On October 6, 2020, Huang Xiaopeng died of a heart attack in a small, rented room in Berlin’s yet-to-be gentrified neighbourhood of Wedding. On the seventh day, as is Chinese tradition, friends of the 60-year-old artist returned to the room with offerings comprising a tray of fruit with incense sticks protruding from an orange, and a vase filled with white chrysanthemums, the flower of mourning. The rest of the objects on Huang’s desk were as he had left them. Besides a German calendar showing the date of his death and a card with a fragment of 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai’s Great Wave , was a Bible, in Chinese. Huang’s friends say that he was interested in theology, but never affiliated to any particular religion. Nonetheless, he left behind a handwritten note, a prayer to the gods in which he did not believe: “Don’t kill me. I’m in love.” Conventions abound for the acknowledgement of artistic merit. A successful artist’s CV – often refined by a multinational gallery’s publicists – should list major art prizes, international exhibitions in reputation-burnishing venues, a presence in well-known museum collections. The astronomical prices realised in auctions are too vulgar for explicit mention, but they certainly help to make an artist “hot”. These are laurels, however, that elude those awkward individuals who never do anything “right”, like Huang. And yet, the worldwide outpouring of grief among fellow artists, curators and former students gives a truer measure of his legacy. This was a man who had stumbled through life’s vicissitudes but never compromised his devotion to art. It was Hou Hanru, the curator, who broke the news online. “Last night, Xiaopeng unexpectedly ‘knocked on heaven’s door’, as the title of one of his works says, and left us without saying goodbye,” he wrote. The original post in Chinese was published at 4pm on October 7, in Rome, Italy, where Hou lives. By the morning in China, many found their WeChat pages awash with endless reposts of Hou’s message. Within a fortnight of his death, at least four memorials went ahead, in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Paris and Berlin, despite Covid-19 restrictions. The obituary by Hou mentioned a last conversation about an upcoming exhibition called “Fear, No Fear” that Huang had initiated at the Times Art Center Berlin, an art space founded by the Guangdong Times Museum in 2018. On October 2, Hou and Huang were mulling over the name of the exhibition in Chinese. Instead of the Cantonese phrase “ man nei geng mei? ”, which means “now you are scared, aren’t you?”, Huang proposed a bolder alternative that would better capture the spirit of the English title: “ wai mou so wai ”, an amalgamation of a Buddhist teaching and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Nothing to fear but fear itself”. As someone who switched between Cantonese, Teochew, Mandarin and English on a daily basis, Huang was fascinated by the interpretation of linguistic and cultural nuances, even if perfect translations held little interest for him. After all, his videos and installations, full of wordplay, were often about cultural misunderstanding. Huang was born in 1960 in the northern province of Shanxi, when his parents worked as technicians in a medical school. At just seven months old, he was sent to their home village near Chaozhou, a city in Guangdong province, to live with his paternal grandmother. “He stayed with our grandmother even after my parents returned to Chaozhou in 1962 and after my older sister and I were born. My parents were too busy and had no help in the city. We were close, though, and saw each other often. He wasn’t naughty, but he was always a rebel and an independent thinker,” says his sister Huang Yan, the youngest of the three siblings. She exhibited her own streak of defiance in primary school, when she dropped the diminutive Xiao from her name. The children – Xiaopeng, Xiaofeng and Xiaoyan – were all named after birds. Peng is a mythical bird of great strength, feng is phoenix, and yan is wild goose. But Peng was the only one who flew away. “My sister now lives with my mother in Chaozhou. I live in Guangzhou,” says Yan. “Our brother set his sights further, on the world outside, and we stayed behind.” Xiaopeng’s artistic talent was spotted by teachers at his secondary school while making Communist Party propaganda paintings. He studied at the provincial art school from the age of 15, where the syllabus closely followed the Soviet model and focused on the techniques required for realist paintings. On the recommendation of the principal, he was admitted in 1979 by the highly selective Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, one of the country’s top art schools, during a brief window of liberation between China’s 1978 “open-door” reform and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Inspired by the emergence of avant-garde artist groups elsewhere in the country and the first Western art exhibitions after the Cultural Revolution, in 1986 Huang and like-minded former classmates formed the Southern Artists Salon, southern China’s most experimental collective at the time. They differed from the painting-oriented “New Wave” groups in the north and revelled in cross-media experimentation and public performances. Huang had graduated from the academy by then and was posted to Guangzhou’s Pearl River Film Studio as a set artist, but he still joined the student-led 1986 Salon exhibition in the student union building of Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University. It was a big production, with dancers dressed in form-fitting bodysuits moving among sculptures and paintings of the kind that were certainly not taught in Chinese art schools. Huang could have settled for a conventional, comfortable life. He married fellow artist Wang Huimin, had a secure job, and was a member of a community of artists who knew they were doing something exciting together. And then came 1989. Huang, with his wife’s blessing, left for London, where he was accepted as a graduate student at University College London’s Slade School of Fine Art. The success of other “post-1989” artists such as Xu Bing and Huang Yongping, who also left China around the same time, overshadow the countless, untold tales of those who never “made it” – all those other young Chinese artists who struggled in obscurity after exiling themselves to escape a suffocating system of state surveillance and censorship. Huang Xiaopeng had immersed himself in student life at the prestigious London art school and had quickly made himself popular with fellow students. He could speak just enough English to get by at the beginning, but the lack of nuance was more than made up for by his love of music (Bob Dylan was a favourite), his deprecating humour and his devotion to making and discussing art. “I remember him as a beautiful young man, shy, self-effacing and intensely curious,” recalls fellow student Laura Emsley. “One moment he would be deeply serious and the next crack out a huge smile.” ‘I don’t see this as a cost to my art’: Cai Guo-qiang on Beijing show It was at Slade that Huang started making installations with ready-made objects, a practice of finding the profound in the everyday that later saw him using smartphone videos and pirated film footage as raw materials. His marriage did not survive the long separation, however. The couple parted around 1992 – though it was not clear when Wang signed the divorce papers. By that time, Huang was already in a relationship with a young language student from the Czech Republic called Zdenka Pozarova, and when he met up with an old friend from Guangzhou who had also moved to Britain, he revealed how he and his wife discovered they had drifted apart during a long-awaited, seven-day reunion in Hong Kong – Wang could not get a visa to Britain and Huang would have jeopardised his application for British citizenship had he entered mainland China. The friend, a former Pearl River Film Studio director called Zhang Zeming, recognised in Huang’s telling of that intense, painful week all the ingredients for a movie about cultural displacement, idealism and the new China dream. That became A Date in Portland Street (1995), and it received a positive review in the South China Morning Post at the time of its release. The film version of Huang, who drew tourists’ portraits on the streets of London for a living, is a romantic bohemian. Being a street artist allowed Huang to keep a near-religious vow to spend his life making art. But he was frustrated and saddened by the fact that a job meant for scrimping together a newly arrived student’s budget ended up being his main source of income for the next 14 years. Fellow Slade classmate Tacita Dean remembers seeing him quite often on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus. “I think it was tough for him,” she says. “He always cut quite a solitary but heroic figure at the time with his distinctive long black hair.” Reality became more pressing after Huang and Pozarova had three children together (Vivian, Jan and Matej). Zhang remembers telling him he was mad. “I asked him if he knew how much diapers cost in London.” The couple took out a mortgage and bought a house in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Even if the quintessential English market town had not yet become part of the “stockbroker belt” back then (a mere half-hour train ride to St Pancras), it was an attempt at settling down into a middle-class lifestyle, albeit one financed by a precarious livelihood. When he was single, he used to work weekends in Leicester Square, moving to the covered entrances of bank buildings in Piccadilly Circus when it was wet and cold. He moved slightly upmarket after the arrival of the children and a mortgage – by becoming a licensed portrait artist in Covent Garden Market. It was weatherproof, and he went every day, keeping regular hours like an office worker. But the constant worry about money was wearing and the marriage slowly fell apart. Eventually, Huang returned to China for a job. It was gut-wrenching for him to leave the children, and Pozarova (incidentally, a translator) had to bring them up on her own. But in hindsight, it was that move to China, in 2003, that finally allowed Huang to do what he wanted to as an artist. A former classmate at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, Wang Weijia, was by then the head of the painting department at their alma mater and he hired Huang to teach contemporary art. The 2000s were a time of relative liberalism in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and that made it possible for a nonconformist like Huang to get his foot through the doors of a top academy – he grasped the opportunity with missionary zeal. Anthony Yung, a Shanghai-based researcher who recently co-curated an exhibition at the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong on changes in art education in China since the 1950s, says that in Chinese academies, the top decision maker is never the principal or the dean, but the representative of the Communist Party. Until 2000, they had resisted experimental art and the artists who made it because they were a threat to official ideology. But around the time when Huang returned to China, the academies had realised that they risked becoming irrelevant if they continued to ignore contemporary movements, and decided to set up the first programmes in new media art. “If an education system only teaches young people how to make a living, but not how to live, then it is completely meaningless,” wrote Huang in a mission statement. “‘Unrealistic’ is often a warning to young people. In reality, life is very ‘realistic’, and therein lies its horror. The loss of idealism in China (perhaps Chinese culture never has had any real idealism) is the result of our society, the grown-ups, families and schools. The natural freedom, curiosity, initiatives, kindness and forgiving nature of young people should be revealed and protected by education, rather than destroyed.” During his nine years at the academy, Huang also started to develop his own art, beginning a fruitful period of exhibitions, residencies and well-archived public discussions about art in China. He fell in love again, with a French teacher at Sun Yat-sen University called Frédérique Aron. From 2006 until he died, Huang worked on a project called “You are the Dream of My Realization”, which was prompted by the drastic changes in Guangzhou, the city of his youth that had been transformed by capitalism during his 14-year absence. Dada-esque videos of seemingly random fragments, and installations using everyday objects, were critical of what he called “voluntary colonialism”. The Hong Kong-style high-rise development he lived in, the golf courses that had taken over vast tracts of rural Guangdong, kitchen appliances from Ikea – all of these were the symbols he used shrewdly, elegantly in deceptively simple but affecting works about the violence inflicted by global capital on indigenous ways of life, and about the wilful misinterpretation of foreign cultures and values in the pursuit of a new utopia. One such example is found in the video K.O.H.D. (2014-16), which Hou referred to in his announcement of Huang’s death: Louis Armstrong’s Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love) plays in the background as the camera roams through narrow alleyways of an anonymous Chinese village. The lyrics were turned into Chinese by Google’s flawed speech-to-text translation program, and retranslated back into, inevitably, hilariously bad English. There are visual punchlines, too. As Armstrong’s emphatic “do it” is mistranslated as “execute” in the caption, the camera pauses and zooms in on a man slaughtering a chicken inside a darkened kitchen. Then, the scene changes to a row of young, fashionable urbanites of different races gnawing on fowl at an outdoor cafe. Huang had found his calling as a teacher, but in 2012 his outspoken views against censorship and old-fashioned education cost him his job. What he did within the Chinese art establishment was hard, and the way he made his living was hard [...] What he did, and what he inspired students to do was to unlearn structured education. Professor Leung Mee-ping of Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts Huang lost his income, housing and work permit overnight. But he was able to continue the spirit of the “Fifth Studio” art programme he had run at the academy by setting up HB Station, a non-profit art education and research institution affiliated with the Guangdong Times Museum that Huang hoped would allow him to continue his engagement with young artists. He also started to teach art at Guangzhou’s South China Normal University, a teacher training college, and became a university fellow at the Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts, where the director from 2012-17 was the Irish sculptor John Aiken, who had taught at the Slade when Huang was a student there. “We didn’t ask him to talk about his artistic practice in a conventional way – art education was his practice,” says Professor Leung Mee-ping of the Academy of Visual Arts. “What he did within the Chinese art establishment was hard, and the way he made his living was hard. And we wanted him to talk about it. What he did, and what he inspired students to do was to unlearn structured education.” But Huang’s refusal to compromise eventually led to his resignation from HB Station. A new team was recruited in 2015. He disagreed with their restructuring plan and a decentralised approach to teaching, and so he quit the following year. Still, life in China could have ticked along. Last year, he was given another three-year contract with the South China Normal University. Aron had left him and gone back to France, but his 26-year-old son Jan had moved to Guangzhou a few years earlier to study Chinese and now teaches English there. So why did Huang suddenly move to Germany? Ma Yujiang, a Hong Kong-based artist and writer who formed a close friendship with Huang, says it was simply not in his nature to sink into complacency and languor. “He always said that security did not nurture art,” says Ma. “That’s why he had to keep moving, to go somewhere like Berlin, to make a new start.” When Huang arrived in the German capital, in February 2020, it was supposed to be a recce for a more permanent move later. In fact, he already had the return flight booked for May, when he was supposed to start teaching at the university. The pandemic put paid to that plan, and Huang’s ashes in the urn that was sent back to his mother seem to hold a lifetime of unrealised dreams, heartbreak, poverty and failure. And yet, Huang’s friends, former students and collaborators are determined to keep his spirit alive. To them, he was a “pure” artist, and they can only speculate on the real meaning of the note in his room. Did he know he was sick? Was he in a romantic relationship? Yang Jiechang, another old friend and artist living in Paris, dismissed such puerile concerns. The message in the note was simple, says Yang. “He was in love with life itself.” “Fear, No Fear” was scheduled to open at the Times Art Center Berlin in January but has been postponed until April. A retrospective exhibition will be held at the Guangdong Times Museum, in Guangzhou, in September.