The Kunsthalle Düsseldorf is dedicating a large-scale solo exhibition to the work of the prestigious Chinese artist SONG Dong (b. 1966 in Beijing, lives and works there). The retrospective organised in collaboration with the Groninger Museum is devoted to his previous artistic oeuvre.
SONG Dong’s artistic practice unites such diverse mediums as photography, video, installation and performance and has decisively influenced contemporary conceptual art in China since the mid-1990s. Based on biographical experiences, the artist addresses the constitutive impact on the life of the individual made by economic and political conditions. His works are characterised by an expressive visual language that subtly provides concrete descriptions of the often difficult living situations. To the extent that Song always selects a personal access, he provides viewers the chance to understand the realities of the depicted persons. This identification with problematic cultural, emotional or economic conditions is not least carried by an impulse for change.
Presented for the first time at Beijing in 2005 and later at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well, Waste Not is SONG Dong’s masterpiece. The installation consists of a wooden house and more than 10,000 household items from his family home. As contemporaries of the impoverished 1950s and 1960s, his parents were accustomed to making do with little. Collecting and preserving supposedly superfluous items regarded as little more than (for example buckets) or scraps (like pieces of soap) was a necessity because of the critical economic and political situation brought about by Communist rule and the “Cultural Revolution”. After her husband’s death in 2002, Song’s mother transformed this economic survival strategy into an emotional one. Hoarding things turned into an obsession and was intended to repress the pain of loss and loneliness by filling the emptiness of her small home. Song actively integrated his mother and other family members into the realisation of Waste Not, thus setting a process of coping with bereavement in motion. Cataloguing and sorting the objects meant dealing with their own past, occasioning countless conversations and the telling of numerous stories between mother and son. Based on the objects, the installation Waste Not invites the public to explore cultural history through very private insights into the lives of SONG Dong’s parents. Meticulously arranged according to type and colour, the objects are overwhelming in their abundance, without allowing the individual items to lose their relevance.
The piece Writing diary with water, which SONG Dong has been working on continuously since 1995, plays an important role within his previous oeuvre. It concerns diary entries made daily by the artist in water with a calligraphy brush on a stone so that no traces are left behind and the writing already starts vanishing while it is being applied. Even as a child SONG Dong was encouraged by his father to practice calligraphy with water on stone in order to save expensive ink and paper.
Referencing the fleetingness of life, Song translates the playful quality of this experience into an artistic performance that lends the writing of the diary entry a special intimacy, making it inaccessible to others. Under the protection of the invisibility of the diary entries, the artist opens up the possibility of making uncensored messages to himself. At the same time this piece can also be seen as a reaction to the difficult situation of artists in China from the 1970s to the 1990s, leading them to produce and present their works in private spaces because of legal restrictions and a general shortage of material and exhibition venues. The Chinese curator GAO Minglu termed the artistic practice that emerged from these specific conditions “Apartment Art”, a movement characterised by ephemeral, subtle and small-format, largely conceptual works as well as a relatively small viewership. The private living spaces thus became a biotope for a vital art scene that offered refuge from political restrictions as well as an alternative to a fast-paced, market-oriented art production.
SONG Dong characterised the sweets he used to make model-like replicas of such large cities as Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong for his Eating the City installation as “beautiful poison”. By allowing these seductive draft cities to be eaten by the public, he addresses the rapid growth of large urban cities, with the consequence that local structures dissolve, increasingly resembling the newly built transit sites. In the process, Song selects the respective exhibition site as the model for Eating the City, this confronting each city’s inhabitants with the changes it is undergoing.
Transience, transformational objectivity and gestures as a means of artistic articulation is an important characteristic of Song’s oeuvre and furthermore indicates the importance of Zen for his approach. As a branch of Buddhism influenced by Taoism that developed in China of the 6th century, Zen focuses on a way of living in which the individual can only experience a state of peace by living in harmony with his surroundings. It concerns a teaching that with no dogma or presenting the prospect of a specific goal but concentrating instead on present experiences and cautious actions. Song explicitly references the philosophy of Zen with the piece Doing Nothing Garden he developed for dOCUMENTA 13: an entropy in the form of circa six metre high hills built from construction rubble and organic waste material and completely covered with grass and flowers. The garden is furnished with yellow Chinese neon texts that herald an untranslatable phrase on the act of inaction. Instead of denouncing supposed passivity, Song deals with the dialectic between action and non-action. He asks in this way what value we assign to our activities and what we in fact acknowledge as such.
SONG Dong graduated in painting and fine art at Beijing’s Capital Normal University in 1989. SONG Dong suddenly stopped painting after the massacre at Tiananmen Square in which the popular uprising was repressed and subsequently concentrated his activities on a conceptual artistic practice that also reflects on the country’s political situation.
His works have been shown at such venues as the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, where he was awarded a prize in 2006, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin) as well as dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel.
The exhibition will be accompanied by the first monographic catalogue in English to cover the whole of SONG Dong’s work. Featuring numerous texts, work descriptions, it will be published by Hatje Cantz Verlag: 298 pages, price: 35 Euros
The SONG Dong show simultaneously forms the conclusion of an exhibition year that occupied itself with the conditions of being human today. From Real Humans, Cody Choi. Culture Cuts and Avatar and Atavism. Outside der Avantgarde to SONG Dong, a series of events have taken place at the Kunsthalle, which takes up self-awareness and the importance of the individual in art, culture and society. The themes explored during the 2015 exhibition year ranged from the post-Internet-generation, the digitalisation of aspects of life, explosive questions on the postmodern subject and finally descriptions of Asian life, until Rita McBride poses the question concern the individual and the public sphere in April 2016.