The Art and Spirit of Huang Rui

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 Maos 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.

 

 

Shu Yang

Independent Curator and Writer

Translated by Lee Mack

黄锐的艺术及其精神

文/ 舒阳

 

    追溯中国当代艺术史,黄锐是一个绕不过去的名字。黄锐的人生阅历及其艺术经历,是中国当代艺术中颇为值得深入研究的个案。我一直认为,艺术实现的核心是艺术家的个人表达,因此历史上多见的是对艺术家个人的记载和确认。通过对个人的追溯,往往会使我们直观而切身地体验到艺术所揭示的生命意义。特别是在近世中国语境下,西来工业文明对本土数千年农耕文明的改造,形成了百多年来文明冲突和国家现代化的核心问题。在如此沧桑巨变的时代背景下,对其中典型个体的指认,无疑会使我们对身处环境的认识更加具体。这也是艺术所能提供的特殊的历史表征方式,即以个人经验见证时代的情怀。

 

    中国经历了百多年的文明演变,当代社会形态已经与近现代有所不同。我认为不是我们面临的问题有什么根本不同,而是我们看待这些问题的方式和视角发生了根本变化。我们从专制帝国封闭的“中央”心态,转向更加普世化的“全球”视点。纵览黄锐的人生和艺术创作经历,可以看到这种时代变迁在当代艺术领域最具代表性的例证。

 

    黄锐为人所知的最早的事例,毫无疑问应该是1979年9月27日在中国美术馆外花园举办的“星星美展”,这一事例应该被看作中国当代艺术的开端。黄锐是“星星美展”的发起人,“星星”这个名字也是由黄锐提出来的。在此前,黄锐是一名皮件厂的工人。“星星画会”作为中国当代艺术开端的象征意义在于,“星星”们以体制外艺术家的身份对体制内艺术权威进行挑战。虽然当时“星星”的期望是进入中国美术馆,并且第二届“星星美展”确实也在中国美术馆登堂入室。但是“星星”与民主墙结盟的示威游行,使“星星”失去了同时也避免了被真正招安的可能。1983年王克平、马德升和黄锐在一所小学教室里举办的艺术展,在开展第五天被警察查封。1992年在北京日坛公园“九月画廊”的“黄锐个展”再次被取缔,展览临时改在黄锐自己的工作室举办。黄锐本人此后也曾遭到拒绝入境的待遇。“星星”为中国当代艺术的开篇时,既已其独立精神作出了示范。

 

    在2002年黄锐搬入798厂的时候,中国当代艺术的格局注定了又一次即将发生振荡。在他不遗余力的引介和推动下,798厂变成“大山子艺术区”,进而在2004年出现目前北京规模最大的民间当代艺术活动“大山子艺术节”。短短的几年里,由798艺术区的独立艺术家们和诸多国内外艺术空间凭空在北京再造了一个中国最具国际影响力的艺术热点,成为中国当代艺术独立性的又一次集体呈现。黄锐跨越20余年的辉煌“星星”轨迹,处处为世人显示了艺术所应有的尊严。

 

    作为一位艺术实践者,黄锐的艺术经历显示了中国当代艺术的某种极为典型的进程。在黄锐的身份还是一位业余从事艺术的工人时,中国艺术的整体状况处于坚冰之下。当时文化政策的保守和信息的闭塞,无法阻遏新艺术的兴起。1978年在北京展出的“法国乡村绘画250年”产生了巨大的影响,成为中国艺术界摆脱前苏联绘画模式的信号。这一年,黄锐看到了从艺术院校流出的世界美术全集。相信那个时代,这些艺术经验都会有类似的经历。

 

    黄锐早期的艺术以绘画为主,受到了一些当时在中国举办的西方现代主义艺术展的影响。如1981年举办的毕加索画展,包括《三个乐手》、《穿小丑服的儿子》以及毕加索蓝色和粉色时期的作品。黄锐本人的早期绘画作品,更受到野兽派和德国表现主义画展的极大影响。黄锐将这些艺术的特点,归结为具有“贵族化的色彩”、“夸张、自由化”以及具有“改变能力”。特别是德国艺术家弗朗兹•马克Franz Marc的绘画作品,对黄锐这一时期的绘画产生了直接的影响。现在看黄锐的这些早期绘画作品,还能感受到黄锐在当时颇为敏锐的艺术触觉。黄锐曾经有一组名为《无题》的抽象作品,这组作品的面貌是完全无机化的冷抽象风格。这些方格图形源自北京的街景,完全感受不到任何日常的生机。

 

    “星星”时的黄锐获得了一本台湾版的《道德经》,从此这本当时极为难得的古籍成为了他的“圣经”。在黄锐这一代人身上,中国传统文化的复更成为一种普遍化的自觉个人运动。如他的装置作品《一生水、水生木、木生纸》(1995年),就将五行相生相克的传统概念与自然材料(水、枯树枝叶)和人工材料(报纸、塑料袋)联系在一起,以传统文化对当代事物进行解读。他在行为装置《千手观音》(1998年、2005年)中,将佛教文化和禅宗意味与观众的互动融为一体。行为装置《真》(1999年)和行为艺术《新易经,6月4日的64卦》(1999年),直接将易经八卦符号应用在作品中,与特定的宗教场所和政治事件跨时空对接和展开意义上的隐喻。这种将传统文化智慧的追溯在当代事物上的发挥,使传统与历史意识成为新艺术的资源。利用传统文化的方式在黄锐这代艺术家身上极为普遍,特别是在海外生活过的艺术家。除了对文化身份的强调以期获得一种较为坚实的话语权力外,对传统文化资源利用和发挥也提示出全球工业化的不同变异方向。

 

    黄锐的艺术实践在1980年代集中在绘画这样的传统艺术方式,1990年代黄锐进入了艺术的全面实验期,完成了个人化的当代艺术语言方式。这些实验形成的成果,成为2003年以后黄锐艺术风格实现完全个人化的前因。这三个时期的逐次跨越,完成了黄锐作为贯穿中国当代艺术史的代表性艺术家的历程。

 

    1990年代黄锐旅居日本,将日本文化中对物质的敏感纳入自己的艺术实验中。跨文化的艺术经验,使黄锐艺术视野为之发生重大转变。一些国内同代艺术家罕用的艺术方式,如行为艺术、行为装置、行为摄影等,成为黄锐艺术的重要组成。特别是黄锐对行为艺术的喜爱和推重,直接导致了2003年以行为艺术与其他艺术进行互动交流的“越界语言”活动的发生,将行为艺术重新放置在中国国内的实验艺术视野之中。“越界语言”在北京实现了不可思议的公共传媒的协作,成为国内推广行为艺术的典范,并成为国内少数几个常规的表演性国际当代艺术的常规活动。

 

    黄锐的艺术方式涉及到非常广泛的领域,包括绘画、装置、行为艺术、摄影、版画等,在当年的“星星”艺术家之中更属罕见。“星星”在艺术上的开拓精神,在黄锐身上得到最充分的体现。黄锐广谱的当代艺术手段,使他的艺术成为体现艺术家自由意志的利器。与其说黄锐的艺术方式是技术性的,不如说是文化性的。这种对待艺术手段的态度,无疑是中国文化的一个重要特征。对这种艺术方式的个人选择,与艺术家的现实主义态度有关。这种现实主义不是传统表现形式上的现实主义艺术风格,而是现实主义的文化视角。传统中国文化中儒释道的终极信念虽然不同,但在现世中的实现方式却有着某些共同之处,如其警世的道德信条。这一点在近现代文化的发展中得到延续,并与独立知识分子的批判精神取得了共识,产生了鲁迅这样的中国现代文化的范例。这种批判性体现在以对立的姿态来面对话语霸权和世间的丑恶,对其进行无情的批判和揭示。当这种文化姿态丧失了其独立性的时候,一旦被当权者作为工具,就会产生极大的破坏性。所以“星星”的独立精神所形成的中国当代艺术的道统,远远重于其艺术手法。“星星”的方向是以其微小来挑战话语霸权。

 

    黄锐的艺术作品中最为显著的一类作品,集中在对专制权力话语的揭露中。这些话语在他的生活经验中曾经被作为不能置疑的真理强行在我们的社会中进行持久地灌输。黄锐的方式不是直接批判,而是像一位话语收藏者一样,将这些荒诞不经的文字选择出来,并以其本来面目呈现。这些被当作洗脑工具的文字,在今天被抛弃或被掩盖了。黄锐以考古学家的方式,对这些文字进行了复原。在绘画《万寿无疆与永垂不朽》中,这两条关于毛的彼此矛盾重重的标语被并置在一起,使当年政治的宣传成为当代的笑柄。

 

    黄锐还有一类和文字相关的作品,也是依托于既有的文字形式,但进行了改造,使艺术家的观点清晰地表露出来。如黄锐采用《毛选》封面设计所虚构的《毛选(第六卷)》,将具有正统地位的政治产品转化为艺术家私人制造的艺术品。在装置作品《中国制造和偷渡者》中,黄锐将这两个词的英文字母放置在玻璃瓶中漂浮并置,将两个看似无关的词语用视觉形式搭在一起而衍生出新的含义。

 

    黄锐对词语有一种艺术家中罕见的敏感。他的绘画作品《拆-那/China》,把英文“中国”的发音同表达当代毁灭性的中国城市化进程的同音中文词语匹配在一起,以期获得一种引人瞩目的批判性。他策划的“大山子艺术节”的主题“光音/光阴”、“语言/寓言”、“北京/背景”,把汉语的同音字巧妙地同艺术形式和展览主题连接在一起。这也许可以解释为什么近年黄锐越来越纯熟地使用文字作为其艺术的主要方式。这种颇能显示良好的文字训练的原因,也许还可以追溯到“星星”时期黄锐与诸多诗人、文学创作者的广泛接触与合作,包括参与著名的文学刊物《今天》的设计。

 

    黄锐作为一个艺术家,并不回避政治,甚至将政治主题发挥的淋漓尽致。在政治敏感的中国,这种举动首先就需要罕有的魄力。政治是公民社会日常生活的一部分,在今天的中国政治已经被垄断在政治精英们的手中而成为垄断资源。意识形态对公众的洗脑已经使普通人习惯于对政治保持沉默。黄锐的精彩之处在于,他的艺术中的政治指向不是隐喻的,而是直接地使用政治的因素,并将之处理得简洁而深刻。他的艺术中的政治不是口号式的,而是将形式发挥到了某种极致,这种能力需要艺术家的杰出的智慧和敏锐,当然更重要的是胸襟和勇气。黄锐的绘画作品《邓小平的女人》将邓时代的“一个中心,两个基本点”的国策,描绘成女性身体的形象,使刻板的政治教条演变成欲望的象征,这多少能够体现黄锐式的“幽默”。

 

    毛是中国现政权的合法性基础,毛的形象经常出现在中国当代艺术家的作品中。大多数对毛的借用是毛的形象,是对毛的偶像地位的颠覆。而黄锐图示的是关于毛的话语权利,这种权利构成了毛泽东思想这一意识形态基础。黄锐2006年的装置新作《毛主席万元》,把象征毛泽东思想伟大的口号“毛主席万岁!”转换成带有毛的头像的新版人民币,把中国国家意识形态由政治宣导向经济利益主导的转化方式直接呈现给了观者。黄锐用他的艺术承担起了中国当代思想史的廓清责任,即对最晚近的中国社会意识形态进行深入的反省,并提供了其个人对这种思想的阐释。黄锐在中国当代艺术领域里绝对是少数派,尤其是在目前艺术收藏主导的中国当代艺术的扩张中。然而好的艺术必然是少数的,因为只有少数的艺术作品能够真正超越个人利益与时代视野的郁限。这也是为什么独立性和勇气在当代艺术领域尤其显得珍贵的原因,同样这是“星星”的遗产。

 

2006年3月于北京