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Art Review: Huang Rui

Visual art and language intersect in this new set of installations by legendary Chinese contemporary artist Huang Rui...
By Apr 1, 2014 Arts & Stage

In spite of its tricky-to-reach location, Magda Danysz Gallery makes for an ideal setting for a new exhibition of works by Huang Rui spanning some 25 years of the artist’s remarkable career.

Concerned with the relationship between visual art and language, works on display translate the written word into something more physical. That includes several series of striking, richly textured paintings; classical poetry through thousands upon thousands of tactile beads; and the eight principles of Taoist cosmology as 64 symbolically-positioned umbrellas…

Huang’s interest in the written word — poetry in particular — has been a constant since his arrival on China’s contemporary art scene, which he was instrumental in establishing. In 1978, alongside writers and activists Bei Dao and Mang Ke, Huang co-founded literary journal, Today. Radical at the time, it gave a voice to the poets and essayists effectively silenced during the Cultural Revolution.

One year later in 1979, he went on to found The Stars Group with fellow artist, Ma Desheng. All about challenging artistic freedoms, the collective would dabble in banned Western styles and hold secret shows in private homes. That same year, the Stars went public in a guerrilla exhibition displayed on the railings outside the China Arts Gallery (now the National Art Museum of China). Needless to say, it didn’t stay on show for long, but by their disbanding in 1983, Stars counted the likes of Ai Weiwei, Wang Keping and Li Shuang among its followers.

Magda Danysz Gallery’s 1,000sqm of exhibition area is ideal for Huang’s show, with two key installations in particular demanding lots of space. The first, I-CHING comprises eight groupings of eight black and white umbrellas, positioned around the symbol of yin and yang. Representing the ancient Chinese text of the same name, each grouping of eight represents the ba gua, or eight trigrams of Taoism. Within those, are translations and numbers relating to the 64 hexagrams contained therein: the text comprising the I Ching. Helpful gallery assistants aside, explanations of the work (or indeed any on show here) are pretty much non-existent. It’s frustrating, but even at face value, the installation is striking.

Around the corner is another physical translation of ancient literature. This time it’s an extract of Wang Wei’s My Retreat at Mount Zhongnan. Comprising thousands of black and white beads, together they reveal characters from the poem in the form of a beaded carpet, seating area and curtain. Further elevating language into something altogether more tangible, visitors are invited to walk over, sit on and push through the distinctly tactile beads that make up 行到水穷处,坐看云起时. The result is that of heightened awareness. And who knows? Perhaps something close to the sensory overload that inspired Wang’s poem in the first place.

The adjacent space is given over to Huang’s paintings, with the earliest dating from around 1985. All thick layers of crackling paint, interspersed with the occasional fragment of photograph or textile, the abstract pieces continue the exhibition’s monochrome tones.

Later paintings see the artist continue his experimenting with the written word, this time via deceptively simple combinations of color, characters and words. Alternating between black and white, the set up resembles a sort of artistic checkerboard, forcing the eye to quickly switch between the two tonal extremes.

The words themselves bear a tenuous relation to each other – think ‘black eye’ next to ‘black head’, or ‘white gold’ next to ‘white good’. All in all, they’re a clever play on words, color and meaning, and visually striking.

While the ancient Chinese literary references may well be lost on many of us, Huang Rui's Shanghai solo is still well worth a visit. The exhibition continues through May 10. For details, check the listing.


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