Growing bamboo on the eaves, planting bamboo upside-down: Huang Rui’s Attitude and Approach

This is a peculiar title that comes from a classic tongue twister one might hear on the street: “On the house beams hang knives, the knives fall down” (fangliang shang diao dao, dao dao diaozhe). There are two reasons why I use this tongue twister at random, and distort it moreover, to compose an article about Huang Rui. In the first place, tongue twisters by nature resist easy articulation, and in the midst of uttering the awkward sounds there is also the process of seeking pleasure in speaking the words. This in a way resembles Huang Rui, who, since he organised the Stars exhibition in 1979 to his most recent involvement in bringing together the “Dashanzi International Arts Festival” in Beijing’s 798 district, has always been a restless figure, unwilling to toe the line and live his days in mediocrity. Secondly, at the start of the 1990s, when he returned to Beijing from his sojourn in Japan, Huang Rui organised an exhibition in his home in which one of the works was an installation using a basin of bamboo that his mother planted, suspended upside down from the eaves above a doorway. In the lonely Beijing art world of that day, he caught many by surprise and left a real lasting impression. To my mind, this corresponds to and is consistent with Huang Rui’s unusual performance style.


I first became acquainted with Huang Rui in the winter of 1993 when he was putting together his first solo show at the home of Ai Weiwei. At that time, Weiwei had also just returned from America to settle down in Beijing. As they were all members of the Stars, they naturally found that they came together as the art world’s “overseas returnees”. The works on exhibit were enlarged copies of the covers of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, which possessed the overtones of minimalism and formalism, but which furthermore had the emotion that only someone who had lived through the 1950s could have experienced. Their reflections and understandings of art from abroad, as well as their own involvement with contemporary art in China directly influenced the practice of Chinese art during that time. For those who had no awareness of conceptualism, and for talented young emergent artists who were attempting to carry out experimental art, the show undoubtedly served as a guiding example. It should be said that they were among the first to realize the characteristic local practice of “apartment art”, of displaying art without the use of an exhibition space.


From our perspective today, Huang Rui is considered to be the first artist with a “curatorial” consciousness. On September 27, 1979, China’s reform and opening had just begun, and Huang Rui, Ma Desheng, and other lead organizers curated the first “Stars Exhibition,” targeting a local community audience just outside the iron railings of the small flower garden on the east side of the National Art Museum of China. The exhibition was banned on September 29 and on October 1, Huang Rui and several other artists assembled in front of the “Xidan Democracy Wall” to demonstrate in the streets, protesting for “Political democracy, artistic freedom”. Between August 20 and September 7, 1980, the second “Stars Exhibition” achieved an even higher profile and was held in the National Art Museum of China. Huang Rui can be said to have been one of the most active organizers in the group, and his achievements could not be extinguished. After this exhibition, China’s political climate experienced a transformation and several of the lead participants of the Stars retreated in succession to exile abroad. Huang Rui exiled in Japan, remained there for over ten years. While his connection to the Mainland avant-garde grew gradually more distant he was never at rest and from start to finish he maintained the standpoint and attitude of an avant-garde artist. Perhaps on account of the energy of his youth, the younger Huang Rui was unwilling to make overtures to convention. He also spared no effort to throw off the constraints imposed by politics and spiritual difficulties, yearning to become a free rebel.  Furthermore, possessing certain unsettling characteristics, be they in the way that he conducts himself or in his creations, he preserves a calm, distant attitude, such that his whole being is committed to a critical consciousness; at the same time that he is vocalizing his ideas he is trying to establish different types of artistic expression, even to the point of committing radical and extreme acts. In 2002 he returned once more to Beijing and spotting the factory grounds of the 798 industrial district, he was immediately moved. These factory buildings were to be transformed into studios, among numerous other spaces, and the famous Japanese-based Tokyo Gallery built a representative office in this space to become the first foreign gallery based in 798.  Perhaps again having to do with his age, the present Huang Rui is both moderate and tolerant in speech and action against influential forces. He has proven more than capable of gradually becoming Dashanzi Art District’s “eldest son” - a practical mediator, a constant guardian of the rights of the factory’s artists and overseer of the Dashanzi Art District’s integrity, orderly existence, and development. I believe that he has persistently continued to organize the third annual “Dashanzi International Art Festival” with these basic ideals in mind. While there will always be those that do not agree with his approach, I have always considered that in a communal setting, an anarchic state, in a spontaneously forming beautiful but chaotic art district, it really is possible to become a so-called pure, orderly, and upscale art community. It is precisely in these present conditions that its charm is most apparent. It can be said that it is a model of metropolitan culture for the Beijing community; as other parts of China undergo construction in the process of urbanization, it will serve as an important point of reference. Huang Rui today, like the Huang Rui who organized the “Stars Exhibition”, will be unstoppable in his contributions to the current and future 798 and to Chinese fine art history.


Writing up to this point, I cannot help recalling some events from the past. In 2002, I organized the first session of the “Guangzhou Contemporary Art Triennial”; I sought out the lead curator of the “April Shadow Meeting” which occurred at the same time as the “Stars Exhibition,” to learn more about the situation and to collect some documentary material. That individual had also spent many years residing in France, and when I met him I was somewhat surprised to discover not only was he oriented towards the thoughts and activities of the late 1970s but that he was also unable to move forward to the present. In the course of discussing the details, he hoped that from the Mainland I could help him organize an artists’ visit to France, where he would serve as a local guide, and we would divide the money earned in half. In recalling their radical stance and power during the late 1970s, it was really as if what he was doing was light years away from before, and that a whole lifetime had passed.  Just in regard to this point Huang Rui’s position and attitude have remained consistent, and as in the past he has willingly accepted challenges and trials.


Recently, I saw a magazine cover that said the movie director “Kaige is getting old”, and that the “era” he represents has come to a close. Even though they carry with them the trace of rebelliousness, that generation has already been transformed into playing only a sentimental role. While they belonged to a different category, it seems as if from the perspective of time they have already “retired with honors” and left public life. Looking at the current paintings and status of the radical artists of the “Stars Exhibition”, you may bemoan the helplessness of history and the merciless distraction of time, that they have still not been able to surmount the so-called recent revolutionary “rush towards the new, rush towards the old” final resting place of history. But from my perspective, Huang Rui has not aged: “Is it possible not to eat” (shang neng fan fou)?  This is my impression of Huang Rui: a leading figure who can acutely grasp the actuality of a situation, an avant-garde artist who can hold fast to his own ideals.


Feng Boyi

Translated by Ling-Yun Tang

March 2006