Dada is Dead, Beware of the Fire!
An Interview with Huang Yong Ping

by Ya-Ling Chen

On the afternoon of October 5, 1986, works exhibited in the "Xiaman Dada" exhibition at The Cultural Palace of Xiamen, the coastal province in southern China, were set on fire, turning to ashes by a sheer breathe of the autumn breeze. "The show no longer exists," proclaimed the initiator of the group, Huang Yong Ping, in the accompanying statement commenting upon the burning event that day. "The way one treats one's work of art marks the degree to which the artist is willing to liberate himself... even undergoing an irrational process." Huang Yong Ping intended to undermine the importance artists place on the value of their works throughout the entire history of Chinese Art.

Among the first generation of avant-garde artists active in the 1980s, Huang Yong Ping, like his fellow artists of the same generation, seeks to demolish the tyranny of the doctrine of Social-realism by promoting free expression. He has lived and worked in Paris since participating in the "Les Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition at the Paris Museé National d'Art Moderne de Centre Georges Pompidou" in 1989. He regularly participates in international exhibitions, including "Hommages à Marcel Duchamp" at the Ecole Régionale des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France, in 1994; the "Hugo Boss Prize 1998" at The Guggenheim Museum of New York; "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" at the PS1 and Asia Society Galleries, New York; the installation project for the French Pavilion in 1999 Venice Biennale.

In recent decades, Chinese artists have emerged on the international art scene generating interest and engaging in a multicultural dialogue regarding the re-thinking of meaning as well as that of the global structure. In the case of Huang Yong Ping, he takes Duchamp as one of the strategic elements--as sign--aiming at deconstructing art and traditional value for the new. His approach is a negation process deriving from ancient Chinese philosophy by connecting Dada with Zen--borrowing Duchamp to go against Duchamp--for the re-thinking of text. From my interview with Huang, the acknowledged impact of Duchamp on the conceptual development of his art enables us to speculate on the range of issues the artist has tackled throughout the chronological and geographic changes of his life. By means of Huang's cross-cultural and cross-historical approach, in the end, the aesthetic impact we experience from his works eventually validates the hybridity of cause and effect. The linear perception of historical determinism no longer qualifies as the single answer to homogeneity and difference in our environment.

Rewriting example 1:
When you have no cane, I will take it away.
When you have one, I will give you one.
- Zen Boddhism(1)

TF: Being an active member of the Avant-garde Art Movement during the mid-1980s [a.k.a. the "85 Movement"] and the leader of the 'Xiaman Dada' group, please outline this influential movement, and its contribution to the overall development of contemporary art in China?

HYP: Looking back at the '85 Mei-Shu (Art) Movement,' it was more like the 'Peasants' Reform.' As I graduated from the Fine Art Academy of Zhejiang, and was deployed back to my hometown, Xiaman, to teach art, I was already seen as member of the rebellion. At that time, many revolts had begun impulsively throughout the nation. This countrywide phenomenon generated all sorts of liberations and dynamics among various circles. More importantly, it was a group of young editors of art journals in Beijing, Wuhan, and Nanjing which introduced these personal and underground acts to the general public and the society. In the long run, these connections disseminated and caused the pivotal effect.

TF: What would be the goal and meaning of this movement to the history of art in China? And, its association with the Western Avant-Garde?

HYP: The meaning of this fractal history would be that it had surpassed the boundary of Social-realism in the society, awakening a sense of individual vitality among the young generations. And then, we expect to associate this vitality with Western Avant-Garde, although this association seems somewhat abstract, however superficial. In other words, the movement is to include China's contemporary art into a grand background of the "Globalization," rather than just self-murmuring in the given political rhetoric.

TF: Under what circumstance did you first learn of Marcel Duchamp? And to what extent has he influenced your aesthetic concerns?

HYP: Back then China did not have any publication on Marcel Duchamp at all. I learned about him through any materials that I could possibly acquire. The most influential book to me is the Chinese edition of Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne, published either in Taiwan or Hong-Kong. I borrowed the book from the library, and made copies to circulate among my fellow friends. I even carried the copy with me when I had to leave the country in 1989. In 1994, this copy became an essential part of my installation work (to be mentioned below). What interests me about Duchamp are the qualities, such as the ambiguity of languages (his use of puns), the ability to transform a stone into gold (alchemy), and his hermetic life style. It is also very Eastern. Yet, when I was drawn into his art in the beginning; I was also against him. In 1988, I wrote an essay entitled "Duchamp Stripped Bare by People, Even: Rewriting Case 5, or Duchamp Phenomenon Study." I thought that such a study was a pure joke on theories, without any substantial quality except gesture and rhetoric. As a matter of fact, the more one is attempting to study, the more ridiculous one will become.

TF: In 1986, you brought the 'Xiaman Dada' into public attention. By definition, how does the concept of "Dada" derive, and differ from that of the Western context?

HYP: There is seventy years separating 1916 and 1987. It is in no way to evaluate history of Western Art and that of China in a parallel or linear way. In 1986, when I initiated Dada in Xiaman, I meant to pinpoint the "85 Mei-Shu Movement." I felt responsible of imposing the "non-," or "anti-" conception, in order to promote a kind of skeptical and critical attitude. I didn't appropriate "Dada" in a strict sense. To be honest, I was not interested in those artists who were labeled as Dadaists except Duchamp. As an alternative, I would rather like to include Yves Klein, John Cage, and Joseph Beuys into this category which I identify as "Dada is Zen, Zen is Dada." You can also refer to two papers I wrote during the period--"Xiaman Dada: A Form of Post-modernism," and "Pointing to the Complete Void: Dada and Zen."

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Figure 1
Huang Yong Ping, Big Roulette, 1987
Figure 2
Huang Yong Ping, Small Portable Roulette, 1987

TF: The Roulette Series (1986-88) (Figs. 1 & 2) has obvious allusions to Duchamp as you take on the roulette wheel to construct "Non-expressive painting" by chance. Although the approach and concept are undoubtedly Duchampian, you adopted I-Ching to design the rules for the game. It turned out to be the key to the entire creative process through which a different thinking is given. Duchamp negates the retinal effect of the visual aspect; you appropriated the roulette wheel to replace the artist's hand for non-expressive painting. In reality, the abstraction of the resulted painting is self-evident, albeit it is the end product of the artist's indifferent act. Are contradiction and irony part of your intentions, or more of a surprising effect?

HYP: Yes, completed by turning the roulette wheel to determine the color, stroke and its pictorial arrangement (Fig. 3), Non-Expressive Painting (Fig. 4) at first glance indeed resembles abstract expression, so to speak. It is not only self-contradictory but also ironic, almost ridiculous. I carefully arranged a network of conventions, excluding psychological impulse. Turning the wheel entirely based on the pre-designed mechanism, as if a student imitates from the given materials. As a result, the painting appeared to be automatic, and impulsive. It is perfectly proving my original thinking--the painting as the consequential entity in its own right is divorced from the initial intention of the author, and does not necessarily have direct association with it.>> Next

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Figure 3
Figure 4
Photograph of Huang Yong Ping turning the Roulette for Non-Expressive Painting
Huang Yong Ping, Non-Expressive Painting, 1988


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1. Cited from Huang Yong Ping, “Duchamp Stripped Bare by People, Even: Rewriting Case 5, or Duchamp Phenomenon Study," 1988.


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