On my visit to Huang Rui’s Huantie studio on the northern outskirts of Beijing late last year, the artist without whom contemporary art in China would not be what it is today made a startling revelation. ‘I am thinking about opening my own museum or foundation, using my own money to show my work, as a way to look after it. Few people understand my work and it may take another 50 years for it to become popular,’ he said. It turns out the studio is packed with 37 years of Rui’s art, from paintings, drawings, installations, and the detritus left from various performances – a genre which Rui has always practised.
Part designed by Rui himself, the studio is a great slab of Bauhaus inspired architecture possessing a brutal functionality and which at 50 metres long delivers 2000 square metres of living and working space.It was constructed in 2007 on land leased from a local farmer and is totally illegal. There was no planning permission and Rui has some anxiety that a letter will arrive from the local government cadres telling him that the building must be demolished. ‘There was nothing here before I came other than farmland and a farmer operating a smelly recycling business. I have a 10-year lease on the land which will expire soon. I do not know what will happen then,’ Rui confided.
What was once scruffy farmland and rough uneven fields three years ago was transformed in response to President Xi Jinping’s afforestation campaign to help combat pollution. Thousands of trees were planted including many gingkos which blaze golden in autumn before the leaves fall and become lavish carpets of colour. ‘It is so beautiful,’ Rui said.
‘When the government transformed the surrounding fields the bulldozers kept getting closer and closer and then just stopped when they reached my perimeter wall of my compound. Perhaps they will eventually just knock the building down and plant more trees on top,’ Rui said with a touch of cynicism in his voice.
The wall Rui mentions is a magnificent edifice surrounding his compound and is made from 200,000 grey Qing-dynasty bricks salvaged from Beijing hutongs (traditional houses) that were being razed in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. When he started buying up the old bricks they were very cheap but when the demolition crews saw how enthusiastic he was to acquire them prices rose steeply.
Inside the studio, Rui was momentarily distracted by a minor domestic crisis. One of his two housekeepers had gone on strike.
‘I had suggested that she might do something at another property for me,’ Rui said somewhat laconically. ‘She said no and walked off the job!’ In the absence of domestic help, Rui infused Taiwanese tea for us and served it with great formality with dates and cake.
In 1979, Rui burst onto Chinese contemporary art scene when he co-founded the avant-garde Stars group along with artist friends Wang Keping and Ma Desheng. The Stars was only open to artists who held ‘anti-system views’ and who focused on current political, cultural, and art historical problems. With an emphasis on free expression the Star’s philosophy was revolutionary at a time when art in China was still mired in the drab uniformity of socialist realism.
Although the group proved relatively short-lived – 1979 to 1983 – its impact on the course of non-conformist contemporary art in China was anything but championing many of the relative artistic freedoms that artists today in China enjoy. The Stars – 23 artist in all during its initial year – was the first artists collective to openly challenge government censorship after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. In the eyes of the authorities, the Stars were outspoken and troublesome.
The group’s first efforts to mount an exhibition in September 1979 were thwarted when it was denied access to gallery space but a guerilla hang put 150 works on the fence of the Chinese National Art Gallery (now the National Art Museum of China) near the Forbidden City. The unauthorised show was soon shut down by the police, which led to the artists demonstrating outside the Beijing Municipal Government Building. Two months later the Stars were able to go ahead with an official exhibition which attracted huge crowds and close government scrutiny. Rui himself came under close government surveillance. In 1984, the Stars faded; Keping moved to Paris, Desheng relocated to Europe and Rui married a Japanese woman and set off for a new life in Japan where he was to live in self-exile intermittently until 2002 when he finally returned to Beijing.
We sat in the upstairs rooms of the studio complex surrounded by utilitarian 1950s factory made furniture that Rui collects and uses for storage and as free standing room dividers. It possesses an aesthetic utilitarian purity. I mentioned how earlier in the year I had seen a similar collection in Wang Jianwei’s Beijing studio. ‘He copied me,’ Rui retorted with obvious good humour. On the walls of this domestic space were several of Rui’s paintings from the Star’s period The Guitar Story (1979), Man Reading (1980), and Street Production Unit (1980), all of which displayed the obvious Western influences that Rui was experimenting with at that time.To one side was a large flat screen television and to the other hundreds of Maria Callas cds stacked on improvised shelving. ‘She is my goddess and sung with such emotion,’ he explained.
Rui is a polyglot – Japanese, English, French, and Mandarin – and a voracious reader, too. Books in several languages are everywhere many facing upwards on old wooden bed pallets as though part of a curated exhibition; here Somerset Maugham rubbed shoulders with Leon Trotsky. ‘Every day I read from the ancient text, the I-Ching (Book of Changes),’ he elaborated. Text has always played an important role in Rui’s practice and his passion for the aesthetic value of Mandarin characters is axiomatic. In the multiple panel series Chai-na/China (2004-2009) – several of which inhabit the studio space – the painted Mandarin characters toy with the literal meaning of the word Chai-na, which in Mandarin means ‘demolish there’ and references the cyclical process of demolition and rebuilding in China.’I love the visual sensation often … more than the actual meaning of the words,’ he said.
Rui looks lithe and fit although denies that this is the result of any fitness regime; in summer he swims every day in the outside pool otherwise his only other activity is ‘rattling around’ the immense studio space. He wears a goatee beard and his hair long to his shoulders in a 19th-century, French-intellectual manner.
We talked of the early Stars days and how in 1978 he also launched an alternative literary magazine called Today, which participated in the Beijing Spring Democracy movement (1978-1980) – a brief period of political and artistic liberalization. From 1979 onwards his paintings that until then had referenced Western art ‘isms’ such as Expressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, became more structured and simpler and his palette more awash with primary colour.
Over the years Rui’s output has been prodigious – painting, drawing, sculpture, installation and performance – with a discursive and at times almost elusive style that has led many to find him hard to categories. Threading through this non-conformist mélange of work has been the constant presence of Rui’s social awareness and a belief that personal freedom should be openly expressed.
‘A lot of things happen because society is up and down and my works attempts to unite the highs and lows, like a threaded needle,’ he said.
When he returned to Beijing in 2002, he stumbled upon the area of disused factories that became the 798 art district. He set up a studio there and later helped establish an art fair among the semi-derelict and disused buildings which the government had earmarked for demolition. ‘When I first saw 798 I liked it straight away. What beautiful buildings, I thought. It is a perfect example of socialism,’ he said. The campaign to save the site, that he spear header, was predicated on ‘ …. a lot of contemporary art and us making a lot of noise to save the space, which we did,’ he continued. In 2006, 798 became the country’s first officially designated Art Zone. ‘798 grew from an artistic idea, now today it is simply commercial. No one can stop this; it is just the way it is. Yet it remains the best art zone in the city. The buildings remain the same but it is the usage that has changed,’ he added.
Given the satirical content of much his work Rui could well be considered a dangerous artist yet the government leaves him alone. ‘They no longer consider me troublesome and stopped watching me years ago,’ he said. But the work, none-the-less, remains highly critical of government but in an elusive and oblique way.
Works such as Chairman Mao 10,000 RMB (2006) – six panels each with one inflated Mandarin character comprised of Chinese banknotes – carry a strong political undertow and a biting critique of how Mao used his own image to promote the Cultural Revolution while years later Deng used the same image to promote China’s brand of capitalism. The six panels read, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao’.
Indeed, 2015 had been a hectic year for Rui with solo shows in New York, Beijing, Paris, Mexico and Hong Kong where he also presented a new performance Red Black White Grey (2015), as well as work from his Black and White Cat series (2014-2015), which riffs off Deng Xiaoping’s reworking of the Chinese aphorism, ‘It does not matter if a cat is black of white so long as it catches mice’. Red Black White Grey used painted naked models in configurations that spelled out, 1997 and 2047, in what was a wry commentary by Rui on the promises mainland China made to the colony to preserve its economic identity and personal freedoms when it took back administration of the colony from Britain in 1997.
Rui walked me through the various studio spaces among the incredible diversity of his work stored there. We paused at the Earthquake Installation (2008) a beaded memorial curtain that seems to whisper to the touch and commemorates the 70,000 killed in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan; I struck the drums of Sound Key Words (2011-2012), several two-metre tall towers that hold classical Chinese drums, cymbals and gongs on which provocative words are printed such as ‘Wikileaks’, ‘Haiti Earthquake ’ and ‘Fidel Castro’; and thrilled at the discovery in an upstairs room of a self-portrait drawing Rui made in 1979. For an hour we were immersed in a smorgasbord of creativity spanning 37 years of Rui’s artistic output; in the studio Rui’s artistic history took on a tangible and tactile reality.
As for 2016 Rui has few solid plans if any. ‘I am 64 years old in October and it is time to reflect on life,’ he said. I asked about the problems of censorship in China and what it is like to be an artist. ‘Artists today are crazy for commercial success and money. As for censorship, it is a sensitive question. We are learning from observation as to what we can and cannot do. When I make something I am always thinking about these things. Yes, it is a form of self-censorship. But every day I reflect on if what I am doing is right or wrong. Even though we do not have freedom to express ourselves you can always find another way,’ he commented.
We headed across the garden toward the main compound gate made from deeply fissured timbers from a disused Ming Buddhist temple. Rui was quiet and reflective. The gray brick wall soared high above us and beyond the wall were the acres of trees that dressed the land in a splendid livery of green. I was deeply aware that I was standing in a very special place and Rui seemed to read my thoughts. ‘My studio is a very special place, most precious and beautiful,’ he said. We shook hands and he headed back inside to spend the rest of the day ‘rattling around’ the cavernous spaces within and to negotiate a return to work with his housekeeper.