The Cryptographic Imagination of Huang Rui: Encoding Chinese History in Animal Time

Arrays of antiquated grey bricks from recently demolished Qing and Ming dynasty dwellings in Old Beijing surround carved marble statues of animals representing the 12 years of the Chinese Zodiac cycle. Each brick in the square matrix surrounding the animals is engraved with a series of Chinese characters and numbers forming a code that references a complex, alternative history—a history of China that is measured in what Huang Rui calls 'animal time.' How are we to decipher this history and interpret the cryptic judgments encoded in its invisible architecture?


Huang Rui's gift is not merely visual acuity, but also the systematic preoccupation with discourse and power that informs the body of his work. While some artists are content with explorations in visual language, and exercises in form for form's sake, Huang Rui's use of form follows the needs of his larger conceptual agenda. This work clearly bears a lineage to the specter of change in the urban landscape—a ghost of the gray brick city erased by this change. As the grey, then red-brick dominated built environment of everyday China in the 20th century, and symbolically its distinctive experiment with revolutionary, proletarian socialist modernism, is bulldozed and razed to make way for the regime's designated embodiment of the new version of China's urban modernity in the form of steel, concrete and glass skyscrapers and consumer society with Chinese characteristics.  New urban construction has replaced that which came before without a glance back, to such an extent that a space of existence for the forms of the old city is not tolerated. In this way, the ghost-like grey bricks constitute a primary symbol through which this work of Huang Rui's manifests its initial meaning.


From his early years as a pioneer in Chinese path-breaking avant-garde collective The Stars, to his cross-cultural art practice during his years in Japan, through the diverse body of work he has created since his return to China, Huang Rui's enduring concern with the place of the human being in history, the ordering of power arrangements and under-girding systems of knowledge has guided his creative development.


In this most recent installation, ‘Chinese History in Animal Time,’ numerous strands of inquiry come together to present a brilliant, highly systematic, epistemological device for making sense of history. In a move best described as ‘cryptographic,’ Huang Rui draws on the rich traditional folk culture of Chinese astrology, bringing them into critical engagement with traditional, imperial methods for the recording of dynastic annals, in the context of the Gregorian calendar now dominant in the world to constitute an alternative ordering of historical time, visually embodied in his installation.


While Huang Rui's solo show in Rome featured a related installation that revolved around the period from Qin Shi Huang and China's unification in 221 B.C. through the present, 2008, his installation for Beijing is focused on the 720 year period beginning in 1924. The period in which we are currently living, is the 60-year period beginning in 1984 (an interesting coincidence, given Orwell's brilliant dystopian novel) through 2043.


The Beijing installation features an array of 720 old Ming and Qing dynasty bricks from recently demolished Old Beijing residences arranged in square matrices surrounding carved marble statues of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. Inscribed on the bricks are Chinese characters and dates—the encoding of a cryptographic, alternative system, a cultural algorithm for the measurement and interpretation of Chinese history, lending the work a strong textual aspect. Huang Rui has ingeniously integrated elements of the traditional dynastic methods for recording historical annals, which previously featured versions of history written to serve the interests of power, with elements from Chinese astrology—the Sexagenary Cycle of the Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches (an arcane ordering system for marking the passage of time based on the Lunar calendar and incorporating the five elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water the twelve zodiac animals—Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep (ram or goat), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar, who traditionally are said to represent the character and fate of the individual born under a given sign, resulting in a 60-year cycle made from the combination of the 12 animals and five elements).


With his cryptographic system, Huang Rui has designed a 720-year historical transmigration cycle (made up of twelve 60-year periods, each ruled by the spirit of a different animal), in which the animals of the zodiac are used to represent various aspects of the times—and the political leaders and the eras over which they preside can be critically interpreted through this folk-knowledge based methodology—offering a mode of critical discourse about the relationship between what becomes "history" and entrenched systems of power and knowledge. Offering this system of "animal time" to measure and evaluate the character of human rule, Huang Rui has created a trenchant (and dark, obliquely humorous) visual instantiation of this alternative system of knowledge. Through this system, we can understand figures like Chairman Mao, Qin Shi Huang—the first Chinese emperor who unified China (and burned a bunch of books in the process)—and Genghis Khan, as rulers under the cyclical sign of the Rat. Rats are known to cause chaos, turmoil and upheaval, as well as make major achievements, and the actions and great accomplishments of these historical leaders are well known to all.


Under this system, the next cycle is the Ox, and that happens to be the era we currently occupy. 1984 marks the beginning of third cycle of the Ox and will last through 2043. The Ox symbolizes industriousness and practicality. Oxen are good with money, and in modern China symbolize the stock market. For example, in 1984, Deng Xiaoping issued the call for 'Economic Development as Core Task' as national policy directive, marking a major break with the revolutionary radical politics of the Mao era. This indisputably set in motion a China with Ox characteristics taking the lead. 2008, with the Beijing Olympics, has been bullish for China as well, in spite of natural disasters and global economic woes.


In some ways, Huang Rui's move of mind has less in common with his compatriot artists and more in common with philosopher Michel Foucault's attempts to excavate an ‘archaeology of knowledge,’ interrogate the relationship between discourse and power in relation to major epistemic shifts, and to probe the foundations of the dominant, yet humanly constructed 'order of things,' but conducted through (and often text-based, or textually grounded) visual practice instead of theoretical and anthropological case study and exegesis. Moreover, while much of the philosopher's work involved the unpacking, deciphering and disentangling of diverse threads of ideas, much of the artist's work here involves the re-encoding of commonly known data in such a way as to offer a new vista of approach and new way of understanding made possible by the suggestive techniques of the encoding process. In this way, Huang Rui can be described as a cryptographic thinker, focused on the ways in which knowledge can be packaged, encoded, and then transformed by the process of deciphering its meaning. And given that the act of deciphering is a form of critical engagement with the works and the ideas on which it is based, this process becomes an interactive one that triangulates between creator (author), spectator (reader), and artwork (text), against the backdrop of specific historical, cultural and political realities that illuminate the object in question as part of a larger context.


In this way, Huang Rui's cryptographic imagination bears a meta-level resemblance to the sophisticated and intricate modes of thinking found in the writings of literary giants such as Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas Pynchon (托马斯·品钦), and Salman Rushdie, and myriad Soviet-era intellectuals who used cryptographic techniques ranging from ciphers to allegory to metonymy to build elaborate systems of coding that acts as the scaffolding for a larger, partially invisible, system of knowledge. Poe incorporated cryptograms into his story ‘The Gold-Bug,’ setting off a flurry of popular interest in the cryptogram. Salman Rushdie's acclaimed ‘Midnight's Children’ is a magical realist allegory for India's uncertain fate at before and after the nation's 1947 independence from British colonial rule and partition, which lead to the creation of a separate Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh. But while Huang Rui's art bears a methodological resemblance to these works, it is the cryptographic luminosity of post-modern master Thomas Pynchon, in his ’The Crying of Lot 49’《拍卖第49批》, that evokes most comprehensively, the complex and systematic foundations of an alternative historical vision of Huang Rui's ‘Chinese History in Animal Time.’  Pynchon's elaborate ‘empire of symbols’, his often humorous use of cultural allusions, puns, code names and intertwining arcane historical details with contemporary cultural and political predicaments, function to lead the reader into a labyrinthine plot where the need for certainty and the search for meaning, even invented meaning, outside the ken of the hegemonic machine of power represented in the story, spurs on the interconnections of the bizarre and the improbable into a narrative that says as much about contemporary angst and imaginings as it does about realities that are supposed to underlie the status quo.


Like Pynchon and other cryptographic thinkers, Huang Rui creates an ‘economy of key symbols’ drawn from popular culture to allegorically investigate the character of hegemonic power in shaping the history that is encoded for us as ‘truth.’ The traditional dynastic system of recording historical annals, he notes, has been subject to arbitrary changes to suit rulers' whims throughout history and is so riddled with inconsistencies as to be an inefficacious method for measuring time, while the Western notion of time in the Gregorian calendar is too stiff, linear and unidirectional. He also considers the ways in which the measurement and recording of time is tinted by the agendas and achievements and values and goals of those who are recognized as making history, suggesting that history itself seems quite ‘empty,’ as dominated by the dynastic system, which focuses on the glorious or ignoble actions of rulers rather than the mundane yet profound quotidian realities of the people.


Huang Rui suggests that there is no independent system for encoding and recording history, and notes that power and knowledge have long been enmeshed and intertwined together. In this way, folk histories, like the lost, myriad stories witnessed by the bricks he collected for this project, are often elided. Deprived of a legitimately sanctioned space for expression in the hegemonic public sphere, the messy, private, inglorious quotidian lives are left outside the boundaries of ‘history,’ and find outlets instead encoded into allegories, legends and fables, hidden and disguised until they become more symbols than stories of actual lives. With this in mind, Huang Rui collected tens of thousands of old gray bricks from demolished homes in Old Beijing (mostly Chongwen, Xuanwu and Dongcheng districts), and his use of them as the foundations and cornerstones of his cryptographic history take on a special significance as the building blocks and silent witnesses of a lost history, and perhaps even an oracle symbolically foretelling a future, that as of yet is unmarked by human history, which like Hegel's owl of Minerva, takes wing only at the setting of dusk—until human history is enacted and encoded as legible meaning, Huang Rui suggests, there is only animal time.


What the future has in store for us is still unknown, but if Huang Rui's system of 'animal time' can tell us anything, our animal natures will manifest themselves in ways that determine our shared future. Perhaps as China's only-child generation of spoiled ‘little emperors’ grow up and take the reins of power, we will see the 'unpredictable, rebellious, restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, and selfish' aspects attributed to the Tiger, whose 60-year cycle begins in 2044. Or if we're lucky, the positive characteristics associated with this sign will manifest themselves to balance the negative ones listed above: ‘colorful, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, stimulating, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, and generous.’ An era, like an individual is made up of conflicting impulses, but it is human thought and action that determines which of these impulses will come into full play. Huang Rui's installation raises these and many more questions about how history shapes us and is shaped by us in turn.

Maya Kóvskaya