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Huang Yong Ping ‘occupies’ Grand Palais with 250m-long snake for Monumenta commission

New work unveiled on the weekend also features the oversized bicorne hat of Napoleon Bonaparte

The French-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping describes his vast Monumenta installation, Empires, as being “an occupation” of the Grand Palais and a “metaphor” for the rise and fall of political power.  

Greeting visitors at the entrance is a towering installation of shipping crates. Turning to the left, part of the skeleton of a snake can be glimpsed rising over the top of the containers. The crates of China Shipping stand in opposition to those of the French shipping company CMA CGM. The mass of 305 containers, reminiscent of a port, leads to an arch formed of the black bicorne hat of Napoleon Bonaparte. After walking underneath this tarmac hat, one faces the eye of the snake, staring menacingly at the bicorne whilst encircling itself around its own tail. At the end of the installation, one walks inside the belly of the snake, representing consumption and the modern economy.

The exhibition draws a link between the industrial revolution, when the prestigious Grand Palais was constructed for the world fair in 1900, and today's “second revolution of globalisation”, according to the curator Jean de Loisy.

“As the architecture is a masterpiece from the industrial age and built mostly from iron, I used the same material for the ribs of the snake,” Ping says. “The installation is an enigma about what the next empire will be. When we see a skeleton, we think about death but for me, it's a way of talking about renaissance. In China, we eat snakes and, after eating the flesh, the only thing that remains is the skeleton.”

Ping has certainly pushed the meaning of Monumenta. The snake is 254m long, weighs 133 tons, has 316 vertebrae and 568 ribs.

The terrifying image of the snake follows on from Ping's permanent work Serpent d'Océan (Sea Snake), installed on a Brittany beach that resembles a gigantic sea monster.

Born in 1954, Ping relocated to Paris after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He is the seventh artist to be invited to create a site-specific installation for the Monumenta exhibition at the Grand Palais following, among others, Anselm Kiefer, Anish Kapoor and Daniel Buren.

• Huang Yong Ping: Empires, Monumenta 2016, Grand Palais, Paris, until 18 June