Seminal Chinese artist Huang Rui was a leader of the avant-garde Stars Group in 1979 and also a mastermind of the 798 Art District in Beijing. Huang played a pivotal role in the emergence of non-conformist art expressions in a Post-Mao era. In the second of this two-part interview, Huang shares his thoughts on Chinese Contemporary Art and how meeting key members of Gutai changed his approach to art.
INTERVIEW: Selina Ting, Kirsten Wang
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
Looking back on the history of abstract art in China, we will find that the most unique aspect of artists during this period is partially due to them having experienced the Cultural Revolution, which gave them a unique perspective on China, Eastern thought itself, and the practice of Eastern philosophy. Even though they may have created the same form as in Western modernism, but in terms of their mind they were unorthodox, self-exploratory and free. Looking at your earlier work, from cubism to the Suzhou gardens series, in terms of the composition, the viewpoints of the garden series were very consistent and rational, how did this transition come about?
The two paths were parallel. In my mind, for someone who lives in China and makes two-dimensional work, it is impossible to bypass this obstacle. I studied ink painting as a kid, but I wasn’t privileged enough to actually see the Yellow Mountain, Mount Emei, or Mount Putuo. It was only later when I started traveling that I was finally able to see that garden in Suzhou, and felt really moved, that was precisely a kind of mediation; afterwards, having taken part in the Stars Art Group, I needed a stable state of mind. As the external environment became increasingly complex and hostile, we felt immense pressure, and we were relieved of our membership from the China Artists Association, then there was a plethora of movements such as the Anti-Spiritual-Pollution Campaign. Surrounded by all sorts of bad news, we didn’t know how to respond. At that time, in order to resolve issues of identity, everybody chose to go abroad. Then I met my first wife who was Japanese, we resonated a lot, and I felt a particular need to put an end to my earlier work. The reason being, first, it wasn’t abstract enough. Second, it wasn’t able to sufficiently channel my internal desires, I needed to develop a new method. This was a psychological process, a way to subvert and supersede the past. I wanted to leave things behind that precisely reflected my creative process, it was both an avant-garde way to move forward, and a psychological defense of falling back. Those were the two components of my transitional process—one was a creative mindset, and two was the social environment—on top of the changes already happening in my life.
How did that manifest in your work, did it become more minimal, more refined, or more abstract? Or was it a process of cutting down?
Back then I wanted to carve out my own path to abstraction, I already named the works “Space Structure”. If we were to talk about how this period was different from the previous one, firstly, even now I am still engaged with the Space series, it is a long journey. For me, this development means accepting a challenge, being able to take on the responsibilities of such a challenge. I wanted to resolve the questions that arise on the way, and also reach the results that I truly want to attain.
Did your artmaking change? When you were creating the new series, what went on in your mind when you painted?
I’ve made some pretty good new work, so that makes me optimistic and confident. In terms of experience and certainty, I can say that knowledge has become a constant. When you discover an ancient problem, and turn it into a constant, it’s not easy at all.
Your peers have also explored abstract art. Looking at the composition, your abstract forms are very different from theirs. Do you think that is because you have different departure points, or is it due to different understandings of abstraction? Take Zhang Wei and Zhu Jinshi for example, did you have debates over abstraction at the time？
We hung out together yes, but we rarely debated. We talked about other things, but it’s hard to engage with academic matters. First, what is painting? Is it a true aspiration, true expression, or is it a life choice? If you choose it, seize it, and devote half of your lifetime to it, then you are pretty much beyond reproach.
Did you pay attention to the development of abstract painting in Shanghai?
I did, but I maintained a critical lens. They were doing ink painting. Shanghai was very close to Hong Kong and Taiwan, in fact they influenced each other. When I was little I also did ink painting, so I knew about the scene. Ink painters have a sort of “complex”, and this complex is rather lethal. Before you even begin to say anything, they would start to defend themselves. When you enter this system, you will learn that ink painting is built on inheriting tradition. Oil painting, on the other hand, no longer has this tradition, that’s why my intention was to destroy this “complex”.
Since exhibiting with the Stars Group in 1979, you have sold some work. Why did anyone purchase abstract painting back then?
Only foreigners bought anything. They wanted to buy half-abstract work. Mine was actually more abstract. But my themes were all Beijing-related, so they loved it.
After you went to Japan, how did Gutai or Mono-ha influence you? How do you see Japan’s Gutai movement?
My time in Japan was pretty great, for me it was a rather experimental and learning process. I quickly got to know the Gutai people. When I held an exhibition in Osaka, a few Gutai members came, including Sadamasa Motonaga and Kazuo Shiraga. Afterwards I became friends with Shiraga, and that was an immense gain for me. Aside from having extraordinary achievements within Gutai, Shiraga has an extremely unconventional personality, a very pure person. I wasn’t very surprised that such a person used his feet to paint. We would sit together, drink tea, and chat. Back then my Japanese wasn’t very good, so my wife helped to translate, he would say a few things, even though he was talking to a young artist who didn’t know Japanese. But he felt that this time was very important, that’s also because true Japanese artists, ones who were truly local to Japan, held deep awe and veneration for local Chinese art. He was waiting to see what he could learn from it.
Kazuo Shiraga’s attitude towards the art market was also influential to me. It was about the mid-1980s, a modern art gallery in France had already signed a contract with him, they sold his work and marketed it very well. Tokyo Gallery in Japan was also selling his work. During the bubble of 1987 and 1988, he was already very popular on the market. I remember him saying to me, “this period is truly strange, it’s changing too much, why are my works even selling?”
Now there are some young Chinese painters who are creating abstract-style works, the market is pretty interested in them. How do you see this?
I think it’s good. Firstly, the market has its own viewpoints, so it allows you to break away from other unpleasant phenomena. Secondly, if we can establish certain principles beforehand, it’s always a good thing that the market focuses on abstract forms. Under these principles, there could emerge new works that have a good grasp over abstraction. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like abstract expression has any specifications or tangible logic, but the reality is all of it is subject to control. There is a world of difference between good abstract painting and bad ones. I think that if the market could keep an eye on this, it would be a good thing, as young people could gain practice from this and test themselves.
To many critics today, contemporary Chinese art started in 1985. The ’85 New Wave was a dividing point, what do you think of this statement?
You must be joking! Even the Chinese government wouldn’t even agree. It has been forty years since the Reform and Opening, how is it that contemporary Chinese art has only been around for thirty-five years?
As a participating member of that movement, how should we see that from a historical perspective?
I mention this period specifically, because I understand it very well, even many younger friends were involved in this historical period. Contemporary Chinese art was born because of a structural intervention, it could not have happened without Hu Yaobang’s educational reform. Precisely due to Hu’s education reform, schools and institutions were able to take the lead in art education. He first opened things up and gave you freedom, he cut off your chains and shackles. As a result, artists who flourished after the ‘85 New Wave have to be redefined. For example, Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang were all masters of the ‘85 New Wave, what are they doing now? What did they do in the 1990s? What would they be doing after two thousand years? That’s where the problem lies. How should history be defined? That’s the job of critics. Some people see history as a ‘cake’, but we shouldn’t do that.
From your point of view, when did Chinese contemporary art truly start?
The seed for real contemporary art in China was planted in 1978, it truly emerged in 1979.
It was the year that Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, and Hu Yaobang came into power？
The preparation during this period was one hundred percent significant. We are particularly informed of the situation; Today Magazine was born in 1978. How could poetry be born, and contemporary art not be born at the same time? Aren’t they supposed to have foresight into society? It’s the same thing really. We learnt and prepared a great deal during the Cultural Revolution, but those experiences had to be displayed somehow in society, and that happened after 1978. Why is it that we did exhibitions on the streets and still were not arrested? That is when Deng Xiaoping assumed power, Reform and Opening up was his guiding principle—there were immense possibilities for artmaking for China in the cultural and artistic sphere. Had we not decided to take this path in the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee hosted by Deng, our acts would be deemed illegal. Even if we had artworks, there wouldn’t be opportunities for mutual exchange. At that time, I already made the Tiananmen painting. Perhaps I would have gone on to make abstract work, but I wouldn’t have been able to look at Cezanne’s paintings, nor would I learn about Cubism. All that took place after the Reform and Opening. The reason why I wasn’t reported to the authorities and sent to be judged by the officials, was because the Reform and Opening established a clear objective. Despite regressive political movements like the Anti-Spiritual-Pollution Campaign that came later, I was still able to create the “Space Structure” and “Space” series.
Would you say that such an atmosphere of certain degrees of freedom and openness was the accomplishment of social elites?
Back then, we could publicly convene and converse. Before that, I already joined Zero Point as well as Beidao’s underground salon. The salon worked like this: someone gave you a poetry manuscript, you would return it after reading it, there were only hand-written copies; another scenario would be if I wrote a poem, I would recite it to an audience of seven or eight. Afterwards people would read it, then hide the manuscripts. It was impossible to publish anything. From the impossible to the possible, it was a step-by-step struggle. What emerged in 1985 was gradually normalized. Using the normal to illustrate the ‘abnormal’, that’s China in a nutshell. Even now things are subject to the moral control of the Yi Jing, where the masculine energy presides over the feminine. However, when the feminine evolves to be on top, that’s when possibilities for change emerge.