Huang Ran’s darkly humorous work appears in a variety of media, from painting and photography to installation and video. The themes that permeate it, however, are common to all: the influence of others, brainwashing, and the power of humans to manipulate one another.
Born in Xichang, Sichuan province, in 1982, Huang moved to the UK in 2002 and graduated from Goldsmiths in London five years later. ‘I was a blank piece of paper,’ he explains, ‘but a lot of things I experienced or learned abroad are part of me now.’
It is this concept of absorbing knowledge from other people and their experiences that excites him. ‘We all steal experiences, ideas and history from each other,’ he says. ‘It’s how we build up who we are.’ As Huang sees it, this process is more sinister than innocent. In his view, no one can fully understand history unless they have lived through it; and that history is later distorted as other people’s versions of it manipulate one’s memories.
Huang Ran, A (Timid) Self-Portrait, 2014, courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery
This is illustrated in Huang’s 30-minute film, The Administration of Glory, which was nominated for the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2014, and follows different kinds of interlinked stealing: an office worker steals an ancient sword; masked men steal the office worker’s car; a diner steals his neighbour’s wine; and a scientist tells of his lifelong work brainwashing a child.
The film was shown at Huang’s solo show at Simon Lee Gallery in London last year, along with a revolving billboard that read: ‘They believe this is history because… they believe this is history because…’ – another attempt to question how history is told and how reliable it is.
At first glance, Huang’s paintings look like light-hearted jokes, poking fun at people who have spent their lives trying to achieve mundane feats. He depicts a man shovelling hot dogs into his face as The most hot dogs eaten; then there’s The biggest ball of paint, The biggest biceps, The stupidest name. These record-breaking stunts would be of little importance, but by elevating them in works of art Huang is manipulating their status in history.
The stunt paintings are adaptations of works by German artist Martin Kippenberger. Some are almost identical to Kippenberger’s originals, except for small additions. Huang, to some extent, is now manipulating how Kippenberger will be regarded in history by both stealing from and giving to him.