Huang Rui: Actual Space, Virtual Space
Huang Rui is a pioneer of abstract painting in China. He co-founded the Stars Group and organized its first illegal exhibition in 1979, at the start of Chinese contemporary art. Through abstracted depictions of Beijing courtyards he found his own pictorial language: geometric abstractions inspired by the Dao De Ching or I Ching, or more gestural compositions based on traditional ink painting. This book is the first major survey of Huang Rui’s work, which also includes his sculptural work and focuses on the artist’s current position as a globally significant abstractionist who opens up the canvas with circular or moon-shaped cut-outs and incorporates the whole frame construction into his exploration of actual and virtual spaces. As Jennifer Dorothy Lee writes: “Through Daoism and the texts of ancient learning, he presents an understanding of time that transforms matter, the canvas, the oil paint. Daoism allows Huang to treat matter as forces at tension or at war, which in turn lead to transformative processes … his works engage a present that is rife with transformation.”
A LIVING BEING THAT CAN BREATHE
Berenice Angremy: Most people would regard the I Ching merely as something ancient and traditional. But you turned the old into the new in your work. So you are superimposing the spatial relationship of the old and the new to present your contemporary consciousness in a dislocated way. In any case, you are pursuing the I Ching as a contemporary concept.
Huang Rui: Now, the first thing we should do as an artist, as opposed to a craftsman, is to figure out how much contemporaneity we have. We have a very contemporary understanding of nature, humanity, and the universe, for example, of astronomical geography, the movement of life and its emotional expression. Without contemporaneity, an artist is just an old man—just go on living and working, time waits for no one. Yet when an ancient man lives to the present, he can be contemporary if he realizes that he is travelling through time and space. If he uses the concept of time travelling, he has a contemporary practice. So there are two levels: one is the driving force of creation, and the other is rising from the past, as in those thoughts from the I Ching.
I basically oppose the attitude of most scholars interpreting the I Ching, because they believe the voice is from top to bottom conveyed through one’s own body. I don’t think so, as I’m bottom-up, hence a dissident. In fact, what the I Ching invented, as a matter of course, is reverse thinking, which helps you establish your own thinking. Therefore, the book is no longer what everybody thinks it is …
When I had not yet read the I Ching, I painted the order of space in Beijing, an aesthetics that dates back to the Yuan dynasty. After reading the I Ching, the contours of the location, or of the skies, were all highlighted. My concepts come from the life of the people. The square is solidity and the circle is imagination: a square can be a space of life, a private space, an exoskeleton that projects absolute ownership. The form of the circle can be externality, emotions, society, history, or anything. The space in between them is my breath, and the critical point of my creative practice …
B.A.: As you are focusing on abstraction, the development is clearly visible. You have taken a powerful next step; it really seems a new direction rather than a few different works.
H.R.: In the past two years, I have gone full circle. I thought it should have happened sooner. That is, when you take a complete turnaround and you stand at a spot higher than the original position, where you can see the past and you can also see a little bit of the future. This is an ideal position. In the recent two years, I started to have this feeling, knowing how to create and how to develop possibilities with both Dao and No-Dao (my coinage). When you have the Dao, you need to ascend and grasp reality. During No-Dao, you do not need to ascend, you are an empty object, floating freely.
B.A.: These works are also a way to grasp your environment, connecting the inside and the outside. The external environment could be history, politics, and social issues, all of which merge into your art.
H.R.: There are two layers of space in my recent works: I dig a hole in the canvas and hang it at a distance from the wall, so that the hole and the wall form a kind of perspective. This perspective is in opposition to the picture, or in line with it, but at the same time a contradiction, since it belongs to another dimension. The original painting is pulled outwards and thus becomes an installation, not merely a picture.
It is as if the painting becomes a living being that can breathe. Instead of something flat it also goes into the three-dimensional realm, and as it has two layers, it also enters the dimension of time. That’s what we call the fourth dimension. This is what I do, I don’t arrange everything in a fixed direction. I allow the possibility of movement and process, so that it can advance in the spatial dimension. So far, all the spaces I have created, in the Space-Structure and Space series, in installation or in sculpture, they are all three-dimensional. Now I focus on the fourth dimension: there is a feeling of how much it can provide, not clearly, but you know it is there beyond the picture plane. It produces a presence, it hints at vague imaginations. That makes me feel good, and I need to work harder along this way.