Huang Xiaopeng, K.O.H.D. 1, 2014, video, color, sound, 60 minutes. From “Don’t Kill Me I’m in Love!”

Huang Xiaopeng, K.O.H.D. 1, 2014, video, color, sound, 60 minutes. From “Don’t Kill Me I’m in Love!”

“Don’t Kill Me I’m in Love!”

Over the years, the Guangzhou art scene has developed a delightfully ragged independence from Beijing and Shanghai, fostering a coterie of artists stubbornly engaged in forms of political critique that are officially frowned upon. These artists embrace a sense of experimentation that would likely fall afoul of the government’s recent condemnation of what was identified in state media this past summer as “abnormal aesthetics.” One of the central protagonists of this scene was Huang Xiaopeng, who passed away unexpectedly in Berlin at the age of sixty in 2020. His influence continues to be felt, not only through his work, but via the transmission of his teachings at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, where he was a massively influential professor. Curated by Anthony Yung, “Don’t Kill Me I’m in Love! A Tribute to Huang Xiaopeng,” was part retrospective, part homage to the artist, featuring work by several of Huang’s former students, among them Lin Aojie, Lu Shan, and Zhang Yin.

An intrepid traveler and expatriate for much of his adult life, Huang was best known for his video works centering on mistranslation. His masterpiece in this regard is K.O.H.D. 1, 2014, which was screened at the exhibition’s opening in September. The film is a black-and-white collage of footage from Huang’s travels, with various Chinese- and English-language songs—including Guns N’ Roses’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”; hence the work’s title—providing the soundtrack. The songs’ lyrics were machine translated, then retranslated back into their original language; the absurd results, in Chinese and English, are overlaid on the screen.

Huang’s most visually arresting works, however, are his sculptural installations. Le probleme est une economie du stupide! (The Problem is an Economy of the Stupid!), 2015, its error-ridden title a riff on the famous James Carville quote, reflected the artist’s humorous experiments with mistranslation and the difficulties of new language acquisition. The installation is composed of colorful plastic toys wrapped around an architectural column—a playful, punk gesture reminiscent of Mike Kelley’s work. Found, bought, and recycled materials again featured in I Can Give You Anything but Love, 2011, a room-filling assemblage starring knives, golf and tennis balls, and metallic fixtures—an industrial symphony of consumer discards jutting weapon-like from the back wall throughout the space.

Another section of the exhibition was dedicated to Huang’s activities as an educator, particularly as head of the experimental Fifth Studio, which has assumed legendary status in China. Huang’s pedagogical approach was marked by an openness and open-endedness that was (and largely still is) anomalous in the country’s rigid educational system. As his former student Hu Xiangqian remarked, “The art academy is famous for its ‘freedom,’ as students are never asked to explain themselves, but Xiaopeng has always required us to speak clearly about our ideas. . . . Xiaopeng’s teaching method is about democracy and equality. He gave us another kind of freedom, one that is very different from what the art academy creates. We didn’t really know what to do with it, but we loved it.” Works by Huang’s former students—ranging from Mai Yongxi’s talking-heads documentary A Weaving Portrait, 2021, to Lin’s poignant Full Stop, 2021, a tiny neon circle just seven centimeters in diameter—evidenced the breadth of his influence.

“Don’t Kill Me I’m in Love!” was a fitting celebration of Huang’s art and ethos and simultaneously a memorial to an artist and teacher so many loved. While it is tempting to view his passing as the end of an era that the current establishment is probably very glad to see closed, Huang continues to inspire, in Guangzhou and beyond.