Huang Rui in one of his large studios in the Huantie compound. 

Huang Rui

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

I arrived at Huang Rui’s studio in Huantie, an arts enclave on the fringe of northeast Beijing, by taxi. The driver had been struggling to find the remote location and only did so after several phone calls to the artist en route. The 2,000-square-meter building is a great slab of Bauhaus-inspired architecture, sitting lightly behind high gray-brick walls constructed from 200,000 Qing and Ming dynasty bricks, which Huang had rescued from hutongs (a Chinese term for dense, old neighborhoods) razed in the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The surrounding landscape is planted with thousands of trees as a result of President Xi Jinping’s afforestation campaign to combat air pollution. 

I entered the compound, built in 2007 to Huang’s design. The artist speaks English as fluently as he does Japanese and French, and is courteous to a fault. He asked if I would like coffee or tea. “Tea will keep you warmer,” he added. It was served with dried dates and fat slices of Madeira cake. “There was nothing here when I arrived, just empty land, a country village and an acrid recycling business. The farmer leases the land cheaply from the government and as a sub-tenant I pay him much more. He is getting rich from me,” Huang explained. The land reclamation and tree planting that followed proceeded with such rapacity that the artist feared the bulldozers might simply careen through his walls and flatten the building. “They stopped abruptly when they reached the walls,” he said reflectively, with a hint of relief. Now the compound houses the artist’s living quarters—on the first floor—while two large main studios and other assorted smaller ones are on the ground level. “The studio is totally illegal and built without planning permission,” Huang said. The threat of a preemptory demolition order arriving is ever present. Additionally, his decade-long lease on the land expires this year and he is haunted as to what the future might hold for the building. “I will do whatever I can to stay here,” he said with a feisty grin.

The artist’s desk with a hologram of a cat.

Born in 1952, Huang experienced firsthand the Cultural Revolution (1966–76); as a teenager, he was sent from Beijing to Inner Mongolia to work on a farm under Mao Zedong’s reeducation campaign. Upon Mao’s death in 1976, which led to the end of the revolution, the political climate loosened and a wave of cultural ferment swept the nation. Literary as well as art historical materials from the West trickled in and it was under these times that, in 1978, the artist launched the independent underground literary magazine Today. With artists Wang Keping and Ma Desheng, Huang also co-founded the Stars art group in 1979 in hopes of advocating and fostering freedom of artistic expression. During September of that year, Stars held their first exhibition, hanging works by a total of 23 young artists—Huang included—on the fence of the Chinese National Art Gallery (now the National Art Museum of China), near the Forbidden City. After only two days, the unofficial outdoor show was forcibly shut down by authorities.

Back in Huantie, we were sitting in one of the rooms on the first floor, surrounded by early paintings from this pivotal period: The Guitar’s Story (1979), Man Reading (1980) and Seamstresses in a Street Production Unit (1980), all with obvious Cubist overtones. They looked as fresh as the day they were painted. Huang was able to exploit newfound artistic freedoms during those early years; he experimented with Impressionist, Cubist and Fauvist styles. Stars disbanded in 1984, with several of its practitioners moving overseas. Huang, who married a Japanese woman the same year, then entered the first of two periods of self-exile in Japan. He didn’t return to Beijing to settle down permanently until 2002.  

In one of the larger studio spaces, the artist’s Sound Key Words (2011–12): they are two-meter-tall towers that hold classical Chinese drums, cymbals and gongs printed with phrases carrying sociopolitical messages. Visitors are invited to play on them. Works from Huang’s “Chai-na/China” series (2004–09) hang on the walls behind. 

Our conversation meandered, covering many topics. We discussed his love of 1950s factory-made furniture, which he collects and uses, and the dozens of books in both Mandarin and English neatly arranged on old bed pallets. He reads extensively—including Umberto Eco, Leon Trotsky and Somerset Maugham—and dips into the ancient Chinese divination text I-Ching (Book of Changes) almost daily. 

Huang then led me on a tour of the building, through open staircases and a warren of light-flooded rooms. It was as though I had entered a private museum devoted to the work of a single artist. On all sides were works spanning the extraordinary diversity of a career that has embraced painting, large-scale installation, photography and performance, with an emphasis on social concern and an air of defiance and rebellion. It was almost impossible to move without bumping into an artwork: the pencil sketch Self-Portrait (1979) was leaning against a wall, while nearby the oil painting Girl, also from 1979, elicited gentle nostalgia. 

The artist displays his books on wooden bed pallets in one of his several guestrooms.

The smell of fresh oil paint exuded from one of the studios, a smaller one that was full of monochrome works from his recent “Black and White Cat” series (2014– ), which riffs on Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” For the paintings, Huang covered female models in both black and white paint, then had them roll on white canvases to create compositions that are simultaneously abstractions as well as figurations. 

One panel from a six-panel work, Chairman Mao 10,000 RMB (2006). Together, the panels spell out “Long Live Chairman Mao” in Chinese.

The larger studios were crammed with art. The monumental upended piano, Czechina (2011), was held vertically in a rigid wooden frame, like a discarded taxonomic specimen, behind which were several wall pieces from the series “Chai-na/China” (2004–09). With its title toying with the English word “China,” which if read as Chinese “Chai-na,” means “demolish there,” the series deals with the cyclical demolition and rebuilding of the country. Other works jostled for my attention, such as the exquisitely beautiful beaded curtains of Earthquake Installation (2008), made in response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The sound and movement of the piece serve as a reminder of the disaster that ravaged southwestern China and left 70,000 dead. 

Political overtones resound across Huang’s oeuvre, attracting, as a result, official scrutiny for the artist, especially back during the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics when government sensitivity reached fever pitch. I asked him if he was still under surveillance. “Not now,” he said. “Between 2001 and 2007 when I first returned from Japan, the government watched me closely. During the 798 struggle, they monitored me and eventually decided that I was not dangerous and so they stopped.” The 798 incident of 2002 saw Huang establish a studio in the then-vacant and partially derelict Dashanzi factory area—now the bustling 798 Art Zone—and then successfully campaign to save the district when it was threatened by government demolition in 2004. 

Even as the government was relaxing its watch on Huang, he continued to utilize sensitive and satirical imagery in his work. Chairman Mao 10,000 RMB (2006) tackles that most famous of Chinese icons: 10,000 Renminbi banknotes spell out, across six shiny acrylic panels, the political slogan “Long Live Chairman Mao,” a wry commentary on how the Chairman himself used his image to push the Cultural Revolution, while a decade later his successor Deng Xiaoping used it in support of economic reform. The work hangs alongside Huang’s room-sized installation Texts Are the Legacy of Great Thought! (2007), where the 39 pages of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto is rendered as Mandarin-character type-set pages. Delightfully subversive in their simplicity, both pieces brought a smile to the artist’s face as he seemed to luxuriate in the pleasure of showing his work. 

The use of language has remained a key ingredient in Huang’s output, allowing him to play with the aesthetics and meanings of Mandarin characters. “Brush and ink work is the foundation of my painting. Chinese characters, even to those who do not know what they mean, are beautiful. This is the beauty of calligraphy—aesthetic sensations first, meanings second,” he added.

As I was about to leave, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by all that I had seen in the studio. The artist stood with me beneath the magnificent main entrance gate fashioned from ancient wood from a derelict Buddhist temple. He looked fleetingly at the sky—uncharacteristically clear, on that day, for Beijing. “The government’s views on pollution may be changing but one thing that never changes is the government’s view of sensitive subjects,” he offered. 

We said a formal goodbye and Huang smiled and quickly disappeared behind the brick wall. I looked over at the acres of trees and at the entrance, which is marked by one of the artist’s huge Chinese character sculptures and asked my interpreter what it means. “Me,” she replied. It is a simple statement, and yet it somehow perfectly sums up the complex person that is Huang Rui. I felt saddened that this huge gray edifice could suddenly come tumbling down, and hoped that the artist’s “Chai-na/China” series is not a portent of what is to come.

Some of the 1950s factory-made furniture collected over the years by the artist, used as storage and freestanding wall dividers on the studio’s upper floor.

The studio’s perimeter wall constructed from Qing and Ming dynasty bricks.