Huang Rui, we haven’t contacted each other for a while. I heard that your studio has recently moved away from the 798-art district. How have you been?
Early last September we met in Beijing and you invited me to write an
article for this exhibition. I was very pleased. Since 1988, when I first went
to China (Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing) and started to be in touch with Chinese
modern art, every once in a while I wrote a few articles about Chinese modern
art and its artists. But until today I had no opportunity to write a “Huang Rui
Treatise“. As an art critic, I have been focused on Japanese modern art, its
history and its artists. My work also involved modern art from East Asia
(including China, Taiwan and Korean Peninsula), its history and artists. To me,
you are not just a distinguished artist. Because you participated in the
development of Chinese modern art starting from 1979, you are a very
comprehensive and thorough artist.
I trust that you will agree with me: today, modern Chinese art is
controlled by the market. Seen from the perspective of business and money, China
(and India too) is the last huge new market left on the globe. Countless greedy
eyes are watching.
It is probably superfluous to say anything about those (including artists) who regard business and money as their sole target. But for me, being outside of but very close to China, all of this is an unbearable farce. I even think it is not only ridiculous, but also very dangerous. I am serious: when one looks at the history of modern Chinese art, it has only been around for less than thirty years, but now even this little bit of history seems to be forgotten. As a resident of a tiny neighboring island, I always thought that China was a “Land of History”. But now modern Chinese art is busy forgetting its history. In such circumstances the emergence of an artist like you is of the greatest significance. One even can say that within the history of the development of Chinese modern art, your existence represents the “hub”. The reason for you standing on the “hub” position, I think, is that within the “short” thirty-year course of Chinese modern art, the path of your activities has been overlapping with this course to a very high degree.
China once had a long art history, but it was deliberately interrupted. However, that was not a simple interruption, but accompanied by a policy of seclusion to cut off any external information. During this time, art underwent fundamental changes in the outside world. Once the gates opened again, you must have been shocked by the “contrast” in front of your eyes. It was no accident that the tightly locked gates opened gradually, and the ones who facilitated this lucky chance within the art world were you artists from “The Stars Painters Society”! And so inside your heart you are very clear about the crazy and stupid attempts to ignore or go beyond this “contrast”. The farcical and dangerous state of Chinese modern art being manipulated by the art market is rooted in forgetting this “contrast” and its underlying madness and stupidity. Those who ignore history will eventually be punished by it. Right, Huang Rui?
For Western art, the so-called “contrast” means groping for a new way out when facing a dead end. For Chinese art, it’s a lesson, meaning that “modernization (= Westernization)” will eventually lead Chinese modern art to its termination. It was the same case for Chinese art as in virtually all non-Western areas: The modernization (Westernization) once chosen by Chinese artists was encountered again after a long period of obstruction without information. But then you discovered that Western art in the West–in its cradle- had no more new horizons to turn to; in other words, it was already finished.
And on the Japanese Islands where I’m located, we have seen clearly and
have experienced the predicament and termination of the modernization in
Western arts (or Westernization). But you were in China, and when the gates of
the country opened again, the development of Western art was almost over. That
was the “contrast”.
Your art works from the era of “The Stars Painters Society” were inspired by forms of “Westernization (modernization)” from before the country was closed off (because you knew nothing about the new trends and changes of the West). You strove to put new meanings into these forms, and you created very remarkable oil paintings. Those new meanings and fresh ideas in your works expressed an inner confusion in your intensive pursuit of freedom. I like them very much. You said it yourself in this way:
“The so-called abstract objects are not bound by time and space. I don’t want to reflect anything or explain anything, but express my own primary condition of chaos.“
(Art News, Xi’an, 5th Issue, 1981)
However, it was not long before you discovered this “contrast”. And when you came to Japan and proceeded with your work, you became more and more deeply conscious of this “contrast”.
Huang Rui, another kind of “contrast” is certainly also involved. When the doors of the country were closed and Socialist Realism was made a basic national policy, Chinese art had in fact already departed from its own tradition. This was not simply because Chinese art was old-fashioned and outdated. Along with the rapid changes of time, traditional art gradually appeared to fall behind indeed, but things are not so simple. When the country’s gates were opened, the Chinese felt confused and dizzy as the Western arts rolled in with their solid thoughts and outstanding works. They even thought that the term “art” meant Western art only. Before the country was closed off, and even from before Westernization (modernization) all the way until now, such things as sense of space, color, physique and form, which affected the deep structure of body and spirit, were forgotten. People have been deeply influenced by the surge of thoughts flooding in. Seen from this angle, the closing of the doors really had serious consequences; because when the gates of the country opened again, many Chinese thought mistakenly that “art” just meant Western art (Western modern art). Just like language, art is also rooted in local conditions and social customs and changes in nature. They all give birth to qualities such as sense of space, form and color. Of course, there are mutual influences on a global scope, but if at any place in the world you could only see the same art works, it would leave you bored, if not sick and terrified.
Surely, it is already impossible to go back to Chinese traditional art
from before the seclusion, or even earlier. Times have changed indeed; yet
facing the open gate, you have witnessed the “level” and the “quality” of the
world’s modern art. You have not been able to ignore them in your own artworks.
But the artworks that you wanted to realize could no more represent an
“extension line” of European and American art, because that would have made you
nothing more than their followers. Right?
Huang Rui, after the “The Stars Painters Society” movement, you accidentally came to Osaka, Japan, in 1984; you lived there until the later half of the90’s. It was also around that time that we got to know each other. I think you must have quietly grasped the “level” and “quality” of the world’s modern art while being outside of China, and therefore very consciously started the exploration of artworks which are not just “extension lines” of European and American modern art.
From 1992 until 1994 you lived mostly in Beijing and then came to Osaka again in 1994. Later, around 2002, you moved your base back to Beijing. You discovered the “798”factory site and founded your own studio. It was you who carried out a series of creative events and activities that popularized and explored “798”and let it become a central stage of modern arts.
During one media interview, when asked how you viewed the student movement in 1989, you answered in this way:
“My beautiful dreams were suddenly broken; I had no choice but to recognize the social aspect of my existence.”
(Tokyo Gallery “Demand for Artistic Freedom – The Twenty Year Anniversary of The Stars” exhibition catalog. Tokyo, 2000)
Being an artist is a social form of existence!
At least in modern China, it is not enough for an artist to pursue the
“succinctness” and the “quality” of pure beauty, like they may have done in
Europe or America. The artist’s job is not so simple. You cannot drift away
from your environment and society and work in a space of your own. Otherwise
the meaning of an artist’s existence would be in doubt, because his or her
works would disconnect from reality. It is even more so in modern Chinese
society with its layers upon layers of contradictions. Without a doubt, an
artist has no choice but to involve himself actively in the current situation
of a society.
Starting from this period, in comparison with before, your artworks exposed social and political factors even more. And afterwards your position was always consistent. Just as you said – I, and the partners of “The Stars Painters Society”, are responsible for the arts!
Huang Rui, you’re right. When I see the impetuous commercialism in Chinese modern art, like a kite with a broken line fluttering in the wind, I think it is terrible.
However, Huang Rui, many people have already discussed the satire and the critique in the social and political themes of your works. Here, I want to write about another aspect. In Chinese society, with its complex layers of contradictions, every artist has to be a social presence, you have no other choice. However, this doesn’t mean that the artworks from an artist with a social presence must contain social or political implications.
In June 1989, when you were in Japan, separated by the ocean from the
students’ movement at Tian’anmen, you were again confirmed to be a “social
existence”. I think you also once again lost something like “Western art”. It
was precisely you, after coming to Japan, who didn’t think about arts a priori
in an extension line of Western art; on this, I won’t say more. However, you
must have also used methods similar to Western art to define art, haven’t you?
Wasn’t it your “beautiful dream” to realize “art” as defined by yourself in the
format of pure “art”?
But as a Chinese with a broken dream you should have experienced that
one cannot produce original art based on a framework created by the West. You
have to create a different kind of “art”. It is extremely foolish to say that
“art” is very similar at all times and in all lands. It is a fact that Western
art and its thinking have dominated “modern art”. Even though the history of
Chinese art started long before the rise of the West, the long river of Chinese
art has rapidly dwindled, and its breadth has gradually narrowed in the torrent
of “global modernization”. Imperceptibly, it has become thin as a silk ribbon.
At first, people might only have wanted to use some art materials, tools,
techniques and forms, but unconsciously they indulged in them to excess. The
Chinese were eroded by the “poison” of Westernization (modernization) before
they even noticed, and at the same time they became estranged from Chinese
traditional art. Of course, the unified path of “Westernization
(modernization)” will get you nowhere. However, it is also impossible to return
to Chinese traditional art, because Chinese traditional art belongs in the
past. This means that it doesn’t exist anymore on an immediate level.
Through the above analysis, Huang Rui, you will surely understand that
this is the same situation faced by all the “modern” arts in the non-Western
areas. “Modern values” were created in the West. But because you have already
set foot on this road, because you had no other choice, the “Westernization” in
non-Western areas is unavoidable. Although it is unavoidable, yet one cannot be
completely westernized. What must not be “westernized”, after all, is one’s
mind and spirit. And then there is “art”. The premise is that “art” is still
produced by the mind and spirit of people.
Your dreams were broken, and so you started again to pursue a kind of art that had not existed so far, that could only be realized by you. You have been consistent from the very beginning of your career. But I think at that time you could truly start to make new things. You lost the “beautiful dreams”, which meant Chinese traditional art and Western art, yet simultaneously opened the gate to an unknown world, an unknown “art”. There were only two things left for you; one was history and tradition from a macroscopic view, which formed your temperamental background as a Chinese; the other one was the desire to realize art as a cosa mentale, not as holiday entertainment or subsidiary culture. You had nothing more than these two spiritual orientations, but they were exactly right for you to show your strengths.
And so you started all kinds of experiments. This was bound to lead you away from your original art forms. There were two-dimensional artworks beyond the scope of painting, three-dimensional works exceeding the scope of sculpture, and also all kinds of performance art. You were so original because you tried to produce “art” as human spiritual activity with a broader and richer scope. To say that you “moved away” from conventional art forms is in fact not correct, because it implies a standpoint within conventional forms. You just followed your own thoughts and feelings, but the current framework could not accept your creative activity.
When I think of your representative works until now, I want to give a
and Fire Wall》（1995）、《Subway Incident》（1999）、《New Spirit of Chinese History》（2003）、《chai-na
/China》series（2004～）、《No Book》（2005）、《Chairman Mao 10,000 RMB》（2006）-- etc..
You can tell very quickly from these works that they were created in
different forms. For example, performance works like《Water and Fire Wall》and《No Book》did not
just stay at the level of performance art. From a physical point of view, the
former only left photographs and images, and even though the latter work was
preserved, “to preserve or not to preserve” is not important any more. Both
were created in a certain “time” and in a certain “space”; this is the key. The
performance art of regular artists is produced at a certain time and then disappears
right afterwards; it is only preserved in the memory of the audience.
But your performance art has created a very definite and stable “space”. And so, after the end of a performance, we in the audience were still left with a clearly discernible “space”. So where does this “space” lie? It is in our hearts, in our spiritual world. And it also includes the “space” of your “work as a whole”. This “space” occupies a definite position deep in our hearts. Your performance works are preserved as “spaces” in our inner world. In other words, although they are performance art, they also mean something in “space”.
What you interpret in your “works” is not only “time”. One can say that they extend to scent, taste (such as Beijing’s “Erguotou” spirits and beer) and sound (the noise and clamor from all kinds of objects). Actually you have used these elements as materials for various artworks. However, your “artworks” are indeed full of scent, taste and sound. Even when I am standing in front of your two-dimensional works I seem to feel the scent, taste and sound. What you applied was only the method of spatial construction, which interpreted scent, taste and sound in any of your work. Normally, if you see a work about Erguotou, you would not feel the special scent and taste of the spirit. But I felt the scent and taste of Erguotou. Because the “space” you created is very special. What else can I say?
And when I stood in front of the two-dimensional work《chai-na / China》, what I sensed at first was that meaning of “space”.
Any work with a flat surface always expresses “space”, but the “space” I felt, there
was a grander and broader “space’.
The characters “chai-na” mean “demolish it”, their pronunciation in
Mandarin Chinese is “chai-na”. Destroyed houses and other scenes interact with
the words Chai-Na and China. The first thing that strikes you in this work is
the “sound”. Maybe it is more precise to say it is a “double sound”. The
duality of sound is directly connected to the double representation and
implication (everything is demolished and destroyed in today’s Chinese society)
of the artwork. But it is not only that.
In the《chai-na／China》series, I pay special attention to the “spatial character” of a panel
that is divided into six pictures. Three pictures are views of ruins (with the
words “chai-na” and “CHINA” written over the picture), and the other three
illustrate the words “chai-na” and “CHINA”. First, through the words and
characters on the pictures of ruin scenes, you see that a section of real space
is cut off; you see an alienation of real space. Second, the three pictures
with words do not simply illustrate the words. The words are depicted on a surface,
which is like an abstract painting (no, one can more definitely say they are on
the surface of abstract paintings). In other words, you use the paintings as
“background” to illustrate the words, and this alienates the paintings.
Besides, these words are words (being written), and they are also depicted.
This complicated structure gives the space of these three “words = paintings”
works a special quality. Third, the arrangement of these six different pictures
produces a distinctive quality in the series as a whole. If you want to explain
it in one sentence, it would be an overlapping of “painted space”, “real
space”, and “space of ideas”.
In front of this artwork of yours, I simultaneously experienced
“painting”, “(ruinous) reality” and “China (as a system)”. However, I did not
experience the common paintings, the real ruins themselves and the Chinese
status quo. In your works, these three are all contained in brackets. They have
been processed indirectly. But after this indirect treatment, these three items
come into my mind as one event and one process. Normally, painting methods are
just techniques, reality belongs to reality, and ideas stay with ideas. They
all unfold in their separate spaces. For example, when you remember the
statement “to portray the real image of the masses gathering at Tian’anmen
square through painting”, no one questioned it; but if one thinks it over
carefully, of course it’s a fiction, because art has been always been called
Nowadays “art serving as fiction” is not valid any more, it has lost
its constructive meaning and is almost gone. Artists are searching for and
exploring other “art forms” (yishu xingtai), although the sound of this Chinese
word still recalls “ideological patterns”.
Huang Rui, through your work I experienced that concepts like “painting”, “reality” and “ideas”, which were separate before, became things with the same extensions and appeared in the same space. I never had this kind of experience before. You realized this kind of “work”. And this is indisputably a “work of art”. That’s because the experience I had here definitely is a feeling about “space”, and it comes from this “space”.
A moment ago I mentioned “time”. Actually, I have a strange feeling about time in《chai-na／China》. In my experience, the time evoked by the ruins, which are phenomena of reality, occupies one end; moving at the other end of the line is a time that is only limited by the concept of “words = ideas”. However, these two kinds of time are not separated, they are not flowing away from each other. They flow in the same picture. But the picture is not painted as a tool to mix these two different times; it also contains a time of its own. So there are three kinds of time blended in the space of one picture. But this is not a simple blend, because the three kinds of time maintain their own character. They are flowing together, but they don’t dissolve. What I am saying here is contradictory in theory, but I experienced it in your work. If you say it is contradictory, then there is a contradiction in the artwork. A contradiction in theory sometimes indicates a fact or reality that can be felt and experienced. In art, it is possible for three different kinds of time to be flowing in one space.
Certainly, the space of the picture plays the main role here. In this
space there are multiple kinds of time. My line of sight moves across the six
pieces, back and forth between three symbolic times, so I am moving between
many different kinds of time.
At the same time, when my line of vision moved back and forth in the
space of the surface, I also noticed that the contrast between multiple times
caused the “space” to change. In this way, space acquired time.
The picture did not describe events and let people develop associations about what comes first and what comes later. Nor did it divide events from different times on one plane or portray them continuously to express time (in the manner of comics or scrolls). These practices would have no way to transcend the traditional painting concept on a flat surface, neither by their vision, nor by ideas (the concept only allows for horizontal expansion). The kind of time I am talking about does not flow back and forth or left and right. If time, for example, is “flowing” and “changing”, then this kind of “flow” and “change” can never be represented on a flat surface, no matter what the method, because a two-dimensional plane is by definition stationary, it’s without time. Huang Rui, your experiment has made a painting, which can only exist on a two-dimensional canvas, to extend beyond a surface and produce its special qualities in space, in an attempt to obtain a new “space”. And you have also called out for time to join in.
Some people think that a work of art can be understood at one glance. That’s not bad either. But, Huang Rui, I am a person who likes to stand in front of a favorite painting to gaze at it, to taste and evaluate it for a long time. The reason I do this lays not so much in observing the work very seriously and carefully as in delivering the entire space realized by one painting to every corner of my body. The images perceived by the retina will neither just stay there nor be kept in the brain, but saturate into the“basement”( I do not know where exactly, to be honest) of my body. To let what I see saturate all the way down like this, I go on staring, motionless. Staring at your《chai-na／China》, I clearly felt an“expansion”of three kinds of time inside my body, blending and overlapping. This “expansion” was definitely generated “inside me”; however, it wouldn’t have happened without your work. In this sense it is nothing but the product of your work. I felt “expansion” inside my body; and looking at your work again in turn, I knew it was a thing one could call “space”. It is not the simple painting space, but something that cannot be expressed with a word other than “space”. It is a “space” which is more complicated, with more connotations for you to sense. You have done this in your work, you have delivered this kind of feeling. Of course, needless to say, that this is something coming from your body, coming from China through your body.
I used my own body to perceive such “space”, and not stay on the
levels of vision, form, semblance and meaning. Your works have not only covered
all these levels, but also realized a greater expansion, a broader space.《chai-na／China》is a
painting, a graphic work, but actually it is also another kind of work. Just
like your performance art, it is performance, but also another kind of “work”.
I am very dissatisfied about those viewpoints that only decode social or political satire and critique from your works. I think that if one understands them only on this level of message, one cannot decipher your works. Even though your works have such messages, you have realized a different space; as an artist, almost all your activities have been spent on realizing a different space. It is quite a simple thing to deliver a message, but to realize another space is not easy and cannot be achieved by everybody.
Art, in this sense, is to transcend the expression of some message and
realize some kind of space. It is an activity, which starts from “realization”
and ends with “realization”. And one could say that the expression of a message
is secondary. If there is only expression of a message, if it doesn’t go forth
in the “realization of space”, it cannot be called “art” either.
Huang Rui, you once said that you are a nomad, remember?
Going back and forth between China and Japan, you are indeed one of the nomads. But your drifting is a search for freedom, for freedom of art. Moreover, during your traveling life, you have explored and realized a unique kind of art, a new kind of art. And you’ve also become a landmark (or a standard) in modern Chinese art. Surely, you would say that on the journey of searching for art and its realization, you are still on the way.
If you think about it, modern Chinese art in general is still caught inside a drifting whirlpool. As a non-Western area, it has inherited the unavoidable fate of “modernization = Westernization”, and it takes on the mission of exploring ways to create new kinds of art. It is now inside this trial-and-error whirlpool.
In fact, in my new book “Unborn Japanese Art History”, published last year, I have analyzed the origins, the history and the current situation of the artistic drifts around the Japanese Islands. Next time, maybe when meeting you again in China, I would like to discuss with you this topic of “drifting”; of course that will be a chat over Erguotou -- “in vino veritas!”.
Art critic & Professor at Chubu University, Japan.
Translated from Chinese by Chen Ing-tse, Martin Winter and Jacqueline Winter