Conversation with Huang Yongping

To celebrate the co-launch of MoMA’s recent publication Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents and AAA’s archive and website project Materials of the Future: Documenting Chinese Contemporary Art in the 1980s, MoMA and AAA came together to engage visiting speakers in the field, including Huang Rui (Artist); Huang Yongping (Artist); Jane DeBevoise (Chair, AAA); Lin Tianmiao (Artist); Sarah Suzuki (Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books, MoMA); and Wu Hung (Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia, University of Chicago), to name a few. We have included a selection from the evening’s discussions, in which Jane DeBevoise speaks with Huang Yongping  about his work and practice in the 1980s. 
October 15, 2010, 6:30pm, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York
Translated on site by Vincent Cheng and recorded by MoMA
To listen to full presentation click here for part 1 and part 2, courtesy of the International Program at MoMA
All images, courtesy of the artist and Asia Art Archive Hong Kong unless specified below
Thumbnail image: The Beard Was Easiest To Burn by Huang Yongping, 1986
Transcribed and revised by Ali Van


Jane DeBevoise (JD): To begin, I’d like to give a short introduction to Huang Yongping, who has joined us here in New York from Paris.  Huang Yongping is one of today’s most important international artists.  He started his international career in 1989 when he, as one of three artists from China, was chosen to participate in a landmark exhibition called ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, held at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.  After the exhibition, he left China where he was born and had been living, and took up residence in Paris.  He is a ‘French’ artist now.  He represented France in the Venice Biennale in 1999, and was the subject of an excellent traveling exhibition [‘The House of Oracles’, click here for more details] organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (2006-07).  ‘The House of Oracles’ started at the Walker, traveled to Mass MoCA and then to [the Ullens Center in] Beijing.  His work has been collected by many major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

However, before Huang Yongping became internationally well-known, he was already a seminal figure in China.  Therefore, it is an honor for us to have this opportunity to talk to Huang Yongping about the 1980s and about his particular and unique practice at that time.

Two views of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in 1980, now the China Academy of Art
Courtesy of the artist and the China Academy of Art

Huang Yongping, our first question to you has to do with the 1980s and the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, now called the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.  You were among the first class of students to enter university [in 1977] after the Cultural Revolution.  Can you talk a little bit about how you choose the Zhejiang Academy, what your experiences were and what you did when you got there?

Huang Yongping (HYP): Interestingly, a couple years ago, Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts invited me to re-collect memories from my time at the Academy, but I turned down the invitation because I didn’t feel like I would have had a lot to talk about.  A lot of my classmates have now become officials for the Academy.

Because I decided not to attend, they called me up instead, because they really wanted to ask me one question:

Is it true that, during your last year at the Academy, you said something along the lines of ‘Just you wait and see!’?

I said, ‘I can’t recall, but if you want to record that I did such a thing, I’m fine with that’.  It probably wasn’t the most polite response to their question, but it demonstrated a certain antipathy I still had (and have) towards the Academy.

Though I am not a fan of the [Chinese academy] institutional system, in 1977, I was 23 years old and had just returned to the city from the countryside [where I had been sent during the Cultural Revolution].  Applying to school seemed like the best thing to do.  I was a mediocre student, and the rebellious aspect of my personality was more inward than outward, at the time.

JD: Did you have a graduation thesis project?

HYP:  Yes, my thesis project  was focused around industrial workers.  I used industrial spray paint to make the work, which in some ways still looked like oil paint and fit into the genre of oil painting [at the Academy].

JD: One must understand that at this time, using industrial spray paint to make paintings was quite radical, despite Huang Yongping’s modesty!  (Laughter)

Examples of Huang Yongping’s spray paintings, 1981
Courtesy of the artist and Meishu magazine, 1983, issue 1
Huang Yongping’s graduation painting, 1981
Courtesy of the artist and Hualang magazine, 1986 (Vol.19)
At the end of the 1970s and through the beginning of the 1980s, there was an upsurge in reading.  What had happened during the Cultural Revolution, as many of you know, was that books were limited and mostly banned, and people were encouraged to read only one, the little red book, consisting primarily of quotations by Chairman Mao. At the end of the 1970s, policies changed and bookstores re-opened, offering an increasing number of translations of Western texts, as well as some traditional Chinese texts.  This period has been called ‘Reading Fever’.  At this time, the intellectual community was gripped with a desire to read a wide range of texts.

Huang Yongping, was reading important to you?

Books translated and published in the 1980s in China including Chan Buddhist texts and translations of Western authors such as Wittgenstein, Beckett, Ionesco, Kant and Sartre, to name a few

HYP:  I love reading and read quite a lot during that period.  Bookstores would constantly be changing the titles on their shelves, so one had to read really quickly before the next set of books replaced the old books on the shelves.  I could read really fast, but the information wouldn’t always stick!  (Laughter) I loved reading about philosophy, but philosophical texts took quite a bit of time to absorb so I would spend a lot of my free time focusing on these texts.  I especially enjoyed reading Wittgenstein.  Most of us [artists] would eagerly await new translations of books and when they were made available, we would immediately devour them.

Copy of a 1986 Chinese translation of Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, by Pierre Cabanne

In the 1980s, not only were we exposed to publications from the West, we were also given access to several classical Chinese publications.  The image above shows a copy I made of [a Chinese translation of] Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp [by Pierre Cabanne] so that I could bring it back to Xiamen for me and my friends to read.  I would say there were three solid legs [a trinity] of thought I felt an affinity to at the time: Wittgenstein, Duchamp and Zen Buddhism.  People often asked me why I would combine these different philosophies together – I think, ultimately, I did because they all discuss ideas about ‘ends’; about how and why things end.  I don’t think philosophy needs to be understood in full, rather I believe philosophy should move the heart.

JD:  In the 1980s, Huang Yongping made a statement: Chan is Dada, Dada is Chan, which may indicate how these concepts were fundamental to his thinking and work.  As mentioned [during this time], western texts as well as traditional Chinese philosophical and religious texts were becoming available.  There were also important exhibitions taking place at this time.  For example, in 1978, there was an exhibition in Shanghai of French landscape painting, and Huang Yongping [in 1983], on the occasion of the exhibition, made a painting after a French landscape painting [Haymakers (Les Foins), by Jules Bastien Lepage].

Haymakers (Les Foins) by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1878 (left); Les Foins by Huang Yongping, 1983 (right)

In 1985, there was another important exhibition showing work by Robert Rauschenberg.  Raschenberg rented the National Art Museum [in Beijing] to exhibit works from his ROCI [Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange] tour.  Although Huang Yongping did not see the show, he agrees that it was an important event for many artists in China during this time.

Front cover and one page from the catalogue of the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange exhibition, Beijing & Lhasa, 1985

After Huang Yongping graduated, he was sent back to Xiamen, which was a peripheral city for the arts.  At that time, Huang Yongping, with a group of friends and associates, started making some radical work.

Map of China and aerial view of Xiamen, Fujian Province in the 1980s

Huang Yongping, could you perhaps talk a little about the work you made during this time, with the Xiamen Dada group?

Scenes of the Burning Event (destroying works of art outside the Xiamen Art Museum)
by the Xiamen Dada group, 1986

HYP: When I returned to Xiamen, I started off as a middle school art teacher.  Back then, we didn’t engage with the same terminology [about ourselves] as we do now; we didn’t think of ourselves as ‘artists’ per se.  This concept wasn’t presented to us in any formal manner.  At the time, it was hard doing things on one’s own or finding a way to exhibit on one’s own, which is why we first began to collaborate.  A lot of the work we made as a collective was relatively spontaneous.  After our exhibition ended, we decided to burn all the works because it just felt fitting.

Xiamen Dada, Exhibition for Fujian Art Museum, 1986

In 1986, we submitted a proposal to the Fujian Art Museum to present an exhibition – we wrote a proposal which we knew would have a high chance of being accepted but did not provide details about the real project we had in mind.  On the day of the exhibition, we abandoned our fake submitted proposal and instead curated an exhibition of found [mostly random construction] materials, primarily found in the museum’s surroundings.  When the museum officials realized this was not what we had proposed to do, they shut down the exhibition.  It was up for about two hours.

Four paintings created according to random instructions by Huang Yongping, 1985

JD: You had another series of explorations at that time, which focused on issues of chance.  Can you talk about these pieces?

HYP: Yes, this series is different from some of our collective works.  It’s like having two hands or three legs – you move forward as an artist and make new and different things.  Our collective works were often more aggressive and more outward, whereas my individual works were (and are) often more reserved and inward-looking.

The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern [Western] Painting
Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes by Huang Yongping, 1987

JD: As a person who works with a library, the next work still gives me heart palpitations!  This is one of Huang Yongping’s most famous works, which combines two books The History of Chinese Painting and The History of Modern [Western] Painting together, in a washing-machine, for two minutes.

HYP: Yes, I made this piece because I wanted the washing machine to deal with combining two controversial histories together.  (Laughter)

Two photographs of the Xiamen Dada group at the China/Avant-Garde exhibition
at the National Art Museum in Beijing, 1989

JD: In 1989, there was an important and controversial exhibition, which took place at the National Art Museum in Beijing.    Perhaps you could talk a little about your experience with this exhibition and the work you presented for the show?

Towing Away the National Art Museum, a photograph and proposal by Huang Yongping, 1988

HYP: For this project, I proposed to pull the museum off its foundation.  Though impossible to realize, it was important for me to question the apparatus and function of the art museum, especially in China, where the museum-system is quite structured and typically run by the government.

JD: 1989 also marked a turning point in your life; you were invited to participate in ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ at the Pompidou in Paris.  Can you talk a little bit about this exhibition?

Curator of ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ Jean-Hubert Martin visiting artists in Xiamen, China, 1987
Courtesy of the artist, Jean-Hubert Martin and Fei Dawei

HYP: It marked the first time I met western curators.  In this photograph, Jean-Hubert Martin [then-Director of Centre Pompidou and curator of 'Magiciens de la Terre'] was watching a video clip from our Xiamen Dada National Art Museum exhibition.  Afterwards, he invited me to France.  I think at this point I had a sense that my journey as an artist in China had reached a certain plateau and that I would engage a new beginning in France.

JD: We look forward to hearing about your next chapter sometime soon.  But for right now, thank you so much for coming to New York and for talking about your experiences in the 1980s.

Installation by Huang Yongping and cover of exhibition catalogue for ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ exhibition, Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1989. Courtesy of the artist, Jean-Hubert Martin and the Pompidou Centre, Paris


Huang Yongping (b.1954, Xiamen, Fujian Province) is a Paris-based artist.

In 1977, Huang entered the Department of Oil Painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) as one among the first groups of students to enroll after the Cultural Revolution.  After graduating, Huang became a secondary school teacher in Xiamen, at which time he organized a number of experimental art events, including the ‘Five Persons’ exhibition (1983), the ‘Xiamen Dada’ exhibition (1986) in which Huang and other artists burned their own artwork, and an exhibition displaying scrap materials at the Fujian Provincial Museum (1986).  For the ‘China/Avant-Garde Exhibition’ in 1989, Huang exhibited A History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes. That same year, Huang was invited to participate in ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a city he soon thereafter made his home.

  In 1990, Huang participated in ‘Chine Demain pour Hier’, curated by Fei Dawei, and in 1999, was the representative artist for France at the Venice Biennale. In 2005, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis organized ‘The House of Oracles: A Huang Yongping Retrospective’ in conjunction with a comprehensive catalogue of his work. In 2008, the exhibition was presented at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

For more information on Huang Yongping and China in the 1980s, please visit Asia Art Archive’s 1980s project website:


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