Interview Huang Rui

Huang Rui, artist and former resident 798
23 July 2014 / At Café / HR’s home
Interview Daan Roggeveen / Frances Arnold / Vivian Song

D: Let’s start with when you first came to first time to 798 and what you saw back then.

In 2001 I was looking for an art studio. I looked at a few places but they were no good. It was a cold winter and none of the spaces I was looking at had a heater. The other factory studios I was looking at had no radiator at all. So I called Ai Wei Wei and he said ‘come with me’. So, me, Ai Wei Wei, Ai’s younger brother and some other artist friends found 798. We were walking along the central avenue, all hand in hand, smiling – like the mafia! We were extremely happy not only because we’d found studio space, but also because the factory, the surrounding area was so promising, we believed it was a great place to create art.

There were still factory workers, they were still running factories. In 2001 there were more than 10,000 workers working and living in this area. At the beginning of 2004 there were only 4,000 left. By the end of 2004 when we doing the 798 Art Festival there were only 400 left.

D: Let’s take a step back – 2001 was the time you came back from Tokyo?

Yes, 2001 I came back from Tokyo. Ai Wei Wei came back 1991. [Knew each other from Stars Group.]

I moved to Japan in 1984. I was there two times, for a total of 14 years. In 1992 after Ai Wei Wei returned to Beijing, I did to, but I only stayed two years. That was because in 1994 the police station put a stamp in my passport saying I had to leave within 48 hours. I had already stayed two years, working, making exhibitions and parties – I like having parties with different people there – [they made me feel] some moments of freedom.

D: So in 1994 was there a strong feeling of freedom back then? [6”30]

At that time in 1994 when I came back there were some possibilities but the situation was also quite complicated. To make a comparison, at that time, my name was like Ai Wei Wei’s name is now. The only difference with Ai Wei Wei now is that even though my name was under many black name lists and was quite sensitive I wasn’t looking for any media to write about me.

D: Media landscape also wasn’t the same…

At that time – 1994 – the international media wasn’t a big fan of China following the Tiananmen Square incident.

I received a stamp from the police station, they gave me this stamp on my passport that said within a five year period I wasn’t allowed to apply to return to China. It was an international standard, lots of countries used the same stamp – America, Russia… within five years you couldn’t come here.

D: So you were effectively illegal in your own country?

At the time, Ai Wei Wei and some other friends said to me, ‘perhaps you’ve been walking too fast, and too far ahead’.

Since the 1970s I’ve always been doing different work from what’s existing [happening elsewhere?], always different in terms of projects. They all come from myself, my individualism. My work as you know is very individual and I don’t have any political agenda, but somehow at that time when I did such work people would assume there was a political agenda behind what I was doing. They would also put a title on who you are.

D: So what made you decide to come back to China?

I came back. The feeling for me about living in Japan just wasn’t right. Almost every five years I would feel fed up and want to leave. I felt like my time, my sweat, my energy, whatever – good or bad – I throw that into a desert.

D: So in 92 you came back, then in 94 you went back again for a while…then 2001 back for good [13”30]

By 2001, Ai Wei Wei had already built his house and studio in Caochangdi, before that he had a studio in downtown Beijing, in his mother’s house.

When we walked down the street like the mafia it was down this street [Jiuxianqiao Lu?]. We came through number two gate and walked all the way down here. My first studio was next to BTAP – Beijing Tokyo Art Project. I also lived there for five years until 2006. I rented it from the management office, they’d already opened the space up to everyone: for artists, for workers, all kinds of residents.

D: When did the majority of artists come in? [16”20]

It was an opportunity. The workers left, they vacated the factories leaving them empty. Other artists would move in later. Robert Bernell and Time Zone 8 was already here. BTAP had a very successful exhibition opening in 2002 that attracted lots of artists to come and see it [‘Beijing Afloat’ / 2002 / Curator: Feng Boyi ??]. At that moment they saw the possibilities of 798 and moved in. They included Xu Yong, Mao Li Zi [?], Zhao Bandi…

D: What was the atmosphere like in 2003, what was it like here?

I can’t really say there was an atmosphere at that time because I was one of the only people doing that, of doing projects as a small group and trying to protect the old factories. We could only get three years contracts at that time. The reasons we got from the management group was that the area was going to be torn down after three years. It was to be developed in the same way as Zhōngguāncūn, the ‘electronic city’ outside of 798. In 1994, the then president Zhang Zemin had a regional urban plan in place to renovate old factories. They started in the Zhōngguāncūn area around Tsinghua University. At that time that area looked like 798 with lots of factories but then they developed it into a technical/ electronics cluster. 798 was supposed to follow after that.

If you go out [of 798] you get a sense of the original plan, what it would have looked like. The master plan was already developed and in 2000 the Tsinghua planning bureau had already planned for this area. Management office had a huge model in their office.

At the time it was very cheap. My studio was over 200sqm and I paid 1000rmb per month. At its peak – the 2004 heyday – there were around 70 artists.

D: Did you meet up, did you all have dinner together, did you hang out?

In 2003 there was SARs in Beijing. We often gathered around other artists’ studios or mostly at my place.

D: Did you influence each other? Did you exchange ideas around art or was it a social gathering? [24”30]

At that time there wasn’t really a mature art market, so our talk, our conversations would span everything and anything. People were not calculative. Compared to now, the market is more mature. People are discussing and calculating… it’s much more result-orientated discussion. Back then it was different.

D: So was it idealistic? Was there a collective ideal?

At that time, the conversation wasn’t orientated to any result, we could be irresponsible, there was no one controlling us, we could speak freely, it was like a small society.

D: Did you stay here all the time or go out into the city?

I stayed in 798 almost all the time, I rarely went into the city. There, I got a different feeling, here was perfect, there was no need to leave. [also not easy to leave at that time]

D: 70 artists isn’t actually so many…

It wasn’t such a big number because at the same time some other artists were also looking for space in Songzhuang Cun, Suojia Cun, Feijia Cun and all those villages around. There, you could buy a piece of land and build your own house so it was a longer term investment, whereas here it was only three years. If you spend 120,000 on renovating… it’s effectively 40,000 I’m investing in it per year with no expectation of return. After three years it’s going to be done. There can be no pay back.

Not many people would invest so much as me in a studio. However, my thinking was that once it’s made, it becomes a model to inspire, people will look at it and learn from it.

D: Were there already galleries in 2004?

There were beginning to be galleries in ’02 and in ’03 more came. There were maybe ten galleries opened in this area in ‘04 and ‘05 in particular. Many galleries came to 798 at that time, Gallery Continua, UCCA, all in 2005 [is this correct? 31”]

D: So that would be an ideal model, you have artists and you have galleries. Is that how it felt? Were you excited about the galleries arriving? How did artists respond?

There were lots of collaborations that started before the Olympics. Lots of smarter artists at the time realized there might be a good opportunity to collaborate with galleries and also for themselves. But I was looking too other elements rather than galleries – for example UCCA and other art foundations that offered non-profit art facilities coming to the area. They have great potential to make this area even better.

At that time the project I was doing was protecting the old factory, renovating the space and transforming it into an art zone. The factory was ideal because it was cheap, big, easy to cluster and very easy for artists to live and create together.

In terms of the idea of creating a space, 798 offered a great opportunity to make the space our own. Having lived abroad for many years, I know it can be very difficult to make a space your own: it can be taken away by other individuals, by political agenda, commercial values, or else someone can control the space. Whoever controls you puts their own ideology on that, so it’s not a space that the inhabitor can create, and own, and freely express themselves. I saw this opportunity, and I thought it has great potential in creating for artists on our own; we don’t have to be controlled by others.

Artists were living here in the belief that they’d be kicked out any time soon [three year contract] for the planned big development, so weren’t really confident in committing to being here. But he had faith that it could work and so invested money in making a model space to make 798 work, and make a space for artists.

D: At what point did people start to leave?

It started in 2006. We’d been fighting with the local government from 2004 to 2006 to protect the area, keep the factories, rather than create an electronic zone. Mayor Liu Qi decided to keep it this way [art zone] in 2006. 2006 was also the year that rents started going up.

From 2006, 798 started being more regulated. They received 200 million rmb government investment to renovate the area and facilities, ahead of 2008 Olympics. At the same time, an Artist District Administration Office had been set up, but they weren’t doing anything good. Instead they were doing research to find out which artists are ‘harmonious’, which ones are working with the government and which are not.

As you know, in my studio, the electricity was cut, the water, everything – I told them they’re ridiculous, you’re not working with artists, your working against us.

Drive from 798 to Huang Rui’s home: Notes

Hei Qiao is to become the latest artists’ district to be torn down to make way for a facility that fixes high speed trains. [rail tracks]
Artists seem to like to stick together – their existence can be lonely and alone, but they’re nonetheless powerful as a collective. There are market-related advantages to clusters too – it’s easier to be represented as a group, plus things like accounts and finances are easier to manage when more than one. Perhaps there’s an element of ‘playing it safe’ – perhaps artists are somehow naïve or innocent, always seeking that utopia…
[overwhelming song of crickets, frogs. No street lights, feels far from Beijing – is this how 798 once felt, I wonder? Bounding dog criss-crossing headlights. It’s HR’s dog. Half for protection… we feel remote. House looks like a dark, imposing monolith, looming in the night]

Huang Rui’s kitchen…

Work began on this house in 2006 – the structure was designed by Neville. I made the concept, we worked together on the details. [N said] I should take time to think about all the different parts, the details. I moved in in 2008.

Was that the same time lots of other artists left 798?

Not in 2008, but in 2009 lots of artists moved out of 798 because lots of galleries also left at the same time. It was partly to do with Olympics: that was the ultimate event that was all about the success of the country. However, to me it seemed it went against the success of art. The government gave so much funding WAS because they wanted to turn 798 it into a tourist spot. However, in doing so the artist had to sacrifice, also the commercial galleries also sacrificed through this whole process.

D: When the artists were still there (04-09), was 798 a ‘free zone’, did it feel as if there more possibilities than elsewhere in the city?

In our time, the big question was of regulation. The proposed function of the area had changed from a technology zone to an art zone and so other regulation had to be changed accordingly. However according to the administration office of 798 it’s easier for them to oversee an electronic zone because they were part of the planning process, they knew what to expect. But that just wasn’t the case when it came to artists and an artists district. Never the less, they were still the owner, the voice, and that’s what the wanted to ensure. In those years, the admin office was really focusing on being the owner, the boss of the space, but not so much of the content – they didn’t care what was happening, they just cared who the boss was.

So in that way at the time it felt as if there was a lot of freedom because of that situation: they didn’t care about the content, so it was much easier to be more experimental in terms of art and events, and really push boundaries. That also extended to local and international projects.

People have dispersed – people have gone their own way to develop. I just do my own work; others like Zhang Qing caught the big wave of 2005 – 2008. It was a successful time in the market. Now that wave is over. Many artists lost their moment, their momentum [by simply following the money]. For artists, the market can be an opportunity but it can also potentially be a trap. You can get the benefit of it, but you also go up and down with it. As an artist, you should always be learning and challenging rather than going with the market, up and down. I dislike the market forever!

V: Have you seen any great examples of art districts around the world?

No, I haven’t seen a good model of an artist cluster anywhere in the world. An art zone is a reflection of the city, of its ideologies reflected into the space. So you want to create a nice space but that will always create problems in terms of art. Developing culture is the most mafan.

Artists’ districts or clusters, it can not be the ultimate showcase of the artistic level of a particular city because it’s very much controlled in terms of economic and political agendas. So, on the one hand it’s a showcase – but doesn’t accurately represent the creative value and expression or ability of a city. Especially in China, where everything is planned. For artists, there’s still uncertainty. In the topic of art, you can still plan and practice, but then art becomes an artificial artifact rather than something natural or organic.

Posted by Daan Roggeveen / 8.6 years ago / 5401 hits