“The Harvester of Space – to Huang Rui”


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 few examples:WaterBamboo》(1994)、《Water and Fire Wall》(1995)、《Subway Incident》(1999)、《New Spirit of Chinese History》(2003)、《chai-na /Chinaseries2004~)、《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 likeWater and Fire WallandNo Bookdid 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 workchai-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 thechai-naChinaseries, 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 fiction.

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-naChina. 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 yourchai-naChina, I clearly felt anexpansionof 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-naChinais 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!”.

Take care!


CHIBA Shigeo

Art critic & Professor at Chubu University, Japan.

Translated from Chinese by Chen Ing-tse, Martin Winter and Jacqueline Winter





黄锐,久疏问候。获悉你的工作室于近日搬离了798 艺术区,一向可好?




































但是,梦境破碎的你,作为中国人,应该体会到,以西方创造出来的“艺术”框架为前提,是不能产生自己的原创性艺术的。必须创造出与之相异的“艺术”来。那种认为 “艺术”无论古今中外都大同小异的说法是愚蠢至极的。在这个地球上,西方艺术及其思想统治了“近代艺术”,这是事实。中国艺术的历史,虽然早在西方之前就已经开始了,但是,在“地球近代化”的洪流中,中国艺术这条长河的流量急剧减少、河面逐渐缩窄,不知不觉中已经细如丝带。最初,或许人们只是想从西方借鉴一些艺术材料、用具、技术和形式而已,却不知不觉中走火入魔。中国人在尚未察觉之际已经被西方化(现代化)的“毒素”所侵蚀,同时也疏远了中国传统艺术。当然,“西方化(现代化)”一元化的道路是行不通的。因为这意味着自我同一性的逐渐丧失。但是,回归到中国传统艺术中也是不可能的。因为,中国传统艺术是已经过去的事物,在这种意义上讲,是当下不存在的东西了。

通过以上的分析,黄锐,你一定明白这是非西方地区的“近代”艺术所面对的共同境况吧。“近代的价值”是西方创造出来的,但是既然已经踏上这条路、既然不得不踏上这条路,非西方地区的“西方化”过程是不可避免的。虽说是不可避免,但是决不能全盘西方化。最不能被“西方化”的,是人的心灵、人的精神。然后,是“艺术”。前提是: “艺术”还仍然是人的心灵、人的精神的产物。

美梦破碎的你,自那时起,重新开始追求迄今为止不曾有过的艺术、只有你才能够实现的艺术。你自创作伊始就保持着自身的一贯性,然而我想,那个时候你才在真正的意义上开始创作出新的东西来。你丧失了“美好梦想”,即中国传统艺术和西方艺术,但是同时打开了通向未知世界、未知“艺术”的大门。留给你的只有两种东西,一种是形成你这个中国人气质背景的宏观意义上的历史和传统,另一种是将艺术作为一种精神事物(cosa mentale)而非休闲娱乐或附属文化来实现的欲望。仅此而已,但这两种精神指向正是你的强韧所在。





回想你至今为止的具有代表性的作品,现例举其中几件如下——《Water +Bamboo》(1994)、《Water and Fire Wall》(1995)、《Subway Incident》(1999)、《New Spirit of Chinese History》(2003)、《拆-那/China》系列作品(2004~)、《No Book》(2005)、《Chairman Mao 10,000 RMB》(2006)——等等。


从这些作品就可以看出,创作形式是多种多样的。比如像《Water and Fire Wall》和《No Book》那样的行为艺术,已经是不仅仅停留在行为艺术层面的作品了。从物理性的角度来看,前者只留下照片和影像,而后者作品本身虽然留存下来,但是“留存/不留存”已经不重要了。两者都是在某个“时间”、某个“空间”中创造出来的,这一点是关键所在。一般艺术家的行为艺术,是在一定的时间内进行,随之消失,只留存于观赏过的人们的记忆中。

而你的行为艺术,创出了一个非常明确而固定的 “空间”。因此,行为结束后(即当表演的时间经过后),仍然给我们这些观赏者留下一个清晰的“空间”。那么这个“空间”留存在那里呢?是在我们的心里,在我们的精神世界中间。不仅仅如此,还包括你的“作品整体”这一“空间”在内。这个“空间”,在我们的心底占有明确的位置。你的行为艺术,最后作为“空间”留存在我们的内心世界。换句话说,你的作品虽说是行为艺术,却具有了“空间”意义。





     所谓“拆-那”,在汉语中是“拆除建筑物(demolish it)”的意思,其发音是“chai-na”。残垣断壁的废墟图景和“拆-那(chai-na)”及“CHINA”的文字交替地被描绘、重叠,这就是作品《拆-那/China》。在这个作品中,首先有那种“声响”。或许说是“双重的声响”更为确切吧。声响的这种双重性,与作品的表象及喻义(无论什么都拆除破坏掉的当今中国社会现状)的双重性是直接相关联的。但并不仅仅如此。












    有人认为,艺术作品是一眼就明白是什么的东西。那倒也不错。可是,黄锐,我是一个喜欢站在一张自己喜爱的画面前长时间凝视品味的人。这样做的理由与其说是将作品认认真真、仔仔细细地观赏,倒不如说是为了将一幅绘画所实现的整个空间传达到自己身体的各个角落。视网膜所接受的映像,不会只停留在那里,也不会停留在大脑内,而是浸透在自己身体(我其实并不知道究竟是哪里)的底层中去。为了使看到的东西这样浸透下去,我一直看着不动。在一动不动地看着你的《拆-那/China》的时候,我的身体里面,清晰地感觉到你的三种时间重叠融合在一起的“扩展”。那一定是在“我的里面”生发出来的“扩展”,但是,如果没有你的作品它是不可能产生的。在这种意义上,那不过是你的作品的产物。在我的身体里面感觉到“扩展”,反过来再看你的作品,我知道那是可以称为“空间”的东西。不是单纯的绘画空间,但却是除了“空间”的称呼之外无以言表的。是比“空间”更复杂、让人感受到更为丰润内涵的“空间”。这样的感觉,在你的作品中你做到了。 当然,勿庸赘言,这也是从你的身体中来、通过你的身体来自中国的东西。













千叶 成夫 CHIBA Shigeo

 艺术评论家,中部大学教授(Professor at Chubu University, Japan)