Huang Yong Ping, Barbican, London until 21 September
Huang Yong Ping's Frolic is a tale about the largest drug traffickers of the 19th century: the British Empire.
Frolic was a New England clipper ship built for the opium trade in Asia. For Huang, however, it isn't only the name of the ship. It is about capitalism and its wars.
Opium was the only commodity that the British Empire could sell to China in its trade war. Throughout the 18th century British merchants were already selling opium in China. The smuggling of the drug relied largely on traffickers and trading agencies as it wasn't legally permitted. From 1781 British importation of opium in large amounts began. The import increased fivefold between 1821 and 1837. China was by then flooded with opium and a large proportion of the population developed addiction to the drug.
But Britain wanted more. It needed to force China to open up so that it could import the drug officially and in larger quantities into China. This was to offset the trade imbalance created by the demand for tea, silk and porcelain imports from China. Hence Britain's two Opium Wars in 1839-42 and 1856-60. All Chinese resistance against the drug trade was suppressed. As China lost the wars, it opened its ports and the Chinese market to the world for the first time and allowed Britain to occupy and colonise Hong Kong until 1997. After the wars Britain profited even more hugely from the drug trade.
The Barbican installation is a sophisticated combination of the conceptual language of contemporary Western art with traditional Chinese aesthetics. It begins with an assortment of giant aluminium opium needles and bowls with Chinese designs used widely in opium dens at the time.
The strongest image is at the central area of the installation. As you walk closer, a life-size statue of Lord Palmerston lies right in front of you. He was a man known by every Chinese person: he served three terms as British foreign secretary and twice as prime minister and is seen as the representative of the Opium Wars. He is the symbol of British imperialism.
The feel-good effect in this installation is in Huang's toppling of Palmerston's statue. It very much resembles the popular images of the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein and other authoritarian leaders conveyed by the media. Here, in front of you, Palmerston rests shamelessly on an opium bed and looks as if he were smoking a large pipe in the middle of a mass of opium balls and storage boxes stamped with the seal of the East India Company.
Huang's work sheds light on the contemporary global political economy and suggests the negative impact of an unchecked free market economy. It is not only refreshing for gallery goers, but very educational for school children. Time to include this part of history in your textbooks!