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Exiled Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping sets snake onto hat at Paris's Monumenta

Huang Yong Ping in front of Empires at Monumenta at the Grand Palais in Paris Reuters/Jacky Naegelen

Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping has filled Paris's Grand Palais art space with a giant snake and cliffs of shipping containers for the seventh Monumenta installation. Entitled Empires, the work, which has received rave reviews, is being seen as a metaphor for China's economic muscle toppling Western powers but the artist insists it is about history, art and philosophy, too.

A 240-metre-long, 133-tonne aluminium snake skeleton with 316 vertebra and 268 ribs, cast in France, and a giant head, cast in China, twists under the Grand Palais's cast-iron and glass dome, confronting a massive replica of Napoleon's bicorne hat perched on top of an arch made from shipping containers.

A total of 305 containers, from shipping companies around the world and bearing inscriptions in various languages and scripts, are separated into five islands, which the visitor walks between, catching glimpses of the snake.

A view of the snake skeleton in Empires, Monumenta Reuters/Jacky Naegelen

 "Nothing has changed the world more in the last two decades than the internet and shipping containers. They are the motors of global capitalism," Huang told the AFP news agency before the show opened.

And he told the Financial Times that "Maximum power means maximum destruction ... Everyone wants to wear Napoleon's hat."The hat is a five-metre-high reproduction of the one Napoleon wore at the Battle of Eylau, a French victory in 1807 that cost 25,000 lives.

Huang said it was "very important" that people walk in the belly of the snake, symbolising the modern economy, because "we are the nourishment of the snake".

Empires in the vast viewing space of the Grand Palais Reuters/Jacky Naegelen

Previous contributors to Monumenta have included Germany's Anselm Kieffer, the US's Richard Serra, France's Daniel Buren and Britain's Anish Kapoor, and the Financial Times reports that this is rumoured to be the last one.

Huang, 64, lives in France, having left China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

His previous works include a giant metal sea snake on a Brittany beach, a Noah's Ark in a Paris art school and Theatre of the World, a cage full of live scorpions and tarantulas, which were set free in Vancouver following protests by animal rights activists.

Monumenta runs from 8 May to 18 June at the Grand Palais, Paris.