Text Games of Huang Rui


'The Complete History of China' is lined up on a shelf, dozens of tomes in order; an abridgement of 10,000 years of History, or rather 'History Part I', prior to the fall of the last dynasty in 1911. Two huge fermentation jugs are waiting to be filled. Sitting on a stool, Huang Rui is drinking Erguotou, a rice-based spirit this is 56% alcohol. He lingers on each history-charged swallow, oblivious to the commotion of the four people remodelling this set. One picks the books off the shelf and tosses them into the jugs; another opens cases of Erguotou, while two others remove bottles from the cases and align them on the shelves in place of the historical anthology. 'History Part I' is now in place before our eyes: 240 bottles of Erguotou on the shelf, starting 1949, the year when Erguotou became the first product to be manufactured under authority of the Chinese Communist Party. Since then, this little bottle of the strongest and cheapest alcohol in the country has spread to every household, and it is still the alcohol of the everyday man. People drink it without really thinking about where it comes from, they drink it and live it on a daily basis, rather like Communist Party thought. The performance continues with a new set change: the players empty the alcoholic contents of the bottles into the fermentation jugs and return them to the shelf. Suddenly the activity comes to a halt. Huang Rui, in a deliberately non-spectacular motion, sets one of the jugs aflame. The books barely have time to catch fire when he swiftly covers the jug with its lid. The New Spirit of Chinese History performance is over. In 2008, the jugs in which the two parts of China’s history are now fermenting will be opened as part of another performance. History can be lived, read, learned, dictated. Here it is drunk, fermented, digested; what stance we take in regards to history handed down by society leaders is left up to us.


On March 28, 2003, Huang Rui took part in Transborder Language 2003: Poetry and Performance at Beijing Tokyo Art Projects.  I saw his work for the first time with little knowledge of his background, and was immediately struck by an artistic language whose codes were not quite familiar to me. I was able to decipher its symbols enough to embrace the idea, but more importantly, I felt moved by this artist’s approach: decidedly conceptual, but with real aesthetic emotion.



Text is rife in Huang Rui’s work. It appears in large and small canvases covered in characters painted in black, red or gray, it is printed on paper, on red or transparent fiberglass, and in printing press characters enclosed in funeral urns. It can read as entire paragraphs excerpted from Party assembly proclamations, as a list of famous Party figures, or as songs and slogans glorifying the CCP and Mao Zedong, and rocking the worlds of entire generations of Chinese.


For this artist, text is not an accessory, it does not accompany image – the text is an image, the center of the work, its content and form.


Huang Rui is far from being the only person using text as the basis of his work. Stacks of words may bring to mind the artwork of Joseph Kosuth (USA) or Ben (France), to name two. For Kosuth, who starts with the premise that artistic propositions are linguistic in nature, the text he exhibits is a comment on art and thus is art. For Ben, phrases illuminated in neon, function as statements on the derisory nature of our daily existence. In Huang Rui’s case, text is an environment that shapes our political outlook on a daily basis. His job is to position text to solicit reflection and provide viewers with elements of debate.


Despite or perhaps because of China’s long tradition of writing and erudition, relatively few contemporary visual artists here have made text a leitmotiv of their work outside of Xu Bing or Gu Wenda, who have never stopped working artistically on the development of text-based and calligraphic corpuses. Their anti-writing shows how these artists are "deeply committed to traditional aesthetics yet profoundly skeptical of any 'content' or doctrine.”[1] While Huang Rui’s art adopts an entirely different tack in its replication of content as well as form, the action of demystifying textual icons is the same.


[1] Wu Hong, Transience 



From text to slogan, the jump is short. A slogan is a short and incisive form of text that sticks in the minds of those unwilling to read everything; those who need to swallow a message quickly and efficiently, record it, and commit it to memory. Politicians and ad-makers use and abuse them in every country of the world, and it is fair to say that since the second half of the 20th century we have been living in the era of the slogan. In China- slogans rule. No doubt the Chinese language lends itself well to this short textual form with characters offering a potential for summarization that makes western languages seem unwieldy in comparison. Communist propaganda has used this fact to its advantage, building its ideological pillars on catchphrases and their constant repetition. From a historical standpoint, Chinese are still living with this heritage of slogans from its leaders. In spatial terms, the political slogan and its now omnipresent proxy the advertising message have resulted in tremendous signaletic density within the cityscape. All of these textual signals operate as codes that govern society on a daily basis. The ability to visually transform these codes is in my view the greatest strength of Huang Rui’s work. In 13 years, he has achieved this in every artistic form he practices, be it painting, installation or performance.


One Country, Two Systems, Fifty Years Unchanged (2006) is an installation that invites viewers to pause on the famous slogan that defines relations between Hong Kong and China. A thousand everyday consumer products are placed on 50 shelves, each one bearing the label 'One country, Two systems, 50 years Unchanged'. These edibles (foodstuffs and drinks), hygienic products (soaps, creams, etc.) and healthcare items (medicine) have all been designed to meet inherently changing human needs. Given this, one has cause to doubt that these products haven’t themselves been altered in the past 50 years. In any case, we will find out in 50 years. This installation plays upon the slogan’s scope and meaning, the symbolism of numbers, mass consumption, and above all, humor.




From 1993 to 2006, we discover thirteen years of artistic creation based essentially on text play and an evolution that never suffers from repetition. Among his early works, three great ‘Long Live Chairman Mao’s’ (1994) employs text painted and circled in red to suggest a gigantic version of the kind of Chinese seal typically stamped on calligraphies and paintings. For a long time Huang’s canvases resembled oversized sheets of paper. The painting technique applied to characters is plastic, in clear rupture with a calligrapher’s traditional brushwork, resulting in a typographic treatment more in common with advertising signage: slick as if hot off a printing press, formal and cold. Following a large body of work in this vein, Huang begins writing forms visually. The painting becomes a slogan whose characters trace the body of a woman, from head to pubis (Deng Xiaoping’s Women, 2006). Text takes the form of installations, for example with Manifesto of the Founding Ceremony (2003), a piece that combines text with the actual printing press characters originally used in its printing. Text becomes quasi-sculpture in Twin Towers made in China (2003), where characters in red plexiglass that compose two catchphrases of the current Party’s founders, Mao Zedong and Jiang Zemin, are stacked in two transparent towers. By opening the top of the towers, we can touch the characters and play with them like a puzzle. Huang Rui’s text work continues to take on three-dimensional forms including in his performances. In No Book (Transborder Language 2005), Huang asks the audience to write statements about the word 'No', collects the resulting sheets of paper, stacks them in the form of a book, which he then nails to a piece of word with a long iron spike. The performance produced text, and the text became a book-object.




The persona of Mao Zedong is central to Huang Rui’s work, yet in the past 13 years this figure has never appeared figuratively. While Political Pop and Cynical Realism movements have revisited the Great Helmsman icon visually with endless replications of his face, Huang has always focused on the essence of Mao, his ideas, the propaganda he implemented, and thus his texts and slogans. The evocation is always direct and often hilarious, such as inSelected Works of Mao Zedong. The cover of the each of the four volumes of this legendary piece of literature is faithfully reproduced in giant size paintings. Huang Rui adds to this series a little known fifth volume compiled by Hua Guofeng, and his own sixth volume. For a Chinese person coming across this last piece, the effect is arresting.


It is only in his latest works that Huang Rui has opted to show Mao’s face. Accustomed to reading Mao rather than seeing him, this change in representation strategy threw me off at first. In the installation Chairman Mao, 10,000 RMB (2006), the slogan 'Long Live Chairman Mao' (literally: 'Ten Thousand Ages to Chairman Mao') appears on bank notes bearing Mao’s portrait and totaling 10,000 RMB. The point of this piece is unequivocal: on one hand the all-powerful market that is makingChinaa great world power, on the other, communist China, dominated by the figure and romantic idea of Mao Zedong disinterested in money. Considered on a conceptual level, this piece becomes consistent with previous work. Huang is not representing Mao so much as artistically translating an original document carried by everyone. Although one can find Mao’s face in official venues and on tourist souvenirs, he is hardly exhibited in a mass way these days. These bank notes we so commonly exchange in our financial transactions – are they not the primary representation of the Great Helmsman we meet each and every day?


A way of life


It is rare to find an artist as engaged as Huang Rui. From his publicly recognized work blurring the borders of art and social action, resulting notably in the foundation of the Stars in the 1970s and the development of 798 Art District in the last three years, we know this man as an artist who lives and works in a way which is completely engaged with his era. To grasp the scope of his involvement from a purely artistic standpoint, one needs to be able to read the Chinese in the texts, know the codes, the history, the places and figures that have left their mark on China. Only with this kind of complete elucidation can we understand that there is no stunt here, that the wordplay and cultural and historic references are more than playful, that they also work as statements of an artist who has become an active witness of his epoch. Yet his assertions are no less strong when he makes them in English. In the installation Made in China and Illegal Immigrants (2003), the words “Made inChina” in red, and “Illegal Immigrants” in yellow float on water, an entrancing reference to one of the inevitable consequences of over-consumption societies existing within a global economy.




They are three. The first woman has black hair and embodies a Han Chinese; the second has red hair, symbolizing a revolutionary female; the third has the golden blond tresses of the western or well-to-do woman. Deng Xiaoping’s Womenform a triptych on the theme 'One Center, Two Foundations', a slogan synonymous with China’s political and economic turning point orchestrated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. The slogan’s characters form the shape of a woman’s body: “One Center, Two Foundations” for hair, 'connect' for a mouth, 'the two ends' for breasts, and 'reach the center' for a vagina. Text and form are in total interplay here. The meanings in this piece continue to multiply as we read it. The words take on new meaning with their assemblage in the appearance of a woman, and the symbolism of its colors references the Party’s ideological evolution – black/China, red/revolution, gold/money. Huang Rui is quite thrilled with this slogan, often mentioning that with one slogan he has painted three women.


One day a foreign curator came to Dashanzi looking for work for a European exhibition on the theme '
Made in China', visited Huang Rui’s studio and emerged five minutes later, completely blasé. I believe one of the strengths of Huang Rui’s work lies in its ability to elude 'Made in China' clichés while constantly and obstinately referencing contemporary China. For this man in tune with his time and environment, the work is not 'about China', but cannot help but speak of China. Back in Beijing after 15 years of shuttling back and forth between China andJapan, Huang Rui has assembled in the past four years an artistic corpus that is consistent, highly creative and undeniably personal, one that can only be the end result of a 13-year work cycle, started and completed in China.


Huang Rui’s body of work is intrinsically tied to memory, yet manages to avoid the usual memory traps of bitterness and nostalgia. With his installation Marx’s Communist Manifesto (Left Hand, Right Hand Exhibition 2003), the artist is dealing with the memory of this text’s form and content. Printed sheets of Marx’s Manifesto hang on the walls. On the floor, a pile of printing press characters – the ones that were used to print the plates – is covered in sawdust and dirt. The founding text of communism no one reads anymore is disappearing under the dust of time. The cast-iron characters, which Huang Rui had made in the only factory in Northern China still able to produce them, are a throwback to the time when text came out of traditional printing presses. Interestingly, the installation could not be completed as Huang Rui had originally conceived it, as the factory became suspicious of this interest in an official text and halted production before all the characters could be completed.


The remembrance of a disappearing urban environment is brought to life in Chai-na/China, a series of seven triptychs, 21 paintings in total, which Huang Rui has been working on for the past three years. On these large canvases, the English word “China” is juxtaposed with Chinese characters that read as 'Chai-na', literally 'demolish here'. In the background are photos of Beijing that bears witness to a city in the throes of urban and social mutation. Among these, we find a red door covered in sticker ads for movers, a construction site, a courtyard being demolished, a smiling child, and two migrant workers next to Beijing’s central train station. Here Huang Rui is not only playing on words and meanings, he is striving to awaken each of our consciences in the face of a cultural heritage being disintegrated (chai) in the name of a modern nation (China). While the evident drama in this idea may suggest nostalgia, this work’s memory function is more to provide a basis for talking about a future.

Aesthetic object

For Huang Rui, it would be difficult to imagine his artistic practice not resulting in an aesthetic object. In each of his artistic gestures, it would seem that social engagement goes hand in hand with aesthetic sentiment. In this sense, he differs from purely conceptual artists for whom form is often limited to a serviceable expression of statement. This attention to the aesthetic function of an object allows a person who cannot grasp all of his language codes to still appreciate it, as the work can be read on purely aesthetic terms. This approach can be found throughout his practice, in painting, photography, installation and performance. While watching his New Spirit of Chinese History performance, I was struck by the impression of visual tableaus staged one after another. In his performances, his gesture, ever-economical, almost always results in an object: a book in No Book, a piggy-bank in Auction a Book, and so on. Whether it is glass, fiberglass or cast iron characters, he selects his installation materials for their essential qualities.Twin Towers Made in China and Made in China and Illegal Immigrants are all about transparency and visibility. Undoubtedly, Huang Rui’s long stay in Japan has influenced the design of a body of work with minimalist qualities. The 'little' that is exhibited is perfectly mastered in the balance of spare materials and spare forms between each other and within a given space. Huang Rui works his plastic forms like the architect (that he is) works in his house, or that landscaper (that he is also) works in his garden. The internal structures he creates that penetrate the very core of his own individual existence at the same time transcend the universal rules of the games.


Bérénice Angremy

March 19, 2006

Translated by Patrick Pearce