The Artistic Construction of Grand History: Beijing Bricks, Divine Animals, Imperial History

Beijing Bricks, Divine Animals and Imperial History- who would think to unite the three things? Huang Rui has.


Chinese history is long-standing and well established and has manifested in various forms. Aside from the basic essential factor of time, the historic content has also led writers to interpret history in different forms. History is commonly understood as a temporally constructed process. As such, scholars commonly seek to investigate its background, depth and distance.


History has existed for all mankind. Yet history transcends all mankind because aside from humans, history’s creation involves myriads of things in nature. This is why Sima Qian put forth the Conception of Heaven and Man.


Historians do not have a monopoly over history. In other words, every individual can interpret history, as long as he/she examines it carefully. Confronted and inspired by history, which historic elements does an artist pounce on and grasp? What mode of expression does he choose?


Huang Rui has chosen the brick as the material representation of history. Bricks are the stuff of architecture. Brick ruins marked the vestiges of the Zhou dynasty. Subsequently, brick ruins have become a common sight of architectural relics. Until the Ming dynasty, city walls were commonly fortified with bricks to guard against artillery assault. As such, bricks became inextricably linked with city walls. China has a longstanding history of constructing walls. Wall bricks represent a distinct characteristic of Chinese historic culture. In the 1980's, Professor Hou Renzhi gifted a single Beijing city wall brick to the University of Pittsburgh. The brick was placed in a glass exhibiting case in the university museum. The corresponding placard for the encased brick respectfully acknowledged it as a cultural symbol of China.  


Bricks are made of baked clay. Clay is natural; clay becomes bricks; bricks permeate culture and human history. Here Huang Rui uses bricks to lay the framework of time and form a unique history.


Bricks possess a sense of history; something Chinese forefathers had an appreciation for. But the 'brick history' of the ancients often indicated the decline of former, debauched dynasties; they were of the overgrown weeds over dilapidated garden pavilions variety. A pile of ancient brick allotted to each fallen dynasty. Later generations excavated ancient bricks, dusted off the dirt and read the former dynastic name, thus engendering a sense of history. This brick history is a decadent history. Huang Rui's brick history, however, is a creative history in which ancient bricks are imbued with new inspiration. They are reconstructed in a simple and honest manner. 


Bricks function to construct and compose. The display of bricks should differ from the bronze sacrificial vessels and imperial porcelains of museum exhibitions, for the latter are utensils functional in their own right. Furthermore, they lack the function to compose, whereas bricks must compose. Without composition, bricks lay in ruin.


In the hands of Huang Rui, 2,229 bricks from Beijing (dating back to the Qing dynasty) are arranged side by side to form rectangles that transform into modern art, a kind of modern art that narrates history. Bricks that formerly guarded a city now display a history. Given the connotations of bricks, the metaphor is of a history of perpetual collapse and reconstruction. Confucius used the metaphor of flowing water for history, but bricks are different. They possess a rich and dignified capacity and strength. History does not represent the deceased, but rather an accumulation. This is another distinguishing feature of the history Huang Rui presents. 


The arrangement of bricks requires order. Placing the bricks side by side, Huang Rui has constructed 38 rectangular formations based on Celestial Time (each cycle is 60 years). History occupies space, just as space occupies history. Square formations are a distinct Chinese feature and the basis of ancient worldview. The imperial capital was nine Chinese square meters, and the feudal lords' territory no less than 100 Chinese square meters. Furthermore, Zhou Yan imagines Jiuzhou (a poetic name for China literally meaning nine states or prefectures), as nine large, rectangular continents floating on the open sea and composing the entire world.


Huang Rui's rectangular formations take on a spatial form but are inherently temporal in composition. Each brick bears three sets of inscriptions based on three different systems of ordering time: the year name, Celestial Time and Common Era time. The year name is based on Imperial history and represents an ancient method of enacting authority and dominance over time; Celestial Time is based on a mechanical timetable; and Common Era implies a mysterious grand historic cycle. 


In the eyes of the ancients, time was a heavenly mandate. Chronological record derived from observations of the heavenly bodies. One of the main duties of ancient historiographers was to observe the heavenly bodies. 'Revolution' meant revolution mandated by Heaven; when dynasties changed and systems switched in the mortal realm, monarchs ascended the throne in accordance to heavenly mandates to ensure a 'prolonged life'. Emperor Han Wudi proclaimed the first year of his reign as the Dingyuan Year, establishing the official use of Imperial chronicles to order historical time.


Celestial phenomena have the characteristics of Samsara- ‘All under Heaven repeats in a cycle.’ Emporer Han Wudi once said, "New moon upon new moon, everything repeats in a cycle." The concept of cycles was deeply ingrained in the minds of the ancients. Celestial time and the cycle of divine animals provide ample basis for this. Naturally, the emperor was not in favor of cyclical power and thus solved the problem by establishing a renewable Imperial history to order time.


The emperor became the ultimate authority of history under the transformation and continuation of Imperial history. Oracle bones from the Shang dynasty reveal the importance of sacrifices to the gods or spirits of the dead, and it was this that served to demarcate time. Imperial time, or time demarcated by the emperor, began in the Zhou dynasty; the historical order of the Spring and Autumn Annals were based on the State of Lu. From then on, time ordering was based on Imperial history until the end of the dynastic era. Following the 1911 Revolution, time ordering was based on the founding of the Republic of China. After the 1949 socialist revolution, China adopted the Common Era calendar. Imperial or political-mandated time ordering systems served as the basic framework of history. Imperial history represented dynastic era orthodoxy, worship of orthodoxy and obeisance to the Imperial chronicles.


In Chinese antiquity, both Imperial history and Celestial Time were common knowledge. In many instances, people did not bother noting the Imperial history, and marked only Celestial Time. Celestial Time could be found on oracle bones predating Imperial history (though it had yet to be used as a system of ordering time) and was eventually incorporated into the theory of yin, yang and the five elements, forming a major thread in the fundamental worldview of ancient times. Ancients had a divination plate, the shi pan, to symbolize Heaven and earth. The shi pan had a square base plate symbolic of earth and a round plate symbolic of Heaven. The Heaven plate could be rotated around the earth plate. The shi pan was inscribed with Celestial Time, representing the fundamental universal order.


Yin and yang 'information' was transmitted between Celestial Time and universal space; the ordering of time based on Celestial Time formed a transcendental concept of chronology. Celestial Time forms the most constant time ordering system throughout Chinese antiquity. Later, Celestial Time was coupled with the twelve divine animals of the Chinese zodiac. The cycle of divine animals became an unalterable system of ordering time. Celestial Time and the cycle of divine animals were viewed as superior to the Imperial history of the mortal realm and symbolized the mysterious grand universal order.


Among the twelve divine animals, all except the dragon are creatures familiar to humans. No heavenly or even aquatic animals among them, they derive from the world most direct and immediate to humans. They were likely initially inspired by realism as opposed to established as totems. Later, due to the relationships with Celestial Time, they became endowed with connotations of spiritualism and 'destiny.'


The yoking of animals with Celestial Time is a Chinese cultural invention. Animals assumed the authority of ordering time, as if humans were merely subordinates and followers of animal time. Within time, animal life was immortal while human life was but a 'fleeting dream.'


Compared with humans, animals were closer to nature and things divine. Ancients considered animals divine, a kind of natural divinity (to this day Chinese believe animals have the keen ability to sense natural changes before they occur.) The biggest difference between animals and humans is humans gradually distance themselves from nature; culture opposes nature, it is 'false.' Humans drink without thirst and produce from nothing. In the presence of animals, the human world is a spiritual false world. Presently, humans are preoccupied in the frenzied expansion of fictitious online worlds.


To false mankind, death marks a return to nature. Regardless of the time and distance an individual travels on the road of the civilized world, even emperors, generals, ministers, celebrities and magnates perish and return to nature in a moment’s time. Great is the contrast for humans in life and death. Animals on the contrary, are not subject to the same discrepancy in life and death; aside from its physical body and excrement, animals do not add anything more to the earth.


In regards to ancient bricks, chronological records and divine animals, the aforementioned contribute to Huang Rui’s framework of history. The rectangular formations based on Celestial Time and the cycle of divine animals challenge Imperial history. Huang Rui uses animals as a pretext to endow history with a different spiritualism.


Huang Rui magnifies Celestial Time by multiplying 60 (years) with 12 (divine animals) to form a meta-cycle of 720 years. This is an invention of Huang Rui's keen intellect. The spiritualism represented by the animals transcends human categorization and show the macroscopic destiny of grand history.


What profound predestinations are concealed by the rectangular formations of grand history? Previously, historians believed magnifying the scope of time yielded discoveries: Meng Zi believed the rise of a dynasty took 500 years; Sima Qian said, "With thirty years comes small transformation, a hundred years moderate transformation, and five hundred years major transformation." Historian Huang Renyu used an artistic technique to recreate a grand historic framework dictated by animals. In this arrangement, animal spirit inhabits chronological framework. Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, cock, dog and boar each symbolize a different, transcendent trait.


Huang Rui's framework of history ends in the year 2008, a solidifying moment in time. This moment belongs to the 38th framework, of which only 24 of the 60 year cycle have thus far passed. 36 years remain. Please note, the 38th rectangular formation is associated with the Ox. Here Huang Rui posits a question and asks viewers to consider: What remains concealed in the remaining portion in the Cycle of the Ox?


The inspirational power of history is reinforced by the artistic representation of historic progress. Confronted with history, we need not only reason, but also art. Furthermore, historic art is not relegated exclusively to the field of art. Art looks to history as well, or perhaps there remain other meanings.

Tang Xiaofeng