A Time system to reverse History

Animal Time


Animal Time” is a huge installation composed of recycled bricks from Beijing’s demolished Hutongs and Divine Animals sculpted in stone that together give historical time a visual and solid form – continuous and unbroken. In the BAMA gallery, the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep, the Monkey, the Cock, the Dog and the Pig stand proud and tall on their marble plinths. Each of the 12 animals of the zodiac dominates an assembly of 60 bricks, inscribed, one after the other, with the years dating from 1924 to 2643. At one glimpse, our eyes see 720 years: historical time already recorded by the historians from 1924 to 2008, and the coming, projected time from 2009 to 2643.


720 bricks in total therefore, with on each brick, inscribed by hand, the time of one year, according to three logical systems for calculating time: time by the west’s Gregorian calendar; Imperial time which reflects the number of years a dynasty was in power and Celestial Time, composed of the Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches. Due to a fusing with the Chinese lunar calendar, the animals of the Chinese Zodiac become guardians of 60 year stretches – an entire human lifespan – succeeding one another for 12 cycles of 60 years of life, or 720 years which forms complete a cycle.


Animal Time” is an installation that echoes its historical setting in time, “Animal Time: Beijing 2008”, simultaneously exhibited on the ramparts of Aurelius’ ancient walls in Rome. More than 10,000 km from Beijing, 4 cycles of 720 years trace the History of China starting with the unification of the Empire under the Emperor Qin Shi Hhuang in 221BC and ending in 2044. Laid out on the floor are 2,229 recycled bricks brought over from Beijing recording 2,229 years since the year 221 BC, up until this year – 2008. The last cycle therefore remains unfinished, and in the spaces left empty on the floor you can see the dates of the years to come simply chalked in, emotive outlines of a future time that will one day be covered by bricks, soon 2009, 2010…. And so it is that “Animal Time: Beijing 2008” finishes its historical path in Beijing in the BAMA gallery. The full meaning of this installation then becomes clear, a two part narration of the History of China with historical time belonging to the past exhibited in Rome and future time, where Huang Rui picks up the historical thread of his narration, in Beijing; both ends joining together to create one complete and same work.


Those that are not keen on sums may find themselves a bit confused by this overlapping of codes; the systems he uses for measuring and calculating time seem tedious and complex. Once decoded though, the system is lucid. The work is clear and impressive; what is striking is not simply the beauty of the mineral installation made from earth and fire but the power of the thought process behind it that makes us conscious of time – a notion that is so hard to grasp.


 Huang Rui manages to visually capture, physically capture I mean, the concepts that ordain our understanding of time.

Just one look at the grey bricks and the segments of time are immediately visible. Linear time (Gregorian time), starting from a point of origin, in this case 221 BC follows its imperturbable linear course, year after year. This is the Western notion of time, initiated from a Judean-Christian concept of time that has become the norm on our planet.


Subjective time (Imperial time) refers to a recognized and legitimized time, if it refers to past time; or an uncertain and unknown time when it refers to future time, since no one can predict how long the reigning power will remain in place. From the shortest to the longest (61 years for Kangxi’s reign during the Qing dynasty), subjective time allows us to understand that the legitimacy of power in China can be perceived first of all by its record in history.


 Cyclical time (the Lunar calendar) refers to the perpetual restarting of the natural cycles, the east’s perception of time to which the Chinese particularity is to number them according to a historical year.

With this work, at the convergence of historical and cultural perceptions of the East and the West, Huang Rui touches upon the mysteries of our understanding of eternity. But he goes even further as he develops his own codes for the History of China: he succeeds in analyzing memories as the historian would and in foreseeing the future as the prophet would.




When Huang Rui started this project in 2006, he didn’t know he was about to invent a system for measuring time that allows History to be visualized, or better still, to allow Chinese History’s course to be charted, both continuous and fragmented, whether past or future.


The original idea was to stop time in 2008 in Beijing. Huang Rui wanted to chart time from the first emperor up to the year 2008, to give the impression that the whole of China was built to celebrate the Beijing Olympic Games. At the time, the city was one big construction site preparing for 2008. The oldest quarters of the city were being demolished by the property developer’s diggers, whilst to the rhythm of the government’s chants for “xin Beijing, xin Ouyun” (New Beijing, New Games), Beijing was sloughing off its old skin in favor of a new one, the emerging new city steadfastly turned towards super consumerism. For more than a year, Huang Rui bought bricks from the brick recyclers in the Hutongs in Qian men south of Tian An Men Square. The artist gathered the concrete and symbolic vestiges of the nearly vanished Chinese city, bricks that find life again in his installation. During his work, Huang Rui integrated the three systems for measuring time – imperial, western and lunar that seem to slot together so naturally. Then suddenly the installation moved in another direction when Huang Rui realised, after hours spent pouring over History, that Celestial Time could be segmented into cycles, each governed by the zodiac positions. Each cycle corresponds to an animal personality whose distinct characteristics, effectively, can be traced through the cycles: entrepreneurial spirit and creativity, but also chaos and conflict during the eras of the Rat historically represented by Qin Shi Huang, Xiao Wen Di, Genghis Khan and Mao Zedong; the construction, stability and wealth in the Ox eras, represented by Han Wudi, Wen Yangdi, Kubilai Khan, and Deng Xiaoping etc.. Overwhelmed with joy, Huang Rui portrays the strengths and weaknesses of the events carried by time, whose major traits become “visible” simply by looking at the artwork.


Overwhelmed with joy, Huang Rui realizes he is able to portray the strengths and weaknesses of the events carried by time, whose major traits become “visible” simply by looking at the artwork.


 Huang Rui, a man who led his battles with fierce independence since his first exhibition Les Etoiles in 1979, in this case throws himself into a battle of another dimension, that of inventing a model that allows us to perceive the History of China in its entirety. In some ways, he usurps the historian’s place, searches in the annals and methods of the past to reconstitute a chronological thread that gives history an overall principle of understanding. In other times, Huang Rui would have been treated as a heretic, or at least a blasphemer. One could compare him to a Nostradamus who predicted the future’s main events in his “Prophecies” basing his work on textual and astrological references. “Animal Time” is fascinating as a work of art but also as a reliable, logical system for interpreting the History of China.


 The aesthetic emotions that “Animal Time” evokes come from the layout of codes that are revealed when observing the piece. A “mineral” work – the first that I have seen in Huang Rui’s corps of work - Animal Time is made of bricks and stones, which echo no doubt by pure coincidence the four elements of earth, fire, water and air. But especially, the recycled bricks, steeped in the memories of the city and people who lived within their walls in another time, remind us that the cycle on which the whole piece is based is not only theoretical, but can also be found in the materials used. The coding is nearly perfect when you realise that there is little more than a complete cycle of 720 years that separate the construction of Dadu, ancient city of Beijing founded by Kubilai Khan in 1272 under the Yuan, and the destruction of the oldest quarters of Beijing. These bricks, which of course for the most part date only from the 17th to the 19th Centuries, carry nevertheless emotive traces of the past – irregularities, white marks, sometimes even inscriptions – that give an irregular and human beauty to the perfectly framed and clear layout of the installation. As if the coding has to be “humanized” to remind us that behind each recorded historical memory hides a multitude of lives that history has forgotten.


Chinese History in Animal Time” is in itself a work of art that forms part of the artist’s personal creative cycle, directly linked to the city’s metamorphoses. Playing on the city’s “destruction / construction” theme since his return from Japan in 2001, date where he discovers the city in a feverish period of change, Huang Rui has been visually analyzing the social consequences ever since. He does not refute the changes, but the fact that they take place to the detriment of memory. For six years he captures this contradiction in a series of paintings, “Chai-na/China”, which plays with the superposition of images of Beijing in the throws of destruction/construction and on the similarly pronounced words “chai-na” (demolition here) and “China”. In 2007, when the city is accelerating the rhythm of these changes during the final run up to the Olympic Games, “Animal Time” allows Huang Rui to immerse himself in the very essence of the city – the brick – to better capture the memories of a city on the verge of being forgotten.

Animal Time” is an essential piece of work in Huang Rui’s development, as it not only resumes 15 years of artistic exploration on the value of text and its visual shape but also it produces a totally new creative principle that brings art and history together.

Throughout this work of art, Huang Rui is troubled by social problems, by History and collective memory that are all linked to time and to events carried along by time. Text is omni-present in his work – from political slogans to historical text or a historical date – these are the very traces of human memory. In one sense, the text or the date hold within them the memory, but also the power to make it. Huang Rui aims to give a visual presence to text, which allows him to show or to expose the power within a text or date.


At times one can think that he is simply reproducing a text or a date, whereas each time he gives it a twist, another meaning, the possibility of another life, another power. For example, a text reproduced on a canvas will be disproportionately reproduced in relation to the original text; a political slogan will take the form of the female body or a tower etc… the text’s transformation emphasizes its critical interpretation.


In “Animal Time”, text becomes numbers. Memory mingles with numbers, but especially, and this is where we find the twist invented by Huang Rui, memory has the face of an animal. This twist leads him to re-examine and re-interpret in his own way the History of China.


 Reversing History


Animal Time” is without doubt the most important piece of work in Huang Rui corps of work as he manages to “reverse” History, and always, obsessively, “reversing China’s History”


Amongst the pieces in this corps of work, we can cite “Towers Made in China” and “The Three Written Words”, which draw on a historical moment and its political context. In “New Spirit of History”, an installation-performance in 2003, the continuity of fragmented time and its record in history is perceived through dozens of Chinese History volumes stacked on shelves. When the artist replaces the books by dozens of bottles of ergoutou alcohol, the first product manufactured by the Communist Party in China, he makes us conscious of a historical rupture at that point in time. “New China Sixty Years”, a very beautiful painting from 2000, is itself composed of six canvases on which are painted in black numbers, the dates counted in decades, from 1949 –advent of the Communist Party’s rise to power in China –to 2009, date that still belongs to the future. The first five canvases are red, color of the red Memory of the History of China in the communist era. The last canvas – the decades from 1999-2009 – has been left white, leaving History to add the color that will suit this as yet unknown era. These minimalist pieces, in which an apparent lack of means hides a genuine mastery of materials and colors, are today even more striking. The first inklings of “Animal Time” emerge in this series’ potential to visually present the continual time of China’s History.


Time and the events within it, the recording of History and memory all lie at the heart of many great creators’ research.  Borges, for example, created a literary style that never ceases to fascinate as it constantly reveals that historical memory borders on fiction. Borges’ narration transports the reader back to historical events that seem more real than nature, seeped in archival research that is nevertheless totally fictitious. As if Borges is offering an escape from the reality of time, which becomes the reality of reflection. Boltanski, the great French artist who works obsessively on collective memory, also acquires personal biographical archives, real at the start, (real photos, real memories….) that when weaved together, form a false statement of a false event. And yet, Boltanski’s successful objective is to remind us through his work of real moments in history, such as the holocaust in WW2, or rather, as the author titles them himself “Daily inventories to preserve the memories of the World”. In the works of Borges or Boltanski, the tangible proof of the passing of time can be found in archives, a place where historical knowledge and memory are grouped together, indexed and redistributed, an archive that leads us to rely on it whilst proving not to be a neutral element or transparent tool, but a subject to be contested. Huang Rui also touches on the issue of archival validity and its various significations – imperial time, a recycled brick. Beyond that, what he manages to create is a visual form of time and its fragmented continuity that is immediately visible. The 2,229 bricks in Rome and the 720 bricks in Beijing enable one to see time and history over a period of nearly 3,000 years. The Japanese Tatsuo Miyajima, for example, in his multi-media installations also creates a visual sensation of time passing: dates, numbers, that refer to precise events or not, stream across huge LCD screens to give us a measure and a spatial shape to the movement of time. The passage of time in “Animal Time” which is, itself, frozen in the bricks and the stones, will nevertheless continue in history – linear and cyclical.


It seems that with “Animal Time”, Huang Rui has made himself into an historian; he has had a taste at being an archaeologist. But as with all the great creators that have reflected on the passage of time, the making of History or the recording of memory, Huang Rui distorts reality and tampers with the clues. The ancient bricks finally are inscribed with a date that is not their own but written by the artist himself. In the same way, his work of art cannot only be a simple replica of a coding system; it cannot either be History, it needs to go further than representation to move into the sphere what is art, which it does in portraying for us its animal side. Huang Rui succeeds in making History with art and History has allowed him to create.