Seminal Chinese artist Huang Rui was a leader of the Stars movement in 1979 and also a mastermind of 798 Art District in Beijing. We invited British curator, writer and museum director David Elliott to speak to the artist. This illuminating conversation took place at CoBo Salon during Art Basel Hong Kong in 2019. The discussion began by placing abstraction into a Chinese context, and what role a frog plays in the contemplation of art movements.
Text: CoBo Editorial Force
Images: Courtesy of the artist
DE: It gives me great pleasure, Huang Rui, to be here with you. You were not only a member of the Stars, you were a Star right at the beginning of it all after the Cultural Revolution, not just an artist, but also a writer and a poet. You couldn’t not be an activist. You are someone who believes that art not only expresses conviction, but can change things; not necessarily in the ways others expect. You believe that art has a power of its own.
Today, we’re talking about abstraction. I would just like to say, as a prelude, that abstraction is taken by people to mean many different things. Also, linguistically it doesn’t necessarily translate so easily.
You could say that all art is an abstraction. It’s taking something from life, from experience, and condensing it into an artwork. In the history of Western abstraction, the semantics of the idea is that abstraction is “taking something out or away”. It’s taking something from life. And the whole of Chinese painting is an abstraction, of course. It’s a convention, it’s a conceit. If you look closely at Northern Song landscapes, you can see that the abstraction in the way they are painted. Only when you zoom out, do you see mountains – and also with other kinds of Chinese art as well. These are abstractions from nature, they’re not real. The whole question is, what is real? I know that this is something you are very deeply concerned with. Huang Rui, can you tell us please about your understanding of abstraction, your particular story, and about how you began to think about abstraction in your work.
HR: The title “Ways of Abstraction” suggests paths which I deliberately took during a journey, as if setting out with a destination in mind or following an ordained route. In fact, the question of whether this is a physical journey of any kind is an important one. I would say that it is a spiritual journey. Or rather a journey begun by the spirit, but entered into by the body. Eventually, it becomes hard to describe the actions of the body, because abstraction simply becomes a way of life. Even defining abstraction becomes a challenge. I think of a frog, and how he might view a landscape. When it is so difficult to imagine another creature’s perception of a landscape, how can we begin to contemplate abstraction?
DE: One definition of abstraction is by opposing it to socialist realism. I wonder if you could talk about your early years and about how the political situation at that time played a role in your art.
HR: I wasn’t able to complete my education – the Cultural Revolution began just as I was about to go to middle school. This meant that calligraphy was abandoned, swept aside, as belonging to the past. But I never stopped learning or stopped painting. When I painted, it was in the “Big Character Posters,” – the political exhortations and portraits of the leader. The Soviet style became pervasive at the time, as Chairman Mao looked north for inspiration on how to publicize the party message in a modern way.
DE: You were sent to Mongolia to work on a farm in a village. Did you make paintings for the people who lived there, kind of good luck paintings, New Year Paintings?
HR: For the first two years, I just worked hard at the fields. In the third year, it was discovered that I could paint, and then I moved into a commune. This meant that I had work copying posters which were sent to the cities. These posters were a kind of very specific manga, destined for mass appeal. I did this for two and a half years before I returned to Beijing. For many, their first experience of abstraction is through the written word. But this was a time when Chinese poetry was unavailable. It was easier to find the collected verse of Mayakovsky. With the written word so closely controlled, an early catalyst for my understanding of abstraction was music. I remember an uncle bringing back a record of Tchaikovsky from a visit to Moscow. I listened to it in darkness. Abstraction at that time was finding ways to reach me, and it followed different paths to find me. There was a void at that time: I felt lonely and tired. I wrote poetry for myself – the verse was a rather lonely dialogue with the moon. My time in Mongolia was rather like that – a sense of isolation, separated from people, but with the stars and the moon.
DE: I guess this whole movement, the student movement in 1978, 1979, consisted of people who had been lonely actually coming together with those of like-mind and starting to think of ways of doing something together. You were one of the prime movers in the first Stars exhibition with Ma Desheng. I guess you probably weren’t looking for any more collectivism in your approach after what you’d been through. What strikes me about the Stars is that all their work looks very different. I guess this is really your experience, is that right?
HR: Our Stars group was like the stars in the sky. They have a distance. We had a good relationship though. In some ways, our relationship was less about art, and more about life. Life is certainly what we talked about for the most part.
DE: In terms of your artistic influences, at that time, just having access to art made in the western tradition must have been incredibly difficult. Unlike your colleagues in Russia, they did have in their museums Cézannes, Gauguins and a few early Picassos. Nothing later than that, but they were well aware of Cézanne. But that wasn’t the case in China. I mean, as far as I know, there were no Cézannes in Chinese museums. So you were looking at early avant-garde western art through books. Maybe they were produced in the Soviet Union and brought over. Then yesterday at the China Club, you were talking the French Rural Painting exhibition which took place in Tokyo in 1978. It was the first time it was possible to actually see art from Corot to Cézanne, and French nineteenth-century “socialist realism” – Bastien-Lepage and people like this. How did you react to seeing these artworks for the first time?
HR: Just as I wouldn’t credit Tchaikovsky as the beginning of a story of abstraction, it would be hard to view Cézanne as a visual counterpoint. However, it was certainly the start of that conversation. I thoroughly disliked Soviet painting and the socialist realist style. Cézanne was not this. So I discovered Cézanne. He was my teacher. I noticed how he painted, one touch, just squares, then colour, an adjacent square of colour, then a space, space, space, space. He created a sense of openness. It’s perhaps not accurate to refer to it as impressionism, because his painting took me into the real world of landscapes.
DE: Yes. But not a total view of a landscape, but rather segments of a landscape or of a motif which he was putting together, almost as if it were pixelated. It’s an anachronism when I say that, but that kind of approach: working square by square. He was just looking and waiting, and doing, and redoing as the light changed. You can see nightfall in his paintings very often and his drawings and watercolours too. That nowness, that haptic sense in his work, is really important and is something new for everyone when they see it. It’s great that they could have this resonance with so many people even later.
Later, from 1984, you lived in Japan for a period. What did you feel on arriving in Japan which has its own history of modernity with different traditions?
HR: I was lucky when I went to Japan because I was already known through the Stars exhibitions and the articles I had published. As a result, I was visited by several of the Gutai artists when I held my exhibition of calligraphy. I found that some Chinese calligraphers came from China to visit my exhibition once they heard about it. Some Chinese artists working in Japan went there less to study Japanese modernity, but more to contemplate the ancient Chinese arts which they had not been exposed to after the Liberation. I was able to subsume Japanese influence into my work, however. Japan’s style left its mark on me. In Japan, people like material. Whatever the style of art that is being created, there is this elemental purity and simplicity. You just talk about material. It’s not materialism but a way of contemplating beauty.
DE: Mono-ha was a key movement at that time. Lee Ufan is perhaps the most well-known member of those abroad. But there are many others. They too are a bit like the Stars. They didn’t have a communal style. What happened when you returned to China?
HR: From 1982, in Beijing, the government began pushing against capitalism in a “spiritual pollution” campaign. That was a difficult time. The Stars group were also prevented from exhibiting again. I had been invited to join the Artists’ Union, but I wasn’t even able to sit on a chair there before I was thrown out! What followed was a time of reflection, a creative introspection, without the distraction of work or social events. Although we did open an underground magazine for a very brief period. This was the moment when a friend introduced me to the thought of Lao Tzu. This school of thought was helpful to me in the 1990s too, when the troubles of the Japanese market impacted the number of exhibitions I could do there. I learned Lao Tzu, then quickly I moved to the I Ching. Because they are linked in their thought.
DE: I’m very interested in the group of works that you made about the idea of China. Chai-na, destroy and China, country. And this idea of the history of China having been one of constant growth, flowering, and destruction, and then birth, growth again, destruction. Really it’s based on a kind of poetic conceit because it starts off with this written idea. When did you really first think of that and start to work on it?
HR: In 2002, I was living in my childhood home in Beijing. My studio was where the 798 is now. I was horrified at what was happening around me, and I had to campaign to save the old Beijing I knew, and to play a role in creating 798 as a place whose own success is its best chance of survival. However, at the time, I could see all of my early influences being destroyed: Hutongs, all demolished. For me, it was shocking. It felt like I was becoming a stranger in my city, and that the old was being disposed off in the most radical way imaginable. I saw Mao destroy temples, but he didn’t destroy people living in houses. I remember the temples used to be like those in Kyoto in Japan. You could hear the bell, the sound of a bell. You could go to a temple, hide something and retrieve it next time. It was permanent. But all was destroyed, destroyed, destroyed.
DE: Well, in conclusion, I’m very impressed by how your abstraction is not the slavish application of a method, or a process, or an influence. We all know that from the late 1970s, Chinese culture, after having been cut off for so long, was like taking the cork out of a bottle when everything rushed in to fill that vacuum. So quickly did Chinese art, and society, and culture transform itself and absorb these things. It’s self-confident enough, long-lasting and deep-rooted enough to be able to do that. One would say these experiences are a shock or only a tremor in the context of a history that goes back so long. One hopes that this was only a tremor. Thank you very much, Huang Rui.
The conversation has been edited and abridged for publication.