Chinese Stars Artist Huang Rui interview for German Traveller Magazine
Beijing’s high-rise buildings and congested streets disappear in the rear view mirror and are replaced by empty, back roads as we approach the suburban art district of Huantie. China’s most famous art district – Factory 798 – is already five miles behind us and we can see stray dogs and chickens rummaging around in the fresh rubble of what was, up until recently, a row of rural homes. Out of town villages are being replaced with suburban villas, as the newly wealthy look to find somewhere away from the smog and gridlock of downtown Beijing.
Past the purpose built studios that house young aspiring artists – freshly graduated from schools such as Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts – the road turns into a dirt track. We turn off into a gated compound to find a vast grey brick building in front of us. Waiting at the door is Huang Rui – one of China’s most important artists.
Huang Rui is a large man who dominates the frame of the doorway. His large craftsman’s hands and long flowing hair, gives him the air of a medieval blacksmith rather than a politically active twenty-first-century artist.
The red string around his wrist indicated that this year is his Zodiac year. One would guess from his youthful demeanor and child-like smile that Huang Rui is turning 48 this year, but in fact he is turning 60. Huang Rui was born in the year of the Dragon.
And like the Dragon, Huang Rui has been breathing fire since his youth. Upon entering his self-designed home the first thing that comes into view is a sculpture that leaves the visitor in no doubt as to his personal and political views.
A three dimensional metal sculpture of two intertwined Chinese characters – the characters for the numbers six and four symbolizing ‘June 4th’ the date that the government forcibly re-took control of Tiananmen Square 1989 that was at the time occupied by protesting students.
Huang Rui was born in 1952 in Beijing’s traditional low-rise courtyards, three years after Mao’s Communists took control of Beijing. As the Cultural Revolution launched, 16-year-old Huang Rui was sent to Inner Mongolia to work as a farmer for five years before returning to Beijing to work in a leather factory.
Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 led to the end of the Cultural Revolution that was responsible for the destruction of so much of China’s ancient traditions and culture and the deaths of millions of people; and by 1978 a new leadership was beginning to bring China into a new era.
It was this year that the young Huang Rui with some other liberal minded thinkers started publishing a radical literary magazine called ‘Today’. From the group of students, academics and artists that helped produce ‘Today’, Huang Rui formed a group of untrained artists called the ‘Stars’.
The avant-garde art group contained artists including Wang Keping, Ma Desheng and Ai Weiwei and, for the first time since the Communist Revolution, art was being produced that was commentating on politics and society.
The name for the group came naturally. Huang Rui explained the decision to the China Academy of Fine Arts: “During the Cultural Revolution you could talk about the stars but you couldn’t do it in public, because the stars did not exit. The stars did not exist because there was only one sun, and that sun was Chairman Mao. The sun was the only thing that shone. Chairman Mao was the only one who gave light. During the Cultural Revolution only political philosophy, not natural science was discussed. Also the stars only appear at night. It seemed a very natural choice at the time. The stars shine independently, every star shines alone. They exist by themselves and for themselves.”
The Stars Group were the first to publically protest the restrictions and censorship of the Cultural Revolution but it was an exhibition outside the National Art Museum of China in 1979 that was to cement their names in history. Huang Rui and Ma Desheng led the arts collective in hanging hundreds of works on the railings outside the Museum creating what was China’s first contemporary art exhibition in modern times. For three days the works were on display to the public before the police closed the show down for disturbing social order.
The Stars Group continued to produce avant-garde works with a second show in 1980 but the group gradually disbanded after many of China’s most influential artists begun to move abroad in search of further education and freedom of expression. In 1984, Huang Rui moved to Japan where he was to work and study until his return in 1992. However in a period when China was bidding for the 2000 Olympic Games, politically active artists were not welcome.
“Since the days of the Stars, people always used to meet up at my house, and when I came back from Japan, we just carried on with that tradition,” says Huang Rui, sipping green tea at his kitchen table.
“Today it is Ai Weiwei who is the focus [of the government’s attention] but back then it was me, even though I was less bothered about causing trouble by then.”
In the early 1990s Huang Rui was hosting gatherings for some of China’s most politically sensitive thinkers, including Wei Jingsheng – a dissident who had just been released from 14 years in prison for his democratic writings.
“The police came round and suggested it was better that I left the country and return to Japan,” remembers Huang Rui
Huang Rui returned to Japan in 1994 and when he tried to visit Beijing in 1995 he was turned away at customs and told to apply again for a visa for his native land again on July 1st 2000 – a month after the 2008 Olympic city had been picked.
It was not until April 2001 that Huang Rui was finally allowed to return to his home country.
In 2002 Huang Rui was one of the first artists to move into a semi derelict former weapons factory on the outside north-east corner of Beijing known as Dashanzi. The factory – number 798 – would go on to become one of the most important art districts in the world.
Originally built in the 1950s it was this factory area that housed thousands of workers, building electronic components for military use as war with Russia threatened. With a Bauhaus inspired architectural model, the high ceilinged, well lit spaces made ideal artist studios. Huang Rui encouraged his colleagues and friends to join him in the area and China’s first major art zone was born with Huang Rui was at its helm.
As well as a home, gallery and café Huang Rui also launched the Dashanzi International Arts Festival in 2003 pulling together small galleries, performance artists and the media to firmly put 798 on the cultural map.
As the popularity of the area and the influence of the artist community grew however, the local government grew increasingly nervous.
“They put barricades outside my house, and slogans like from the Cultural Revolution era were put up in the area banning art events,” says Huang. “Many galleries and artists were very nervous to take part in the next festival but we wrote a formal letter to the government explaining the value of the cultural area. It was signed by hundreds of artists and also by about 20 international diplomats who were praising the area as a cultural centre. They eventually realized it would be a problem if they cancelled the arts festival.”
798 was saved and it was officially declared China’s first protected art zone. However, Huang Rui’s power had become too great. “They didn’t want two voices in the area. It was the government management or me.” The vocal artist didn’t win. Huang Rui’s electricity and water was turned off and after a four month stand off he was forced to leave 798 in the spring of 2007.
Today, Huang Rui lives in a vast grey-brick building a few kilometers past 798. His home is made of Qing and Ming Dynasty grey bricks, salvaged from the thousands of ancient buildings destroyed in the redevelopment of the ancient capital in the run up to the Olympics. Inside the bright building are a number of studio spaces that house much of his work including both sculpture and paintings.
Huang Rui is highly socially engaged and his works use political satire and humor more directly than any other of his contemporaries. His works highlight the irony and fallacies of the government.
“They constantly change their policies,” says Huang Rui from his wide kitchen table. “The government change policies faster than the weather. It’s like a big game to them and what I do with my work is turn it into a small game.”
Examples of his ‘games’ can be found in his high ceilinged main studio. Two-meter high towers with classical Chinese drums, cymbals and gongs attached to them stand inviting the public to play with them. The instruments are painting with characters depicting the social and political problems of today. “H1N1, the Euro, Global Warming, Steve Jobs…” Words that take the biggest global issues of today and turn them into instruments – games. A game where the public can release their frustration through banging and smashing away.
Next door, Huang’s Table Tennis tables also have Chinese cymbals and drums embedded into the table – an object that turns not just China’s number one pass-time but also the symbol of Chinese diplomacy – also into a game.
“When you are playing with something, you can understand it a bit more”, he explains. “I take the most serious subjects and turn them into games”.
Having grown up during the Cultural Revolution where political slogans were daubed across walls on classrooms and factories alike, the use of slogans and letters in bold primary colors run through much of his works. However Huang often changes the context or meaning of these political slogans into humorous plays on words.
In a smaller downstairs studio beside the large rectangular indoor water feature, is a room where Huang Rui can be found painting more detailed smaller works. Behind him, hanging on the wall is a two-metre canvas with gold character painted in the shape of the key erogenous zones of a female body. The characters are from a speech that the leader Deng Xiaoping gave just after the Tiananmen incident in 1989 that read: “To control the state you need two basic principles (strong central government and open markets)” – in Huang Rui’s work he is changing the meaning from controlling of a state to controlling of a woman, belittling Deng Xiaoping’s famous phrase.
Likewise, the Chinese slogan calling for Mao Zedong to live for 10,000 years, Huang Rui has used 10,000 RMB worth of 100 RMB notes (each depicting Mao’s face) to create a large character for 10,000.
“Behind the language you can easily change the meaning of it. For a previous generation it meant to live forever, for today’s generation it means wealth. But both are used in Communist China and both are linked to Mao.”
Huang likes to use elements of history in his work to show the passing of time. “A lot of times people need to be seen in history – Mao for example,” explains Huang. “He held China’s history in his hand and it’s important to have that kind of historical reference.”
Some of Huang Rui’s most famous works hang in the next room – the Chai Na/China series. These large scale works are paintings of photographs Huang Rui took of areas of Beijing that were in the process of demolition. Old courtyard homes known as Hutongs, lie in rubble with the odd stool or children’s toy still visible in the destruction. The works use a play-on-words with the character ‘Chai’ – meaning ‘to destroy’ and ‘Na’ meaning ‘Here’ - Together they sound like the English word ‘China’.
“The authorities would spray the character ‘Chai’ on the walls of the buildings earmarked for demolition,” says Huang. “And the residents would then know they might only have a matter of weeks to find a new home before the bulldozers came.”
Much of this destruction of the old was conducted as the city was being gentrified for the Olympics. These works combine skilled painting with bold colours, text and political slogans – all the visual elements Huang Rui’s works are recognizable by. They also show the challenge of fighting the authoritarian system and the social challenges of contemporary China. Something Huang Rui is more famous for.
A recent performance work saw Huang, dressed in his long traditional Chinese robe and dark sunglasses that date from pre-communist China, herding a live donkey around a traditional grinding stone inside a Beijing gallery.
“The poor people are like the corn being ground down – society pressing against them. Although there is movement the movement is fixed so the poor just keep getting ground in circles as ultimately, they cannot escape.”
Chinese artists are currently some of the most sought-after in the world and many of Huang’s contemporaries are selling works for millions of dollars. Huang knows however, to grow to that scale many of his strong views will have to be censored and he is not someone willing to ignore these issues. For Huang the challenges to society and the restrictions imposed upon the common people by the authorities is what is his key message. He has spent a lifetime speaking out and he isn’t going to be silenced any time soon.