Hidden Dragon: Huang Young Ping Lit a Rocket under China's Art Establishment When He Founded the Xiamen Dada Group in the 1980s. the Struggle Continues, He Tells Alice O' Keeffe

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Haung Young Ping has a beautiful, leopard-like cat that curls around his feet as he answers the door. It is only touch of exoticism in his bare, immacualte apartment in Ivry-sur-Since, the lasr remaining communist suburb of Paris. There is no art the walls, none of the mess or chaos you might expect to find in the home of the founder of an eant-grade art movement. Cages for a hamster and a guinea pig occupy the hallway, reminging me uneasily of Theatre of the World, an installation for which Huang trapped a selection of animals inside a bare container and left them to devour each other, in full view of gallery-goers. Thankfully, these animals look fluffy and well-fed.

Huang himself is tiny, with glasses, a shapeless grey sweater and a shy smile. He sips green tea and answers questions slowly and thoughtfully in Mandarin. Despitd living nearly 20 years in France he hasn't mastered the lanuage; perhaps he speaks eloquently enough through his work. He comes to London this month for his first solo UK show, "Frolic", at the Barbican Art Gallery. Huang is planning a characteristically huge installation that will refer to the Opium Wars, fought between Britain and China in the 19th century. "J chose this subject because it was so dramatic, so full of cinematic elements-and also because I am Chinese," he says, with a mischievous smile. "If I were Argentinian, I would have done a work on the Falklands War."

Despite his self-effecing manner, Huang is an artist with plenty of fire in the belly. Xiamen Dada, the movement he founded, was one of the boldest of the avant-grade groups that emerged in China in the 1980s. It almost literally stuck a rocket underneath the Chinese art Establishment-one of his early works was a performance piece entitled Trousers With Firecrackers, for which he donned a pair of trousers filled with 300 firecrackers and set them alight. The results were slightly disappointing: "It was hard work lighting all the crackers," he noted in his sketch-book at the time. "When lit, they produced muffled sounds inside the trousers, with only a little smoke coming out."

Xiamem Dada was characterised, as Huang explains, by obsession with destruction. "I felt that so many things in China at that time needed to be scrapped. If we couldn't destroy, we would never be able to reconstruct." Huang and his followers burned their works and put on extraordinary shows where all the planned exhibits were junked at the last moment and replaced with heaps of rubbish. They staged spontaneous, improvised performances, acts of self-expression which occasionally ended with the artists being haulded off of the local police station by bemused officials. Predictably, the Communists viewed them with intense suspicion. It wasn't so much that they were harassed, says Huang, as that they were denied the opportunity to show their work. Like many of his contemporaries, he left China permanently following the Tiananmen Square messacre in 1989. Many of those who stayed behind, he noteswryly, "have given up art and become businessmen."

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To understand the impact of movements such as Xiamen Dada, one need only compare them with what came before. Huang, the son of a medicinal tea salesman, witnesses the Cultural Revolution at first hand as a child. "I was in primary school. We knew people were fighting in the streets, but I remember being happy that school was closed," he says. "I remember watching people killing one another from the balcony of my house. "Later, after several years spent in the countryside working the fields, he won a place at a traditional school of fine arts in 1979, the year university admissions were reopened, following the death of Mao Zedong. "We were taught to paint scenes of workers, peasants and the Liberation Army in the Soviet, " style," he says. "It was art for political ends. When I realised this, I be gan to ask myself what art was really for."

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Huang turned to the foreign books that were gradually filtering in to the country, discovering conceptual art-in particular, Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp. …