Hidden dragon

Huang Yong Ping lit a rocket under China's art Establishment when he founded the Xiamen Dada group i

Huang Yong Ping has a beautiful, leopard-like cat that curls around his feet as he answers the door. It is the only touch of exoticism in his bare, immaculate apartment in Ivry-sur-Seine, the last remaining communist suburb of Paris. There is no art on the walls, none of the mess or chaos you might expect to find in the home of the founder of an avant-garde art movement. Cages for a hamster and a guinea pig occupy the hallway, reminding 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. Despite living nearly 20 years in France he hasn't mastered the language; 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. "I 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-effacing 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-garde 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 sketchbook at the time. "When lit, they produced muffled sounds inside the trousers, with only a little smoke coming out."

Xiamen Dada was characterised, as Huang explains, by an 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 hauled off to 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 massacre in 1989. Many of those who stayed behind, he notes wryly, "have given up art and become businessmen".

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, witnessed 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 began to ask myself what art was really for."

Huang turned to the foreign books that were gradually filtering in to the country, discovering conceptual art - in particular, Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp. "I discovered two traditions that had been hidden from us. One was western contemporary art. The other was ancient Chinese Zen philosophy." One of his responses to this new set of influences was The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987), described by the artist and curator Fei Dawei as "not only a milestone in contemporary Chinese art, but also a rare international contemporary art masterpiece". The piece did pretty much what it said on the tin, with the two books pulped together and placed in a soggy mess on a wooden box. It was a cathartic moment: "Having experienced both the western and Chinese traditions, I washed them both away."

Much of Huang's work has uncompromisingly explored the relationship between east and west. In Passage (2005), he re-created the two doors of an airport passport control, forcing those entering the gallery to choose between the entrances for "EU Nationals" and "Others". In each doorway lurked a lion cage filled with rotting meat. Two Typhoons (2002) reimagined the twin towers as scrolls of Arabic and Sanskrit calligraphy. Most controversially, Bat Project (2001-2005), re-created in exact detail a US military spy plane that collided with a Chinese plane in April 2001. The first version of this work was to be shown at a sculpture exhibition in Shenzhen, organised jointly by the French and Chinese. At the last minute it was pulled on the grounds that it would damage international relations. "I still don't know whether it was the Chinese or the French who put pressure on the organisers to suppress it," says Huang. "The US embassy sent people to take pictures of it, and asked the Chinese government to do an investigation. This was later retracted."

This is not the only occasion on which Huang has experienced censorship in the west. Theatre of the World was also nearly removed from display in Canada last year, following protests by animal rights groups when it was shown as part of the Huang Yong Ping retrospective "House of Oracles". He sees it as his role to be a constant irritant to those in power, and employs an old Chinese military strategy: "You have to hit the east with the west, and hit the west with the east."

In China, the legacy of Xiamen Dada and other art movements of the 1980s has been mixed. There is now a buzzing contemporary art market, with some artists fetching record-breaking prices at auction. At the same time, says Huang, much has been lost artistically and politically. "What we achieved with Xiamen Dada was mild - but it was still something compared to today. At that time, the authorities applied a lot of pressure to artists. Now, with market economics, the authorities encourage everyone to make their own money. There is no political pressure, but neither is there any resistance."

Nevertheless, for a generation of young artists in China, Huang has become a role model for his consistently critical, innovative work and refusal to bow to power in either China or his adopted home. "For many Chinese artists in their thirties now, Huang is like a father figure," says Hans Ulrich Obrist, director of international projects at the Serpentine Gallery and a long-time admirer of Chinese contemporary art. "He remains a completely unpredictable artist - his work has never solidified into a cliché. It is very clear now that his career is not a sprint: it's a marathon."

Not unexpectedly, Huang will not be contributing to the Beijing Olympics this year. "An artist should be independent and should not do anything serving a political purpose," he says. "But I wouldn't call for a boycott. I don't think you have to say 'I protest' to make it clear you do not agree. In China, everyone knew from the way I have conducted myself that I would never participate in anything official. No one asked me, because they already knew I would refuse."

And with that, he looks quietly down into his teacup and takes another sip.

"Frolic" by Huang Yong Ping is at the Curve, Barbican, London EC2, from 25 June.

Alice O'Keeffe's novel On The Up is published by Coronet. She is a literary critic and former arts editor of the New Statesman. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe, or on Instagram as @aliceokeeffebooks.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically