Tracing back the history of Chinese contemporary art, the name Huang Rui is impossible get around. Huang Rui’s personal journey and artistic experience are landmark cases in Chinese contemporary art, which merit great attention. I have always held that the core of art is the artist’s personal expression and thus what we seen in the annals of history are the personal recollections and confirmations of individual artists. Tracing back to the individual invariably puts us in direct contact with the meaning of life expressed through art. And it is especially true in terms of contemporary China, whose ancient agricultural society has been fundamentally transformed by industrial civilization from the West, thus has the central drama of civilizational clash and national modernization played out for more than a hundred years. Beneath this backdrop of unprecedented change, recognition of the typicality in the individual cannot but make us more concretely aware of the environment around us. This is also how art provides historical expression, by using the individual to demonstrate the zeitgeist of an era.
China has undergone a hundred years of civilizational evolution. The shape and form of contemporary society already have already diverged from that of its modern period. It’s not that the questions we face are fundamentally different, but the way in which we treat these problems and the viewpoint from which we do has undergone a fundamental change, turning from the closed-off, autocratic, self-centeredness of the past towards a globalized point of view. In the art and life experience of Huang Rui we can see concrete proof of this epochal change.
Without question Huang Rui first became known back in September 1979 at the Stars Art Exhibition held in the flower garden outside the Beijing Fine Arts Museum. This event marks the beginning phase of contemporary art in China. Huang Rui was the sponsor of the Stars Art Exhibition; the nomenclature of ‘Stars’ was his idea. Before the Exhibition, he worked in a leather goods factory. At that point in the history of Chinese contemporary art, the symbolic significance of the ‘Stars’, whose artistic identity was outside any official purview, lay in the challenge issued to those artists working inside the system. Even though at that time all they wanted was the chance to exhibit in the Museum, and despite the fact that the second Stars Art Exhibition actually was held in there, the ‘Stars’ lost the possibility of official amnesty owing to their participation in the Democracy Wall demonstrations. In 1983, an exhibition by Wang Keping, Ma Desheng, and Huang Rui at an elementary school was shut down by the police within five days of opening. In 1992 Huang Rui’s solo exhibit at the September Gallery in Ritan Park was likewise suppressed. Ultimately it was moved to Huang Rui’s work place. After this, Huang Rui himself became a persona non grata, and thus did the Stars have their exemplar of the independent spirit.
When Huang Rui moved to the 798-factory space in 2002, Chinese contemporary art was bound for another shake-up. Through his unceasing effort, 798 became the Dashanzi art district and in 2004 led to the Dashanzi International Art Festival, China’s largest contemporary art event. Within a few years, 798 had become a hotspot attracting independent artists as well as both foreign and domestic exhibition spaces, in the process once again becoming a collective manifestation of Chinese contemporary art. Stepping beyond the more than 20 years of Stars brilliance, Huang Rui demonstrates for all the dignity that art ought to possess.
As a practitioner of art, Huang Rui’s experience gives us a good look at the typical evolutionary process of Chinese contemporary art. While Huang Rui was still a factory worker, when he was still identified as an “amateur” artist, Chinese contemporary art was in a deep freeze. But even conservative cultural policy and censored news couldn’t hold back the flourishing of the new art. The exhibit of French art250 Years of French Pastoral Painting in 1979 had a tremendous effect, coming to symbolize the turning away from the previous form of Soviet paintings. That year Huang Rui saw the entirety of world art flowing forth from the institutes of art. All the artists of this period had similar experiences.
Huang Rui’s early works were mainly paintings. He was highly influenced by the works of western modernism exhibited at this time, such as the Picasso exhibit in 1981, which included works from his blue and pink periods. Huang Rui’s early works were especially influenced by exhibitions of works of primitivism and German Expressionism. Huang Rui took the characteristic features of these works and combined them in the ‘The Color of Aristocracy, Exaggeration, Liberalization,’ and other works imbued with the power of transformation. The works of German artist Franz Marc had a direct influence on Huang Rui. Looking at Huang Rui’s works from this time period we can see his acute sensitivity toward the tactile. Huang Rui once created a group of works, which were completely stripped of all organicity, leaving behind nothing but cold abstraction. The sources of this style were the street scenes of Beijing, completely devoid of any of the vitality of daily life.
During his ‘Stars’ period, Huang Rui obtained a Taiwanese print of the Dao De Jing, quite hard to find at that time. It became for him a Bible of sorts. For those of Huang Rui’s generation, the rediscovery of traditional Chinese culture became a common, self-conscious movement. Much like in his 1995 installation One Gives Birth Water, Water Gives Birth to Wood, Wood Gives Birth to Paper which took the traditional concept of the cycle of 5 elements along with natural materials (water, dried twigs and leaves) and married them to man-made materials (newspapers, plastic bags). Thus was he able to carry out a deconstructive reading of traditional culture through modern objects. In his performance installation Goddess of Mercy with Thousand Hands (1998 and 2005) he took Buddhist culture, Zen signification, and the audience and mixed them into one body. In his 1999 performance installation True as well as in his performance art piece New I Ching: 64 divinations of 6-4 he created a metaphor bringing together political and religious themes. By using contemporary art to trace back the wisdom of traditional culture, Huang Rui turns traditional and historical consciousness into a source of new art. Besides emphasizing traditional cultural identities in hope of obtaining real discursive authority, his artistic practice reveals the subtle differences between traditional cultural practice and global industrialization.
In the1980’s, Huang Rui’s paintings were all mainly carried out following a traditional artistic method, but in the1990’s his art entered an all-encompassing experimental phase, drawing to completion the individualization of his artistic language. The results of these experiments laid the groundwork for the later maturation of his individual style after 2003. Gradually passing through these three periods completed the process of Huang Rui becoming the avatar of contemporary Chinese art.
In 1990 Huang Rui moved to Japan. There he channeled into his experimental art that particularly Japanese sensitivity toward materials. Stepping beyond the cultural bounds of artistic experience elicited great changes in Huang Rui’s artistic vision. Performance art, performance installation, performance photography—art forms hardly seen amongst Huang Rui’s contemporaries—came to form a crucial piece of his artistic enterprise. Huang Rui’s interest in performance art led directly to the art event ‘Transborder Language’ in which performance and other artistic forms formed a mutual dialogue. This event put performance art back in on the map of experimental art in China. ‘Transborder Language’ enjoyed unexpectedly extensive media coverage in Beijing. The work became a model for the popularization of performance art in China, and remains one of the few such standards.
A rarity amongst those of the Stars decade, Huang Rui’s artistic method traverses a wide field to include painting, installation, performance art, photography, and printmaking. The Stars essential tendency toward opening up achieved its apogee in Huang Rui. Huang’s wide-ranging methods of modern art are his weapons in achieving full expression of the artistic free will. One could say that Huang Rui’s art is technical in methodology, but it is more accurate to say that it is cultural. This attitude towards artistic method is without a doubt one of the most important distinguishing features of Chinese culture. This artistic approach, which hinges on individual choice, is closely related to the artist’s emphasis on realism. But this kind of realism differs from the traditional emphasis on expressing form; rather it is the cultural viewpoint of realism. Even though within the Confucian tradition scholars reached their own ultimate conclusions, there are some points of similarity, such as the moral responsibility to keep vigilance in the world. This point has certainly been handed down through the ages, continuing today, and has been widely admitted by independent, critically minded intellectuals, such as Lu Xun, the paradigmatic example of modern Chinese intellectual. This critical spirit is manifest in an oppositional stance towards discursive hegemony and other base aspects of the world, as the artist coldly reveals them to world. When this cultural stance loses its independence, it becomes a tool of those in power and can cause a great deal of harm. And so the orthodoxy born from the independent spirit of the Stars is always to be found in their artistic method. The Stars use their subtleness to challenge the discursive hegemony.
Huang Rui’s most notable art works have in common a critique of autocratic control of discourse. This kind of discourse of course was once unassailable truth in his lifetime and was immensely influential in our society for quite some time. His approach is not to directly criticize, but rather resembles that of a collector of discourse. He selects the most absurd elements from texts and reveals their original face. These words, which were once made the tools of brainwashing, are now discarded or hidden. Huang Rui is like an archaeologist, tracing back to the textual source. In his painting Long Life Without End and Handed Down Forever Without Spoiling, for example, he juxtaposes two Maoist slogans, creating a tension between them, and in the process turning contemporary political propaganda into contemporary farce.
Huang Rui has also produced works of a textual nature, which borrow the form of text but invest it with a different valence, clearly revealing the artist’s point of view. For example, he took the title page from Mao’s Selected Works and created a fictitious Volume Six, turning an orthodox political work into an expression of the artist himself. In his installation Illegal Immigrants Huang Rui took the letters from these two English words and floated them together in a glass bottle, extracting a new connotation through the visual form of these seemingly unconnected words.
Huang Rui has a keen sensitivity toward words, which is rarely found amongst artists. In a series of painting titled “Chai-na/China” he took the pronunciation of the English word “China” to express the destruction inherent in the process of urbanization of today’s China, captured in the Chinese term similarly pronounced “chai-na” in the hopes of raising people’s critical consciousness. He also has exhibitions planned for the Danshanzi Art Festival themed “Light and Sound/Space,” “Language/Fable,” and “Beijing/Background,” in which he ingeniously takes terms with similar pronunciations and unites them with artistic form and exhibition themes. This perhaps explains Huang Rui’s recent turn in skillfully employing text as the main thrust of his art. This method of revealing the subtle power of words to train us can be traced back to his early Stars days when he had wide contact with many poets and writers, especially those from Today magazine, where he was a designer.
As an artist, Huang Rui cannot avoid politics. In fact, he takes political content and runs with it. In politically sensitive China, this kind of activity requires a great daring few possess. Politics is a part of everyday life for citizens. Today in China political power is monopolized by the political elite. Ideological brainwashing of the masses has long accustomed people to maintaining political silence. The genius of Huang Rui’s art lays in its overt usage of political elements, managing them succinctly and to penetrating effect. The politics of his art is not sloganeering; rather it takes form and develops it into something great. This kind of ability requires remarkable wisdom and acuity on the part of the artist, as well as broad-mindedness and bravery. Huang Rui’s painting Deng Xiaoping’s Woman takes the Deng era slogan “One center, two foundations” and gives it the form of a woman’s body, turning political stereotype into the object of desire. To a greater or lesser extent this manifests his style of humor.
Mao Zedong is official base of contemporary Chinese politics and Mao’s visage often appears in the works of contemporary artists. Most of them use an image of Mao as an attempt at subverting his iconic status. But Huang Rui’s critical thrust is against Mao’s discursive hegemony, the ideological pedestal upon which rests Mao Zedong Thought. In Huang Rui’s newly completed installation Chairman Mao, Ten Thousand Yuan!(2006) he turns the classic expression of admiration for Mao “Chairman Mao, ten thousand years!” on its head, literally, by putting Mao’s head on newly minted RMB notes. In this way Huang Rui gives the viewer a direct sense of the continuity between the political slogans of the Maoist years and the economic ideology of today. Huang Rui’s art takes upon itself the responsibility for making a clean sweep of contemporary Chinese thought, carrying out a penetrating reflection on both early and late Chinese social ideology, and offering up his own individual hermeneutic. Huang Rui is a minority in the field of contemporary Chinese art, especially in the current expansion toward collecting contemporary Chinese art. But good art is always in the minority, because only the works of the minority have the power to really transcend the limitations of personal gain and the demands of the age. No doubt this is why independence and courage are so highly valued in contemporary art. It is also the legacy left behind by the Stars.
Independent Curator and Writer
Translated by Lee Mack