In the most intact section of the fortified Aurellian Wall next to the Porta San Sebastiano, Huang Rui has constructed Peking 2008: Time, Animals and History, a site-specific work that compares Western and Eastern concepts of time and evokes our inexorable collective tendency to empire building. Inspired by Rome’s monuments, which chart the layers of history and memorialise their associated political regimes, the artist has arranged 2029 bricks left over from the recent demolition of Peking’s traditional single- family hutongs, into rectangular ensembles throughout the various rooms, levels and passageways of this museum dedicated to the ancient Roman wall. Each of the worn gray bricks has been elegantly incised with a date in both Western and Chinese scripts along with the characters of the ruling imperial dynasty, then grouped chronologically in 60 year cycles, according to the Chinese cosmological system, with a stone sculpture of the animal representing the astrological sign ruling the initial year placed on top.
Inscribed with signs, the bricks are elevated from beyond a common building material, and the animals on pedestals resembling the grand marble busts of Roman emperors. Thus, the culturally diverse elements cohere to produce a meditation on the universal human compulsion to organise, define, categorise and contain, the same mechanism that has enabled leaders throughout history to justify their power and intimidate the populous through sublime archetypes. The gargantuan effort of shipping 19 tons of bricks from China recalls the Herculean task entailed in transporting Egyptian obelisks across the Mediterranean to Rome. Such is their enduring symbolic potency, that one was constructed as late as the 19th century in memory of the first US president. Just a little farther down the ancient city wall, next to the defensive towers of the Porta San Paolo, is the impressive tomb of Caius Cestius, a Roman magistrate who appropriated the pyramid form in 12 BC to liken himself to a pharaoh.
The installation comes full circle starting with 221 BC, the year of the Rat and the reign of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, who unified China and built the Great Wall, and ending at the year of the Rat 2008, or Chinese year 59 PRC, which likens the Communist regime to a dynasty. The final years are displayed on top of a tower overlooking the beginning of the Appian Way, the principal route for the conquering Roman armies on their march south. From up there the snaking crenellated wall resembles a miniaturised version of China’s barrier against invaders, and below you can see overgrown Roman ruins and the glamorous villa of movie star Marcello Mastroianni just beyond, a view on ephemerality. There is a profound romance in this intersection of imperial ruins, which from this vantage point do not seem so much tragic as the inevitable outcome of human nature. Huang Rui’s beautiful integration of parallel constructs—symbols of human folly—transported from a distant culture highlights an underlying commonality of spirit across borders; a sort of animal time we all share.
The crumbling, obsolete brick walls are a reminder of the randomness of political zones and the futility of containing cultures, which migrate and mutate across borders that are breaking down with the increasing speed of electronic communication, even in places like China where the government endeavors to shut down channels. A member of the avant-garde group Xing Xing (‘the Stars’), whose work was suppressed by the Chinese government, Huang Rui returned to Peking in 2002 from exile in Japan. Here, his mere depiction of Chinese dynastic history is an act of protest since one of the objectives of the Communist regime has been to stamp out its memory in an acknowledgment of the potency of its symbolism. He has purposefully left the bricks for the years to come unmarked, in the hope that the PRC will be succeeded by some new kind of dynasty.
Cathryn Drake is a writer living in Rome