Huang Rui, born in Beijing in 1952, is one of the founding members of the Stars Group (Xing Xing Hua Hui), a Chinese avant-garde artist group that was active from 1979 to 1983 and is widely regarded as the first publicly active art collective to protest government censorship after the Cultural Revolution. In 1979, the Star Group organized a groundbreaking open-air exhibition outside the China Arts Gallery, which was then shut down by the police on the third day. Some of Huang’s works are inevitably endowed with a political nature. Water and Fire Wall is one example. It was a performance that Huang presented in a dilapidated house in Guan Yuan, one of the old-town areas in Beijing. In the 1990s, the gentrification in Beijing’s old town (areas known as hutong) was fully implemented, with many thousands of family houses torn down for the official purpose of district renovation. On those same grounds, new residential buildings rose. At a certain level, the living situations of people who used to live in hutong was improved after gentrification, though it brought massive destruction of the cultural ecology and replaced it with increased real-estate value.
In the performance, Huang expressed artistically his anger at this forceful policy. On the debris of a dilapidated house, he laid out a row of Er Guo Tou bottles, a brand of sorghum spirit that is popular in local Beijingers’ lives. The brick remnants on which the bottles stood were then soaked in the liquor and ignited. It was a ritual to something that was gone forever, under regime violence. The evil but also metaphoric flames danced with a slow sly smile.