Huang Rui: The Power of Persistance

It was in 1982 that I first saw Huang Rui. At that time I was in Beijing studying at the Foreign Language Institute. I had fallen head over heels for a fellow foreign student, so I went over to her dormitory to pay a visit. In her room I saw she’d hung up some really excellent oil paintings and palettes. I heard the works were done by her fiancé, one Huang Rui. I quickly realized I had no chance with her. Some time after that I happened to attend a painting class taught by Huang Rui. Seeing how dim the room was, I unthinkingly turned on a light. Huang Rui immediately turned it off: he wanted us to use only natural light in our paintings. Mortified by my thoughtlessness, all I could do was humbly enter the room. And that’s how Huang Rui became mixed into my bittersweet 20 year old memory.


The next year Huang Rui laid out a wedding feast at 64 Zhao Deng Yu Street. Wang Keping, Ma Desheng, Qu Leilei and other members of the Star Group Art Collective all gathered together. The next day Ah Cheng, the overnight sensation,who wrote 'The King of Chess,' 'The King of Children,' and 'The King of Trees' was also there. Famous chefs from the Zhou He Ju restaurant set out a feast. In the spirit of the moment, I got into a bathrobe and performed a strip tease. Later that year, in August, at an elementary school on Zixin Street in the south part of the city, the Stars Group put on what was to be their last exhibition. I distinctly remember the sight of the members of the Stars Group gathered around listening attentively while Ah Qing spoke. Indeed, they are the bearers of the New Culture. In 1984, Wang Keping and Huang Rui finally decided to go abroad. The night it was decided, Ma Desheng drank too much wine and could not stop sobbing.


It was only after I went back to Japan, while I was translating some material that I learned of the Stars Group demonstration back in 1979. From a picture in the October 2, 1979, issue of the Dumai News, I could make out Ma Desheng with a walker, Wang Keping holding up a placard, and the poets from the magazine Today. I read about the suppression of the first issue of the magazine Aesthetics in 1983. Besides carrying pieces from Huang Rui, Qu Leilei, and Wang Keping, it also carried incendiary works from Xiamen artist Huang Yongbing. Compared to their recent works, these works, although not without their sense of isolation from the world, really come out of the struggle of modern Chinese art to peel away from the Maoist formula.


Huang Rui’s destination was Tokyo. Not yet fluent in Japanese, he got up every day at 5am to work as a janitor in a skyscraper. This must have been a most depressing time for him, without a clear future path. He entered Xinzhou University, went to Tianjin, and then returned to Tokyo. After that it was work and marriage. Enduring life’s most difficult time period, 10 years had passed since our initial acquaintanceship. Huang Rui began to carry out art happenings at the old Wood Carvings Studio in Tokyo. There he put his versatility on display, from abstraction to installation to performance art involving the audience--his work partaking equally of art and life. Even though life was not all that easy for him, Huang Rui worked steadily and his art has received a favorable reception in Japan.


In 1996, the Saitama Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibition bringing together Huang Rui, Lu Shengzhong, Xu Bing, Chen Zhen, Cai Guoqiang and other luminaries of the art world under one roof. The individuality manifested in each of the artists’ work ran with the theme 'Fire: Origin and Myth,' turning the exhibition into an extraordinary artistic event. Huang Rui’s works, entitled 'Heaven, Earth, Mankind, Life,' was an attempt to comfort the spirits of the innocent who suffered in both the Kobe earthquake and the Tiananmen incident. He set up a pool of water into which shown a beam of light. Using an old Chinese lantern slide he then projected pictures of the earthquake onto a wall. The use of light and water captured subtle shifts and transformations, colored by fantasy. At the bottom of the pool, he set up a Yin-Yang mirror symbolizing Heaven and Earth. The overall effect was an exploration of the intriguing instability of light. This predilection for light and shadow is precisely what sets Huang Rui’s art apart.


In 1998 at the Chinese-Japanese art festival celebrating Today's 20 year anniversary, Huang Rui stood on the Tokyo East Rail platform, an image of him waving a bottle of Erguotou (Chinese liquor) projected on a big screen. The artist himself simultaneously did the same thing, weaving his way through the crowd. The work appealed to the audience’s innate emotional core - image and action, fabrication and truth, inextricably interwoven and set free in one space. This moment clearly demonstrated Huang Rui’s free and unrestrained technique.


In each of the 10 years since Tiananmen, Huang Rui has continued to mount exhibitions. Looking out from the inside at this person called Huang Rui, we see the determined pose of one who has taken upon himself the responsibility of history. It is this kind of powerful projection of the will that forms the basis of his art.


By the year 2000, Huang Rui’s art had reached a climax. In August 1997 he participated in the 'Wilderness of Modernity' and other regional art events. In September 1998 he participated in the 'Japanese International Performance Art Festival' as well as putting on other performance art events abroad. In 2000 he put on the 'Traveling on Air' series that juxtaposed installation, performance art, and image. He invited 20 artists with different artistic approaches to put on individual exhibitions in a series called 'One Hundred Years of Memory,' as well as putting on the drama 'Death of the Lord.' His multivalent artistic works have paved a new road. From space to method, his art is a synchrosis. Like the 18 forms of traditional martial arts, they demand the attention of the new.


In 2001 he and the artist Rong Rong mounted the 'Strolling in Asia' exhibition. The exhibition featured photos of the performance art Rong Rong carried out in Tokyo, as well as his wooden shoes, bamboo walking stick, and tea bowl. These all represented a misunderstanding of traditional Japanese culture by the Other. It was a brilliant deconstruction and reconstitution of traditional Japanese culture. This kind of exquisitely hidden beauty, with its ascetic ability to emote, peels the surface away from form, revealing its underlying organicity, a testament to Huang Rui’s intimate knowledge of the essence of traditional Japanese culture. His 'Traveling on Air IV” held at the Center of Contemporary Fine Arts which featured models on ascending stairs arrayed in traditional Japanese attire can similarly be seen as a deconstruction and symbolic reading of Japanese culture.


Zhou Zuoren, one of the great figures of twentieth-century Chinese letters, once commented on Japan’s then steady slide into militarism saying: 'Loyalty' and 'Righteousness' after all are words borrowed from the Chinese tradition. Nor are 'Sincere loyalty to the Emperor' and 'Militarism' the true face of Japanese culture--deep affection for the changing seasons and the delicate, hidden beauty of nature, this is her original face. From any point of view, Huang Rui, with more than 20 years of connection to Japan, exceeds Zhou Zuoren in understanding the true essence of Japanese culture, without ever withholding his critical judgment.


In his various works since 2002 such as 'Super Shopping,' 'Manifesto of Founding Ceremony,' and 'Chai-na,' Huang Rui has interrogated a China which he sees as increasingly capitalized and divergent from the ideal path of practice. Directly confronting reality, his art reveals a world of alienation and attempts some form of transaction. It swaps reality for the discourse of art, thus obtaining an emphasis on real appearances. His artistic practice instills in us the courage necessary for transformation. Speaking to the function of art, Huang Rui’s work injects much needed wisdom into a cold and cruel society. His work gives us the power to keep breathing.


Youichi Maki

Assistant Professor
Saitama University, Japan

March 2006