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Song Dong
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The Collected Ingredients of a Beijing Life

Song Dong


Waste Not < wu jin qi yong>

Waste Not


Song Dong


For Song Dong, visual art is a mighty way to explore the Taoist philosophy. To achieve a fair understanding of his work, it might be useful to go back very briefly to the fundamental principles of Taoism. At the center of Taoism is the concept of Tao, which is a natural order of things that cannot be explained since it exceeds the senses, thoughts, and imagination. It calls for meditation and, to a certain extent, contemplation in order to frame a somewhat mystical experience. Tao is therefore the driving force behind all living phenomena and works beyond human logic(modern Cartesianism). Taoism also encourages a joint action with natural forces instead of going against them. Such a philosophy is also known as Wuwei or “non-action”, which does not suggest passivity but rather a respect for natural order. In the same sense, the concept of Wuyu or “non-intention” requires a modest, moderate, humble way of leading a life.

These different notions provide a larger context for understanding the practice that Song Dong unfolds before us, even if it is clear that he does not apply them literally in his work or illustrate any kind of Taoist agenda. As he has stated, “I am interested in how the two sides of the East/West contradiction become one. It is this and it is that and it is not this and not that. Judgment based on past experience sometimes tends to hinder understanding.” His method and work have been attempting to relocate our experience of art to somewhere between modernity and tradition, past and present, Taoist traditions and an understanding of art that we identified as conceptual, process or behavioral art. These practices originated with the intention of shifting the question of art away from its traditional objects and materials and established its purpose as the investigation of its own conception and of its own meaning. In such a tradition, such a Western tradition which saw its first manifestations in the 1960s, art is self-reflective procedure that no longer privileges the finished product but instead the process of construction or attainment. In such a conception of art-making the thin line between art and life is fading; if life is a continuous flow of events that succeed one another and eventually contradict one another, then art cannot be a formal promise anymore but must bear the real thematics and the very contradictions of life itself.

Song Dong's work embraces performance, video installation, calligraphy, sculpture and site-specific projects in a quietly provocative way that refuses to draw clear-cut distinctions between these different media, as well as between the tradition around which he navigates. His strength is also a capacity to summon or convene opposites, including the general cultural context in which he works; the historical, social and cultural situation of China; and a strong autobiographical background. Minor events in his immediate surroundings serve as the springboard from which to broaden his discourse to a universal (if such a notion is still reliable) level.

For Song Dong the root of all of these activities, indeed of most human endeavors, is self-expression. Because of this, the audience is at times tangential, as in the example of his Water Diary. This diary, written with water on stone, has become an integral part of his life. While he has photographed this daily ritual for exhibition purposes, it is first and foremost a personal experience. It was inspired by the memory of his own childhood. When he was a child, Song Dong's family was quite modest, if not poor. In order to be able to practice calligraphy without wasting precious paper and ink, his father encouraged him to use water to write on a stone. At the time, his focus was neither on the calligraphy nor on the brush but on the playful quality of such an exercise, during which the water slowly evaporated and the characters disappeared. Song Dong began writing his diary on stone with water in 1995. It became a way to release his emotions in absolute privacy, and over the years this “ritual” has become totally integrated into the construction of his own self. The water diary, a way to meditate with no trace, locates his art towards evanescence both physically, because there is only a ratified documentation of this activity, and content-wise, because the diary is not written for anyone other than himself.

Such evanescence also demonstrates his interest in the power of the non-existent and the capacity for producing something (meaning) out of nothing. In a work in which he writes each actual hour, minute and second in water on the ground (Writing the Time with Water, 2000), Song Dong unfolds an odd temporality in an attempt to recapture a fading sense of time. When he writes the first hour of the world's twenty-four time zones on a rock with water, beginning at 00:00 GMT and continuing for twenty-four hours (Recording a Millennium in Water, 2000), the impulse seems to be the same. But in this specific work, his own private language is challenged and displaced in order to comment on a historical event. Writing with water has become a recurrent language that reveals, frames cultural and historical phenomena, and therefore is to be considered a critical tool for Song Dong. The evanescence is again at the core of his attempt to record history, with no visible memory, only through the myth created by the oral tradition that will keep his performance alive. The absence of trace and the absence of text is therefore the assurance of Song Dong's self-mythology.

The evanescence that embodies his relation to art and to Taoism eventually leads Song Dong towards video. “The medium of video is elemental. It produces moving images and sounds that cannot be touched. It has no shape but provides a strong light and can be projected onto any objects.” Song Dong’s video production seems to follow the same binary logic as his water writing. On the one hand, he explores larger social and cultural issues. His video Crumpling Shanghai (2000), for example, in which his hand is shown successively crumpling pieces of paper onto different projected views of Shanghai, serves as a comment on the recent predatory urban development in China. On the other hand, his work also explores very personal, intimate experiences. Touching My Father (1998) acknowledges these concerns. For this work, he projected onto his father’s body a video image of his own hand. In a culture that does not facilitate physical contact, touching his father in this way was a very strong statement regarding the traditional relationship between fathers and sons, as well as an attempt to bridge the problematic generation gap that emerged in China’s recent development.

Whatever topic Song Dong approaches, his critique always manages to walk the thin line between the politic and the poetic. Like many artists of his generation, his political awareness is free of any didactism, and provides a gentle, if not absurd, sense of subversion. Stamping the Water (1996), a performance which took place in Tibet, in which he spent one hour stamping the water with a large wooden stamp bearing the character “water”, and Jump (1991), a performance during which he jumped aimlessly in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing, in the middle of the absolutely indifferent crowd, both reveal Song Dong's sense of the absurd and the importance he places on both spiritual and physical experiences. Jump, with its Taoist absurdity, could find its root in a traditional Chinese proverb: “jump.... no reason not to reason to jump....” It crystallizes a sense of tradition, calls into play strategies sprung from a history of avant-garde performance, emphasizes an aspect of the urban Chinese “everyday” and questions the status and visibility of art and culture in the world today and the strength of the creative. In addition, it serves as a demonstration of Song Dong's refusal to be boxed in. As the artist has said: “The most frightening thing in the world is being boxed in. This is even more frightening if it is by your own doing that you have become boxed in... People basically have many selves. Why strangle one of those selves?


Philippe Vergne

All the quotes are from an interview of Song Dong by Binghui Huangfu