Bianca Chu: In your recent conversation with David Elliott, he discusses an interesting point that all art is a kind of abstraction, that it is ‘taken from life, from experience and condensing it into an artwork’. How do you define your practice? Would you consider yourself an ‘abstract painter’? Or are there other terms you would use to describe your work?
Huang Rui: I got a lot of benefit from abstract art. It is my epistemology and methodology. I continue to explore and develop my own graphic works, which is probably my main occupation. I certainly accept the title of an abstract painter. But my life is full of turbulence from many directions, and the free creators of our time suffer. Even if I were satisfied with only one simple art method, I wouldn't be able to explain social, historical, and practical intellectual problems, nor would I have the courage to face the current challenges. Da Vinci said he could design cannons, bridges, and aircraft. I will defend my freedom. I am free to think and to choose. It is also my free choice to not been defined exclusively as an abstract painter.
BC: It’s interesting that you accept the title of an abstract painter, but you choose not to be defined exclusively as a painter. Can you explain a little more about that?
HR: I am a painter and I have encountered many obstacles in my own life. Some of them are knowledge barriers because the status quo of the society does not match. Another is that there are some political obstacles. Political obstacles are constantly interfering or destroying some academic experiments. These two factors make me feel that I have to put myself into the practice of social action. In this case, in addition to protecting myself, I can begin to make an attempt. This is the most ideal situation: establishing an attempt can give us access to platforms and freedoms from the grass roots level that can counter the damage. In this sense, I am constantly activating methodologies to counter the times. For example, with the creation of the Stars Group and 798 and other things.
BC: From today’s art historical perspective, 1985 is a very important year for the development of Chinese contemporary art. When you left China for Japan in 1984, did you have a sense that you were leaving a place just as it was developing? Was this departure a personal decision?
HR: I was already in Japan in 1985 working on my own individual experimentation. From my own position, I wasn’t connected with this ’85 movement. This opening up of intellectual discussion and debate was an attempt to modernise China, including school education, the opening up of markets, and so on. I was not in China at this time. But I can say that I am free to find the road of abstraction, of course, it is also inseparable from the information dissemination and acceptance of Western culture.
"These many experiences made me feel that red is also a kind of ‘history’. Not only is the current regime advertised, but it is a colour that is used for a long time when some political rights are used to open the distance from the bottom of society."
BC: So in your own being, you see yourself as more free, more individual.
HR: Yes. You could say it is more suited to the lifestyle of a ‘wild child’. It is what I have lived and practiced since 1983: abstraction became an ethical existence. There are some abstract artists that practice an emotion-free dialogue, and I did this at the beginning. But soon in the early 1980s, when I came into contact with Cubism, I found that there was logical thinking. This logical thinking is in harmony with its ethical and philosophical nature. While I was studying Daodejing, I explored this philosophy. It was especially helpful to me. The Daodejing is invisible and it is indescribable. It is a path that leads one away from reality and seeking the ego.
BC: You got to know many artists in Japan. Are there other Gutai artists you met that influenced you? What do you think about the way they work and how they create?
HR: After I arrived in Japan in 1984, I quickly held an exhibition. I was fortunate enough to meet a famous calligrapher. He is very influential. He knew these Gutai artists. He told them to come and visit, saying ‘you should go to see Huang Rui's exhibition.’ Among them were Shiraga Kazuo, Sadamasa Motonaga, and two later artists, including Sadaharu Horio. […] The Gutai group and later the Mono-ha group had been very sensitive to the development of avant-garde art in Asia as a whole (especially East Asia China, Japan, Korea). There was a connection that was being tested, but there was a personal emotional connection between Shiraga-san and myself.
BC: In our previous research and exhibitions, we discovered a common misconception that abstract experimentation by artists in locations considered historically ‘out of art centres’ (for example with artists of the Gutai group in Japan) are somehow indebted to Western artists and practices. How has the understanding of art centres changed in your mind and what was your experience upon returning to China in 2000?
HR: My dear friend, Shigeo Chiba also talked about this. In my experience, I believe this Japanese way of thinking has become a Chinese way of thinking. For the creative process, the artist has to be able to think his art freely. After 2000, I came back to Beijing and launched the concept of ‘Beijing 798’. Beijing at the start of 798 was very much like a so-called ‘Art Centre’ city. If Beijing does not continue to sustain this kind of openness as a testing ground of free thought, it risks becoming – and has already begun to transform into – a testing ground for the destruction of artistic hope.
BC: I would like to speak a little about more about some of the specifics of your own work. I see a strong application of the colour red in your work, red seems to have an important position in your practice. I also saw your 70s notebooks, both red in colour. There is also the commonly known ‘Little Red Book’ of Mao Zedong’s.
HR: I was born in Beijing. I participated in the Red Revolution, the Cultural Revolution. These are two typical colour symbols that give a strong mark to young people who grew up in the city. Another is that in the process of exploring traditional culture, I learned ink painting. I also have good friends in the Forbidden City. These many experiences made me feel that red is also a kind of ‘history’. Not only is the current regime advertised, but it is a colour that is used for a long time when some political rights are used to open the distance from the bottom of society. For example, the Tang Dynasty is like this. The Tang Dynasty loves to use expensive purple and red-purple. This colour signifies that your official position is approaching the royal level. The colour of the walls of the Forbidden City came from the Han Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty used this colour when looking for orthodox culture. These histories are particularly worth investigating and they are also my research topics. From colour, orientation, and space, they form some propositions and three-dimensional structures. I think I have a certain say in traditional elements, including colour, line, position or space. I know their historical origin.
BC: The red is like a signifier, the colour means more than just a colour, and the signifier is many things within the history and the culture. So it means nothing and it means everything as well. In a way I think that sort of dichotomy is also very much tied to this idea of the Dao is not the Dao that is named, as you previously mentioned.
HR: Dao is a spiritual way, so it is not implemented in a specific text. I see myself as a practitioner. The Dao is also a visual perception, and I am constantly trying to fill the void within visual perception. Because of Dao's inherent emptiness, there is an absence of the Dao in this society, or rather the feeling of an existence that evades responsibility. The Dao does not exist in an in-between or half-hearted level; its knowledge is both fulfilling and complex, its knowledge is cumulative. Only in periods of great changes in history are there a few excellent literati who add to and enrich the study of Daoist theory. Followers of Daoism are the people at the lowest level of society, which is not the same as followers of Confucianism. Confucius focused on the potential of building society, from the top to bottom. Daoism was in short supply. So why did Daoism eventually not develop in China, yet was in Japan? It was because no one remembered the connection between the ‘Way’ and Zen. What is Zen and how does it manifest? How can it be wielded in our everyday lives? In later times, this knowledge did not exist in China.
The above text is an excerpt from a longer interview published to accompany the exhibition – Huang Rui: Wild Children at Sǀ2, London 26 September – 14 November 2019.