yong Ping’s piece Bat Project IV (2004-5) – the actual fuselage of a US EP-3 spy plane hung with bats- shown for the first time in Europe. What should audiences expect of the project?
As with Huang’s other works the scale of the piece is big, the spy plane cockpit came from a Californian plane graveyard – and was cut into pieces before being reassembled in the galleries. The structure forms a mini museum inside the gallery, tracing the story of the mid-air collision in 2001 between a US spy plane and Chinese fighter jet and Huang Yong Ping’s subsequent attempts to create a major artwork around the diplomatic wranglings. Banned from display twice, the work was finally realised as part of his major retrospective at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis – which also toured to China.

Could you talk us through some of the key pieces in the show?
Cabaret Crusades by Shawky is a beautiful but troubling film which re-enacts the events of the first Crusade (1096 -1099) from the writings of Arab historians, using 200 year old Italian marionettes to tell the story. It is a powerful and provocative piece. The gallery shared between both artists will also be a striking part of the show, two monumental works together in one space. Huang’s Marche de Punya is also a key work in the show, filling one of the larger gallery spaces an elephant lies prostrate in front of a Chinese market stall selling Buddhist offerings – a comment on market forces in China and the true values of religious belief.

What’s coming up this year at Nottingham Contemporary?
It will be a busy year, with the Jean Genet group show following this exhibition, exploring both the early and later political writings of the hugely influential French writer Jean Genet. The artists include Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Alberto Giacometti, Lili Reynaud Dewar, Latifah Echakhch, Otolith Group, Mona Hatoum amongst others, touching on Genet’s early plays and relationships with the Black Panthers and Palestine. Later in the year we will be working with German artist Klaus Weber on a solo show and related group show which he has curated from collections including the Tate, Ashomolean and the Science Museum. New works will include a giant pair of windscreen wipers on our largest window and a character running in perpetual motion from the roof.

Huang Yong Ping and Wael Shawky opens tomorrow (15 April) and continues until 26 June. For further information please visit the Nottingham Contemporary website. While you're there, why not pick up Issue 40 of Aesthetica?

Image: Huang Yong Ping, Marché de Punya, 2007. Photo courtesy of the artist and Galleria Massimo de Carlo, Milano

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