The Loire River, the longest in France, empties into the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean near Nantes. There, the second longest sea serpent ever seen, 425 feet, morphs twice daily into a giant beach snake according to the level of the tide. Well, it’s not an entire dragon, but its skeleton leaves little other than skin color and a forked tongue to the imagination.

The aluminum sculpture is the creation of Huang Yong Ping, a compelling avant-garde artist. He was just the sort of original thinker who would make a sculpture that is partially submerged half the time. Ping made a similar reptilian sculpture, nearly twice as long, that he could fit into Paris’s Grand Palais only after snaking it around and over stacked shipping containers.

Ping, born in China, was a key figure in avant-garde art there. He moved to Paris in 1989, and in due time, both countries claimed him as their own. He lived in France until his death in 2019 at age 64. Just as his experience spanned continents, his giant serpents, central symbols in Chinese culture, blend cross-cultural concepts of creation, temptation, wisdom, deception, sexuality, good luck, prosperity, and rebirth. They link East with West as well as sky with water in ways that are open to personal interpretation.

Ping felt that “art could not be detached from real life, but should instead take a stand on everything” and that “it was the ideas rather than the objects that were the real works of art.”* To make this point, he and his fellow avant-gardians once assembled a show and then at the end set it afire. At other times, they would organize a museum exhibit and cancel at the last minute, undermining the curator’s authority on what was exhibited and when. Or consider his 20-ton replica of a British bank in China that later became a Communist government building. It was cast of sand mixed with thin cement and designed to slowly crumble, which it did. Westerners saw it as a critique of capitalism. The Chinese could interpret it as a sign of colonial weakness. A further example of his iconoclastic style was his A Concise History of Modern Art after Two Minutes in the Washing Machine. Ping literally churned two famous textbooks on Chinese art, one by a Chinese expert and the other by a Brit, and displayed the soggy mess on a wooden box.

Fortunately for bone lovers, his French beach serpent, Ressort 2012, is less ephemeral than some of his entirely outlandish works. Ressort in French means spring, in the sense of resilience and energy—aspirational qualities for our times, regardless of the tide.

*The Economist, November 9, 2019


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