In June also managed to cross paths with Huang Rui, founder of the 798 arts district in Beijing and on-again-off-again agitator for freedom of expression in China. As is no doubt often the case when encountering such luminaries, one is usually impressed by their simplicity, humility, and straightforwardness. Yet, as ArtSpeakChina has it:
Huang Rui (黄锐) is one of China’s most respected and controversial contemporary artists. Since co-founding The Stars Group in 1979, Huang has been involved in numerous debates over the need for free expression. Despite living in self-exile for close to twenty years, Huang Rui is considered one of the founding members of China’s contemporary art movement.
Other issues aside, I still marvel at 798 every time I go there. Huang’s contribution was early on modest; in effect, he needed a convenient place to work and the district that is now 798 was an empty nest of old factories awaiting demolition. Of course, in years following (2005-2007) Huang’s organization skills came into full force, with major international arts festivals located at 798, followed by major struggles with authorities unnerved by massive foreign investment into such entrepreneurial activity, arts related or not. Thus, Huang’s operation was shut down, 798 handed over the Beijing government, and Huang has since moved, for the moment, to a neighboring district named Huangtie (a few miles north). Meanwhile, 798 continued to boom, if by boom we mean a proliferation of all manner of shop. On most days, merely walking down the nominally pedestrian streets is a bit of a challenge. The question of how we read such a success is an open one. I know Huang Rui for one has rather mixed feelings.