On December 1, 1987, Huang Yong Ping placed a classical Chinese art history book and a Western art history book into a washing machine and washed them for two minutes. These two long-standing histories were transformed into a pile of unreadable pulp within two minutes. One of the most important Chinese artists on the post-1990s international contemporary art scene, Huang was born in Xiamen, China, in 1954. He went abroad in May 1989 to participate in the exhibition Magiciens de la terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou and has resided in Paris ever since.
Huang Yong Ping’s work can be divided into two distinct phases, clearly marked by the reality of his overseas immigration. What distinguishes these two phases and how are they interrelated? Is it that—as Western critics hold—his earlier works were simply limited experiments within an authoritarian system, but his later works truly blossomed? Or is that—as some within China state—his previous works are free and subversive, whereas his later works are simply sellouts to the Western art system?
Before going abroad in 1989, Huang Yong Ping was already well established and enjoyed a great reputation within the Chinese avant-garde art movement. As he stated in an interview in 2000, “My entire creative methodology—the direction of my path—was primarily formed in China, and I have not fundamentally changed. Of course, the world is constantly changing, but … one always adheres to a certain perspective, and at the age of thirty-five, my worldview had already been formed, so it was very difficult to change.”
The period prior to Huang’s going abroad obviously played an important role in his later development. The Western world, however, is familiar only with his work from the period after he immigrated. What is this worldview that Huang Yong Ping has said is so difficult to change later in life, and how was it formed in China? By exploring these questions, we may gain a better understanding of the continuities within Huang’s practice.
The Emergence of an Avant-garde
At the end of the 1970s, after having been isolated for more than thirty years, China began to open up to the rest of the world. With the relaxation of censorship and the exchange of new ideas, the Chinese art world gained access for the first time to information about contemporary Western art. Five years later the first avant-garde art movement in its history (later called the 85 Movement) exploded onto the Chinese cultural scene. Countless spontaneous exhibitions and small avant-garde discussion groups, accompanied by intense debates and pioneering publications, mushroomed throughout the country. People were suddenly in the midst of a new “cultural revolution.” At that point, Chinese culture moved into a period of intense change. This movement lasted for four years and completely undermined the dominant position of Socialist Realist art.
This revolution raised some fundamental questions: How should Socialist Realism’s reign be overturned? What approaches or strategies should be employed to replace the old culture with the new? Is cultural change a change in form or a conceptual change? How does one realize conceptual change? How does contemporary Chinese art find a dialectical juncture between its traditional culture and Western culture? How can art transcend language limitations? Huang’s works are precisely the manifestation of his own unique thoughts about these questions.
Huang’s artistic ideas, formed in the 1980s, were derived primarily from his studies of contemporary Western philosophers (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Roland Barthes, and others) as well as from ancient Chinese Chan (Zen) and Taoist philosophies. The abundance of translated Western philosophy in the 1980s had, without doubt, a huge impact on Huang’s creative work. His early works often use the method of subverting logical thinking to reveal the internal contradictions of art as a cultural phenomenon. The work he produced in the nine-year period from 1980 to 1989—in its prodigious quantity and in the scope and scale of the issues involved—was like an exploratory fleet getting ready to pull up anchor and set sail.
The Death of Painting
There are two coexisting components of the modernization process in Chinese art: the importation of Western contemporary art and its subsequent use in achieving self-transformation of native artistic forms. This type of importation cannot be a direct transplantation of current Western art; instead, it should be based on the internal logic of art history. When there was a huge influx into China of information about Western art during the 1980s, the changes that resulted from how Chinese artists chose to absorb Western influences gave the history of avant-garde contemporary art in China the beginnings of an internal logic. This transformation more or less followed the progression of modernist art in the West: from realism to Abstract Expressionism (via Expressionism) to complete an internal revolution in painting, which later gave way to multimedia-based conceptual installation art. The changes in Chinese art from the beginning to the end of the 1980s precisely embodied the whole transformation. Its early period was influenced mainly by Western Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism, and its later period focused on the exploration of media other than painting.
In the early 1980s Huang Yong Ping’s work was also limited to the realm of painting—this was his most prolific period of painting (fig. 1). From the very beginning, his work was not an expression of passion; rather, it was a process of questioning issues in painting through experimentation with various languages. To free himself from a fixed aesthetic model of painting, he started experimenting with changes in stylistic language and gradually moved to changes in tools and materials. His study of methodologies and conceptual issues became pronounced. By the mid-1980s artifacts started to appear on his paintings’ surfaces, and aesthetic issues were gradually replaced by conceptual ones. But Huang soon realized that an internal revolution in painting was far from sufficient to establish real relationships between art and life and to realize the subversion of art history through avant-garde methods. In a note written in 1987, he stated: “Only now am I really able to understand the state of mind that made Duchamp say, ‘The traditional idea of the painter, with his brush, his palette, his turpentine, is an idea which had already disappeared from my life.’ This is a revolutionary and irreversible change for me.”
All of Huang’s works produced after 1986 took the form of installations of modified prefabricated objects and performance art. This shift away from painting, and toward installation and performance art, became an increasingly important trend in the Chinese avant-garde as a whole between 1985 and 1989. Huang developed the most radical methods and the most comprehensive theory for this transformation.
Extinguishing the Self
Huang Yong Ping’s assassination of painting wasn’t merely an exchange of raw materials, however; it was also a transformation of artistic ideas. What he wanted to subvert was not painting, but rather an artistic attitude. The attitude in question was the emphasis on self-expression that was prevalent in the avant-garde movement of the time. Before the 1980s notions of “individual” and “self” did not have a place in Chinese art. After the opening and Western-influenced reform, self-realization and the liberation of individuality erupted like an unstoppable torrent. In the avant-garde movement, self-expression became a very appealing slogan that could be widely promulgated. Expressionist and Abstract Expressionist art that directly articulated individual feelings became the dominant fashion. Huang Yong Ping believed that in order to subvert painting, one must first subvert these “soaking” emotional outpourings, in effect drying up the “moisture” from art and banishing self-expression.
In 1985 Huang invented a mechanism of random choice, using the results from a roulette wheel and a toss of dice to decide the form of a painting at its inception. His Four Paintings Created according to Random Instructions (1985) was produced precisely through this random-choice mechanism. For Huang, this mechanism possesses a variety of meanings: to cut off the inevitable relationship between self and artwork, to negate the creator’s originality, to abnegate the tradition of painting and its corresponding aesthetic appreciation, to remove the self from creative expression, and to let “nature” take its course to form the work of art. This work—although presented in the form of paintings—is at its core no longer painting, but the deconstruction of the painting method (fig. 2).
After 1986, in order to further disrupt the traditional relationship between the artist and the work, Huang utilized an even greater number of creative methods: tossing coins, throwing dice, spinning roulette wheels, and drawing lots, as well as employing lottery and divination systems. Right after his Four Paintings, he went on to create the Large Turntable with Four Wheels (1987; fig. 3) and the Roulette Wheel with Six Criteria (1988), in which he further developed the random painting mechanism. These variously sized wheels or turntables were simultaneously closed and open systems, which not only made the artwork independent of the artist but also made the process of creating art less likely to be influenced by the artist’s eyes or brain. In the frenetic, self-aggrandizing avant-garde movement, Huang’s methods undeniably established an alternative approach to conceptualizing the self. This type of self is not one that is over and above nature, but rather is one that coexists with nature and is aligned with nature’s evolutionary process.
The decision as to whether to emphasize or negate self-expression also involves the issue of cultural differences between East and West. In the Western mentality, artistic creation is equivalent to God’s creation of the world. The creator and the created are diametrically opposed and unequal. Self-expression in modern art is actually a continuation of this relationship. Chinese philosophy, in contrast, is based on the belief that the human (author) is not the ruler of the universe: he coexists with nature equally. The universe was not created out of nothing but rather is an eternal process of mutual permeation. Classical Chinese aesthetic theories stress that “speech does not exhaust meaning,” and Chan Buddhist philosophy goes even further, proposing that one cannot “understand the mind and see nature” without “renouncing words.” Through the use of “chance painting” to relinquish self-expression, Huang proved that he recognized the importance of borrowing from Chinese tradition, and this recognition was developed one step further after he immigrated to France.
For Huang Yong Ping, the relinquishment of the self also means—at the same time—rejecting other peoples’ expectations of you, rejecting following the latest trends, rejecting participation in avant-garde competitions, and forsaking status as an individual artist. At the 1987 Chinese avant-garde artists’ symposium “Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) Conference,” artists from all over China brought slides of what they considered to be their most iconoclastic works to share with one another. One of the underlying motivations for these artists to participate in the conference was to see who was the most avant-garde. To everyone’s astonishment, however, Huang Yong Ping, as the representative of Xiamen Dada, presented four slides of classical Western art. He proceeded to explain that when he was leaving he had inadvertently grabbed the wrong slides and therefore could present only these mistaken pictures. Fortunately, he continued, it was of no consequence that he had grabbed the wrong slides, because it was unimportant whether they were avant-garde or not. It was not important whether they were his own work or otherwise, or if they were by Chinese artists or not. The only thing that mattered was that there were slides to project. Huang Yong Ping’s strategy was to establish another approach to “self,” presenting a self that is in tune with nature and is modest but also replete with militancy because of its modesty.
During the twentieth century, while accepting the influence of Western culture, China persistently sought its own path. Which parts of Western culture should China accept, and which parts of Chinese culture should she reject? In the process of accepting contemporary Western culture, how does one “separate the wheat from the chaff”? For more than a century now, this has been an incessant debate among Chinese intellectuals and theorists.
The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes is a work of art from 1987 (fig. 4). Huang Yong Ping used two art history books—Wang Bomin’s History of Chinese Painting and Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting—as the raw material for this work (the latter being one of the few introductory modern Western art books to be translated into Chinese, and one that at the time had an enormous influence in avant-garde art circles). He put the two books through a two-minute wash cycle in his washing machine at home and afterward placed the pulplike remains atop a wooden box. Using this instantaneous method, his work provided a Chan answer to a significant cultural question: the mutual influence between the two cultures does not follow any method, logic, concept, or ethics, but is achieved in an uninterrupted instant. It is not about replacing one tradition with another, but rather about two cultures chaotically overlapping after their original structures have been pulverized. Based on what Huang Yong Ping himself has said, since the basic concept of cultural history has continually been “sullied,” it must therefore continually be washed and dried. The purpose of washing and drying is not to make this concept purer, however, but rather to make it “dirtier.” Only when there is no pure culture can “dirty” culture become more vivacious and wide-ranging.
This piece by Huang Yong Ping used simple and crude raw materials to complete a Chan revolution within two minutes. With its muted attitude, it evades any linguistic entrapment, addressing the issues at hand in a most succinct manner. In my opinion, it is not only a milestone in contemporary Chinese art but also a rare international contemporary art masterpiece.
In a series of works made since 1987, Huang Yong Ping has often used this approach of washing books and literature. The major works of this series include, in 1988, his washing of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Book Cabinet; in 1989, Reptile, created for the exhibition Magiciens de la terre (fig. 10); in 1991, Should We Construct Another Cathedral? in Frankfurt (fig. 11) and Unreadable Humidity for the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh (fig. 12), as well as, in 1992, The House of Oracles at Galerie Froment & Putman, Paris, and Library Canteen for the exhibition Parcours privés in Paris (fig. 13). These works all represent the ongoing development of this approach.
One of the characteristics of the Chinese avant-garde movement during the mid-1980s was the establishment of diverse artists’ groups under whose names declarations were issued and exhibitions were organized. In 1986 Huang Yong Ping and a number of artist friends from Xiamen—Lin Jiahua, Jiao Yaoming, Yu Xiaogang, and others—formed a group named Xiamen Dada. The group emerged from an exhibition these artists collectively organized in 1983 called Exhibition of Five Artists. Because Xiamen Dada focused on methodological reform and had a more radical attitude, compared with the artists’ groups in Beijing and Shanghai, it did not belong to the mainstream Chinese avant-garde but was a somewhat marginal group.
In his article published in September of 1986, “Xiamen Dada—Postmodern?” Huang Yong Ping publicly declared that the purpose of establishing this group was to further create and participate in the chaos of the national avant-garde movement.3 From September 8 to October 5, 1986, Xiamen Dada held its first public exhibition. This exhibition featured installation pieces using combinations of many everyday commodities, something rarely seen in Chinese avant-garde art exhibitions at that time. After the exhibition closed, the group decided to burn all the exhibited works on November 24 and published the “Statement on Burning” with slogans such as “Until art is destroyed, life is never peaceful” and “Dada is dead; beware of the fire” (figs. 5, 6). In the group’s declaration, which he drafted, Huang Yong Ping pointed out that the purpose of burning their artworks was to emphasize that art exists in its spiritual process, not in its material results: “The fact that collecting art does not exist in China may be a good thing; an artist can therefore do whatever he likes with his works and does not have to be careful with them. The attitude an artist has toward his own works indicates the extent to which he can liberate himself.”
In December 1986 Xiamen Dada executed an “event” in which the group submitted a bogus exhibition plan to the Fujian Art Museum and then suddenly changed the plan right before the exhibition. Instead, the artists moved objects surrounding the museum into its interior by mobilizing all the participating artists along with their friends. Of course, the result of this action was that, after pictures documenting it had been taken, the exhibition was closed before it had even opened. Huang Yong Ping explained: “What is being attacked here is not the audience, but their opinions on ‘art.’ Likewise, it is not the art museum itself that is under attack, but the art museum as an example of the art system.” This action implied the concept of radical change (figs. 7, 8).
Thanks to the effect Huang Yong Ping had on the group, Xiamen Dada became one of the most radical of the Chinese avant-garde artists’ groups active at that time. To a great degree, the series of combative collective actions its members performed reflect other characteristics of Huang’s work: dematerialization, emphasis on process, critique of the museum as institution, and attacks on conventional ideas through collective action.
In the 1980s Huang Yong Ping’s body of work demonstrated different, and even unrelated, directions. In order to destroy the structure he was in the process of forming, and to diversify his style, he developed two important methods: the use of roulette wheels and the conversion of words and expressions.
The main function of the Roulette series, which Huang began in 1985, was to make the creative process unpredictable and uncontrollable. He decided that the creative process should come not from the artist himself, but rather from the random operation of the tools used. He assigned the “responsibility” for artistic formation entirely to his tools and claimed that the work had become “independent” while he hid behind the roulette wheels and no longer revealed himself. With the introduction of these “tools,” the unity of both language and methodology was smashed into little pieces. From Huang Yong Ping’s perspective, this step undoubtedly formed some sort of objective basis for the “liberation” of art. It also opened the door to discovering new possibilities for creation. In order to advance the objectivity of this approach one step further, he incorporated methods from the I Ching (Book of Changes) into his roulette wheels after arriving in France, so that their operation could be even more independent.
To unpack art’s innate conceptual structure, besides taking objective approaches, Huang Yong Ping also developed a set of more “subjective” methods through the free association of words and expressions. There is no better embodiment of the operation of this methodology than the notes he wrote on this subject between 1989 and 1991. Within this complex conceptual map, every word and expression branched into an unequal number of other words and expressions, all intertwined with one another. Washing machine—Laundromat—rinsing—tumble dry—changing colors—cycles—muddy—clean—brainwash … relying upon this blithe free association, Huang Yong Ping wove a conceptual network like a spider web, jumping from one concept to another. He avoided the logical relationship among rationally arranged concepts, moving forward in an ambiguous random logic, which caused his thinking to slide from one concept to another, extending outward limitlessly. He used characteristics of the Chinese language, sliding between homonyms and synonyms, continually capturing new intentions and submerging them into an ultimately unpredictable process. This pattern of divergent thinking gave him the ability to incessantly alter the vantage point from which he observed issues and to discover new angles from which he could continue developing his creative approach. This set of methods proved to be very useful in his later works (fig. 9).
Huang Yong Ping’s art was created during the unique historical era of 1980s China. Like other avant-garde artists of that time, he was devoted to pioneering a new genre of art that would shatter conventional artistic modes. But unlike most of his contemporaries, who were targeting the art censorship system in China, Huang’s critique targeted the mainstream avant-garde artistic trends of the time, and this enabled him to transcend historical and geographical limitations to take up more universal issues. In the Chinese avant-garde art movement, Huang was the first to recognize that revolutions in form first require a conceptual revolution as their base. His works offered a set of comprehensive personal theoretical foundations for this era’s artistic transformation.
During the 1980s Chinese government officials prohibited some radical artistic activities because the stylistic language of these artworks, in the context of the period, created a serious conflict with state-sanctioned art. Chinese avant-garde artists often used Western artistic styles to attack Chinese artistic styles, but these attacks were usually ephemeral. In time, as soon as these attacks were accepted, the extremism of these works dissipated. But Huang’s work of this period wasn’t like this. It can be said that, like the work of other artists, some of Huang’s activity conducted in China could not be accepted by authorities at the time, but even now, twenty years later, it is not only still difficult to accept these methods in China, but it is also equally difficult to accept them in today’s Western art world. Sudden changes in exhibition plans, burning the entire contents of an exhibition, advocating unplanned participation in exhibitions, and so forth are not only criticisms targeting the Chinese art system but are also challenges to the power system of museums in general, as well as to orthodox notions of art. The spirit of this type of criticism and resistance has played an important role in Huang Yong Ping’s later development in the West.
Huang Yong Ping is also one of the few Chinese avant-garde artists who has had the acute sensitivity to appreciate issues of cultural difference. At the height of the trend of using Western art to attack Chinese art, Huang Yong Ping had already started using I Ching, Laozi, and Chan Buddhist philosophy to discover new paths for his art. He points out that Chan and Dada are both “empty signifiers.” The concern with the abnegation of self, dematerialization, and relativism, as well as the various Chan sensibilities in Huang Yong Ping’s works imbue them with the wisdom of Chinese philosophy. His reinterpretation of tradition entirely circumvented the status quo of the day and also greatly exceeded the superficial understanding and utilization of Chinese tradition by contemporary avant-garde artists. Using the perspective of cultural difference to discover new perspectives also became a mainstay of his work for a considerable period following his arrival in France in 1989.
Relatively speaking, the environment of 1980s China was isolated, but this era of limited information also embraced a huge spirit of openness, and Huang Yong Ping’s work represented this special open spirit. With work that explores an enormous spatial, temporal, and cultural span, while offering observations that critique reality, Huang Yong Ping has brought a fresh perspective to the entire post-1990s art world.
Translated from the Chinese by Tzu-Wen Cheng
1. Huang Yong Ping, interviewed by Qiu Zhijie, October 8, 2000, Jinri Xianfeng (Avant-garde today), no. 10 (January 2001).
2. Huang Yong Ping, Notebook 01 (1980–1989); quotation from Marcel Duchamp is from Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Da Capo, 1987).
3. See Huang Yong Ping, “Xiamen Dada—Postmodern?” (1986).
4. Xiamen Dada, “Statement on Burning” (1986), in Notebook 01.
5. Huang Yong Ping, “Preface to the Events Exhibition That Took Place at the Fujian Art Museum” (1986), trans. Yu Hsiao Hwei.