REGENERATE: SONG DONG

30 August 2014 - 15 October 2015
“Don’t waste food. Eat everything on your plate. Think of the starving children in China!” Many of us grew up hearing this – including me, in São Paulo.
 
 
Song Dong’s work reflects his life... The story of his life began in Beijing, and his creative icons and agency were generated and developed in the capital of the Middle Kingdom.  

REGENERATE 重生 signifies in Chinese both rebirth and a second life. The shape of this new installation is modeled on old Beijing’s footprint. Song Dong is using all local materials, except for his own door – which he has brought from home – symbolically uniting his life in Beijing to São Paulo.


Song Dong’s first solo exhibition in São Paulo represents for him, a second beginning. He turns 48 this year, and the completion of the 4th 12-year cycle is meaningful in Chinese culture, as the Chinese zodiac cycle indicates. The timing of this exhibition bodes auspicious and the new work can be construed as rebirth in this large metropolis in what is still considered a new world. This is the beginning of his next cycle.


Song Dong, his sister and parents lived in a space smaller than most single person bedrooms – they slept on one double-bed. A small board slid out from under the mattress to serve as a table, and stools from under the bedframe, so that they could eat… everything was compact and simple… 


Born in 1966, the year Mao’s Cultural Revolution started – the ten-year reign of terror unleashed the Red Guards to harass anyone who was born to an “undesirable background” That his maternal grandfather had been an officer in the Kuomintang before the Communist revolution made his background privileged and therefor punishable. During the Cultural Revolution, his father was exiled to the countryside, for “re-education”, far away from his wife and two children, and Song Dong was raised by his impoverished mother.
 
Even as Song Dong becomes internationally acclaimed and exhibited, the artist refuses to leave his past deprivation behind, choosing to used discarded furniture and demolition doors and windows for his new installations. 
 
These structures, constructed with detritus from destroyed buildings are consistent with his personal history. Song Dong arrives at a contemporary meaningful discourse of urban renewal, environmental sustainability, regenerating this material into a new aesthetic. 
 
Astonishingly, Song Dong’s work, guided by his very personal history and trajectory, traces some of modern and contemporary art developments in vastly different cultures. 
 
When Song Dong embarked on these installations, he would not have been conscious of these groundbreaking art manifestations. There is consistency in the relationship between his departure from academic painting tradition, which in China only happened in the 80s (thus for Song Dong, still in his 20s) and the evolution of abstraction in the west in the 20th Century: Russian Constructivism, European Bauhaus movement, and Brazilian Neo-Concrete art.
 
Song Dong was inevitably isolated from outside influences, as he had no contact with the world outside of China during the 80s. If anything, it was the 85 New Wave movement in China which led many young artists at the time to break away from painting. It was the first time artists in China began creating works in different media: installation and performance art, photography and video, conceptually based work rather than pictorial imagery.
 
To quote the critic and curator Fei Dawei (費大為), Beijing:
 
85 New Wave is an exhibition that takes a step back from this commercial fray to examine a unique episode of art history when China began reinventing its own culture. The 1980s in China represented a kind of explosive answer to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, when China was not only cut off from the rest of the world, but was also forced to disown and renounce its own culture. Suppression of such a powerful culture could only be met with an equal and opposite force. The result of this explosive reaction was the 85 New Wave Movement. This search for new artistic language and dialogue sent art-ists in pursuit of multiple lines of enquiry. After decades of political movements, the line of modern Chinese artistic development had been seriously eroded, leaving only traces from which to reinvent a new culture. Forced to work almost from scratch, artists instigated a parallel and alternative contemporary art history to the West that brought Chinese art from strict socialist realism to mature experimental and conceptual practice in just a few years.” 
 
During the pre and post-Cultural Revolution era, traditional realist painting and classical sculpture was being taught at universities’ art departments. The 85 New Wave was the turning point when artists turned to abstraction, Cubist or Expressionist, and experimented with Pop Art in various media. Other artists began to work with ready-made, performance, installation, and image experiments. Xu Bing’s installation The Book from the Sky (1987-1991); Wu Shanzhuan’s installation Red Humor (1986); Huang Yongping’s Wet Method - the actual publications: History of Chinese Painting and Concise History of Modern Painting washed for two minutes in a washing machine (1987). 


Departure from the rule that only art in the service of social propaganda should exist and previous state-approved soviet-style oil painting and revolutionary art, liberated Song Dong and other artists. The profound transition from the spirit of the collective to the personal occurred in the 1980s, when Deng Xiao Ping encouraged private enterprise, affecting every aspect of economy and creative thinking. 
 
Song Dong’s work draws from his life and his family’s experience. Often performed in his exhibitions: Water Diary (1995 - present) was prompted by his father, who encouraged him to not waste precious paper and ink. He writes with water on stone, his diary’s ephemeral existence rendering it totally personal and private. When confronted with friends experiences where letters and published material led to dire consequences, he realized that diaries revealing dangerous thoughts often resulted in severe punishment. That his innermost feelings could be expressed in writing, but would then disappear, made it much safer.


In 2005, Song Dong’s Water Diary was adapted to Writing Time with Water in Times Square, New York, as a project for Creative Time. For an hour, he used water and brush to record the time on concrete surfaces, which disappeared through evaporation due to the heat. The ethereal quality paralleled his Water Diary initially performed in 1995, and renewed in many successive and ongoing exhibitions. 
 
Deprivation in a long period of Song Dong’s childhood signified hunger for him, his family, and hundreds of millions of Chinese. Food was of supreme importance, and its preparation developed some variety over several thousands of years. Several projects revolve around the subject, such as Edible Penjing, where fish heads create a mountain landscape.  The video of the four seasons A Blot on the Landscape, up-close, reveal its composition of food ingredients. Eating the World was created for the 2004 São Paulo Biennial, and consumed by thousands of visitors.


Waste Not, a large-scale installation, originated from his mother’s almost deranged state of mind after his father’s death of a heart attack in 2002. For decades, she never discarded used items, most of it junk: used slippers, broken thermos flasks, even empty toothpaste tubes and plastic bottles. She always believed they could be of use.


This project transformed Song Dong’s family life dramatically. His mother, undoubtedly suffering severe depression after losing her husband, was no longer communicating with anyone, but continued to hoard trash and storing or stuffing it in whatever space she could find. Each time Song Dong and his sister wanted to help her sort things out, she would become hysterical and reject their help, refusing to part with any of the items.
 
At this stage, Song Dong devised a plan to work with his mother, using her obsession towards creating an exhibition as an exorcism. It took three years for Song Dong and his mother to sort out the different objects. In 2005, Song Dong first organized an exhibition in Beijing featuring this trove of 10,000 “useless objects”, and he enlisted his mother and sister to help him install it at the space. This became a most effective therapy for his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan (1938-2009). As she sorted through all these items, in the company of her son and daughter, surrounded herself each day with the objects of her obssesive compulsive collecting, they brought new meaning to her life. She began to converse with visitors, and befriended many of Song Dong’s artist friends. 
 
Cold Boiling Water, 1997, a video with the artist’s face peering through the top of a copper pot-belly stove, with a kettle. As a metaphor for Beijing’s destruction of old buildings and neighborhoods, replaced by skyscrapers, Song Dong’s video Broken Mirror from 1999 reflects the changing cityscape, again relating as much to the fast-changing São Paulo metropolis and Beijing.
 
Song Dong’s early photographs reflect living conditions in the poor neighborhoods in his native Beijing. This quasi-retrospective covers video work executed over two decades of his career, and features a major new installation, sculptures and drawings using food ingredients, created in São Paulo.


Demolition materials acquired in Brazil have much in common with those found in Beijing, thus showing a parallel between Brazil and China. The Euro-centric modern art axis of the U.S. and Europe has only acknowledged the contemporary art primacy of these “developing” countries in the last two decades. 
 
A one-year project in 1997 prompted Song Dong to involve 27 artists in performance work in 7 Chinese cities in spaces not designated for exhibitions and in non-traditional exhibition form. The chance encounter of non-art audiences – bu qi eryu – was a desired effect. 
 
His video Jump, was made in 1999, ten years after the notorious Tiananmen demonstrations and its tragic ending. The artist is depicted in the middle of the square, jumping in place, while most of the passersby ignore his action. 
 
Crumpling Shanghai, 2000 directly reflects the intense urban regeneration in Shanghai. The city saw little change between the 1930s and 1980s, where hardly any new construction or renovation occurred. In the 1990s, entire neighborhoods were torn down, giving way to skyscrapers in huge developments, often with thousands of apartments. 
 
Bicycle, a 2004 video, reflects the daily life in Beijing. He captured small and ordinary life scenes with a camera tied to his bicycle. Starting from his neighborhood hutong, along with Zhong Nanhai (where the top bureaucrats lived), the Forbidden Palace and Chang An jie. This hutong has since been obliterated but Zhong Nanhai is still intact. 
 
In a 2006 radio program called Mediascope, which featured Song Dong presenting his work, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the artist said:
 
“I stopped painting in 1994 and started working with video. Crumpling Shanghai refers to rapid and dramatic urban transformation. My memory has no pictorial image, since I cannot recognize my own neighborhood, or hutong. Amongst the videos I had produced, Water Diary is the most significant, which I have written every night since 1995. This one started as an art project, but I realized it is my life!“


SARINA TANG