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Catching moonlight in water is a set phrase; in the dictionary of set phrases, it is explained like this: "catching moonbeams in water" means to go into a body of water looking to harvest moonlight; it means to try and do something that is fundamentally impossible, and can only result in wasting energy. This set phrase comes from "Selections of Yuan Dynasty Operas" and specifically Act 3 of Yang Jingxian's "Liuxingdao": 'Just like panning for gold in the sand, taking fire from a rock, catching moonbeams in water.' It often has negative connotations. The moonlight on the water, although it can be glanced at, cannot be reached, yet in Li Bai's death, it permeates the meaning of his work. This poetic sage loved drink like life itself, and used it to fly magically. One night, drunk, he stood at the stern of a boat and tried to use his hand to catch the moonbeams reflected in the water. He drowned. Death is often terrifying, but Li Bai's death is somehow artistic: he got the moonbeams, and in getting them, truly became a "sage". The high-hung moon was once a mysterious female spirit, immeasurable in the black night, constantly fulfilling everyone's rich imaginings. –Song Dong

Song Dong has been making art for over ten years now. Since his work "Another Lesson, Do You Want to Play with Me?" (1994), Song Dong has intentionally, and completely, participated in the movement and development of contemporary art in China. At that time, in a work that integrates installation, video, painting, and performance, Song Dong combined all of his creative power, and fully exploited the special nature of his formal job as a high-school teacher of Chinese art in order to express a kind of hope about participating in the development of contemporary art in China. At the same time, he also tried to expand and disperse this hope. At that moment, "Do You Want to Play with Me?" was somewhat provocative, as the participatory consciousness reflected in this little sentence is extremely strong. Song Dong in this work tried to play a master teacher, and through contemporary art—metaphorically represented as an interactive space for people who need education and entertainment—he attracts people's attention and participation. This work, in the special cultural ambiance of the China of that time, had a cultural subversiveness about it, and so within half an hour of opening it was shut down by the police. And the work in its metaphorical tendencies precisely reflected the urgency felt by the entire country at that time about its understanding of and participation in globalization. In the "Supermarket" exhibition held in Shanghai in 1999, Song Dong very consciously portrayed himself as a salesperson for the "Song Dong Art Travel Agency", with a goal of "providing sales advice at the exhibition venue, and helping to sell the art products on display in the 'Art Supermarket'". The classroom in this case had already mutated into the venue, the "students" were now "artists", and their "master teacher" had become a "spokesman". This sort of identity manipulation on the part of Song Dong hinted at the burgeoning maturity of Chinese contemporary art.

The transition of Chinese contemporary art from active participation ("Do You Want to Play with Me?") to trying to "explain" their self-creations in terms of contemporary art happened in a few short years. During this time, Song Dong produced the works "Cultural Noodles" (1994), "Back Slapping" (1995), "Secret-divulging" (1995), "Water Diary" (1995-present), "Breathing" (1996), and "Printing on Water" (1996). Beginning with "Cultural Noodles", he grew extremely sensitive to the cultural form of contemporary art. He used a noodle-making machine to cut books into the most everyday "noodle" shape. Spiritual nourishment (books) and material nourishment (noodles) were here skillfully brought together. But the thing most worth noting here is that the so-called spiritual thing (books) was being transformed into a material thing (noodles), or rather, the spiritual substance was looking for and building a material foundation for itself. Comparing this work with Huang Yong Ping's 1987 work "A History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes" is still very meaningful. Huang Yong Ping in his book-washing work took a copy of a translated history of Western painting then quite popular in China and a domestic history of Chinese painting and put them to mix in a washing machine. In the end, the pulp resulting from this process was exhibited, in which "West" and "East" were de-civilized and irrevocably mixed together. This work was extremely spiritual, and the artist tried to use a purely spiritual method to reach an un-spiritual goal. Seven years later, books mixed together took on the form of noodles, as the spiritual moved toward a kind of cultural actuality. In Song Dong's following work, "Back Slapping", the specificity of culture was clearly exhibited. Interestingly, this cultural specificity was surprisingly and exasperatingly enlarged and exaggerated in the years after 1989 as Chinese contemporary artists moved abroad to live and work. In the works of Huang Yong Ping, Xu Bing, Cai Guo-qiang, and Wenda Gu, we can clearly see this. But inside China, the shocks that were perhaps produced in cultural form, put through the ringer of a semi-underground situation, turned into a kind of expression of individual will by the artists. "Room of Calligraphy Model Books" could only be realized in the basement of a private apartment house, and even though it required a great deal of space, it had only 12 square meters, let alone space for viewers. "Room of Calligraphy Model Books" became a solitary, individualized form of expression. At that time it could only maintain an indistinct connection with the entire contemporary art movement in a manner of continuous accumulation. Because of this kind of indistinct connection, random individual behavior became a natural and necessary method and characteristic of Chinese contemporary art. Song Dong's "Secret-divulging" (1995) and "Heavenly Secret" (1995) were realized in the hutongs outside the artist's door and in a nearby park. In "Secret-divulging", pieces of ice were wrapped in silk pouches, and then hung from the hutong walls. As time went on, the ice melted, and the water leaked out of the pockets until they shriveled up. "Heavenly Secret" also used silk pockets, hung from the trees in an outdoor teahouse in a park, but inside were toy parrots that could mimic the sounds of nearby people. Sound came out of the pockets, as if people's personal secrets were being let out. As for the environment surrounding the artist, the works were simple, clear, direct, and random. Here, the contests, performances, and struggles of "high" culture yielded to the appreciation, self-contentment, and self-satisfaction of "low" culture. Art history professor Wu Hung convincingly analyzed Song Dong's art from the perspective of "low" or "unrefined" culture in his article "'Vernacular' Postmodern: The Art of Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen." He wrote.

Song Dong's works are especially distinguished by the kind of humor favored by ordinary Chinese; his concepts often appear in the form of "four-character idioms or other idiomatic expressions". Examples can be seen in the exceedingly vernacular titles of many of his works: "Jinnang miaoji" (roughly, "Having a Card up One'’s Sleeve"), "Tannang quwu" (roughly, "As Easy as Winking"), "Zoumadeng" (roughly, "Spinning Lantern"), "Reng shitou" (literally, "Throwing Stones"), "Ze Suancai" (literally, "Picking Sour Cabbage"), "Tianji" (literally, "Heavenly Secrets", implying that "heavenly secrets cannot be leaked"), "Wangyan yuchuan" (roughly, "Longing"), "Leng kaishui"(literally, "Cold Boiled Water"), "Haqi" (roughly, "Breathing"), and others. Most of these titles cannot be fully translated into another language, and some lose their special flavor even when replaced by other Chinese words.

In this case, "low" culture becomes self-sufficient. "Secret-divulging", "Heavenly Secrets", and other works of this kind in the contemporary art movement became a kind of "hidden form", but this kind of "hidden form" is, however, dependent on time and place. Its self-sufficiency forms a blind spot in the globalization process of the contemporary art movement. In this blind spot, the artist becomes a secret producer. Song Dong has already been going down this road for some time now.

In 1995, Song Dong began his "Water Diary" project. In the beginning, he would write at home, but because he wrote in water, no traces were left, and the only quasi-proof of his work was the stone itself upon which he had written. This work is not exhibited; it remains "hidden" from view, hinting at the artist's cultivation of his own will and spirit. To Chinese people, this method of self-revelation and self-concealment is quite familiar. In this work, Song Dong's experience as a teacher proved useful. On the one hand, the artist used the tool of photography to record the process of writing in water. To outsiders, this footage is like an explanation or owner's manual. The artist then is like a mysterious producer, who through visual artifice transmits and produces a kind of mystical atmosphere; on the other hand, the artist realized an installation/performance work entitled "Water Message Book", in which he exhibited a number of stone pieces accompanied by brushes and water, inviting viewers to freely take and use the water-writing method to leave any information they wanted to. The viewer thus experienced the connection between presence and absence, public and private. At the same time he or she participated, along with the artist, in producing a kind of mystical power. This is a process of going from "hidden" to "obvious", and then back to "hidden".

This kind of work has a beginning but no ending. The artist hopes that through time he can expand it through exhibition, and thus produce a kind of result. If one observes carefully, we see that when "Water Diary" was expanded into a public performance work, up until now, the exhibition venues have all been in the capitals of foreign nations. This work can be said to bring together the individual and the foreign. The work's power is expanded through its instantiation in various foreign cultures, and the foreign culture is its partner in development, or rather to put it more severely, the foreign culture is an integral part of it. This is a special characteristic of the globalization of contemporary art. From the perspective of the center, one needs an open attitude of restructuring toward the foreign cultures of the periphery, and the continued assimilation of such cultures reflects the continued deepening of globalization. From the perspective of the periphery, the degree of participation of the center is seen as a measure of the contemporaneity of contemporary art; it means a kind of subversion, and from this subversion a kind of propriety must be recovered. The work "Edible Bonsai" which he began in London in 2000 is full of just such characteristics. But this transient performance work, only visible at the exhibition's opening, does not serve as an explanatory guide in the manner of "Water Message Book", but rather leads directly to shared enjoyment of the work by the most ordinary means of entertainment. There are no set limits on how long this work can exist, because the viewers decide its direction and set its completion. The artist here is more like the trustor of the viewers; he does only the initial work, and the physicality of the viewers itself becomes the work's final repository. In this work that appears at once both extremely spiritual and ineluctably material, Song Dong takes quotidian foodstuffs (fish, pork, beef, potatoes, crackers, etc.) and makes them into bonsai. On the walls above the bonsai, he writes lines that appear to be calligraphic inscriptions of Chinese poetry, but are actually satirical doggerel, lines like: "Fish and meat river and mountain", "The river and mountains are so full of meat," and "Having seen all the beautiful peaks, I write a meat manuscript."(1) The "lines" of these poems are actually "menus" of the food objects used in the bonsai. For example, "Fish and meat river mountain" has the following menu, spelled out in perfect five-character lines: "three salmon heads, cooked in a microwave, and a little bit of skin, embellished with green cauliflower, pour on soy sauce; Other seasonings, add to taste. May 14, 2000, Song Dong, London."(2) In a globalized contemporary art world, this kind of "hidden form" is extremely difficult to translate. But these inscriptions do contain some rather deep information about Chinese culture, while the foodstuffs beneath the inscriptions transcend and render futile cross-cultural interpretation as they enter directly into the bodies of the viewers, relating to them physically. Song Dong uses the direct participation of the viewer's biology (viewers directly take and eat these food objects, arranged to look like scenery) not only to complete his work, but to complete the viewer's reception of that work. In this work, the spiritual crevices produced by "hidden form" are filled in by the direct connection to biological function. People, through their biological reception of the work, give it a clear position in the context of the entire exhibition, even if this position is not a normal physical space. As the work developed and grew, expanding into "Edible City" and "Edible World," its accumulation of numerical heft began to turn the work’s uniqueness into a kind of ritual. Traditional Duchampian methods of "turning stone to gold" are inverted here, using "absence" to manifest "presence." The work's exciting points are obliterated in one brief moment. Because this work has a special biological nature, it can also be realized in the context of "the same culture." In that context, the spiritual crevices of the "foreign culture" transmute into a kind of disjuncture between "old" and "new." In this domestic context, biological reception of the work comes to reflect the way in which the Chinese viewers are a mixture of "old" and "new" elements together.

It is worth noting that some works can only be realized in the context of the artist's native culture. For example, "Breathing" (1996) was realized in the artist's native Beijing. The artist chose two separate locations: in Tiananmen Square and on the ice atop Houhai (literally, "Rear Sea," a lake in the center of town, surrounded by leisurely locals and newly built entertainment venues). The artist lay upon the pavement at Tiananmen, and breathed onto the ground for forty minutes; the tiny breathed-upon area was covered with a thin layer of ice. On Houhai, the artist similarly breathed upon the icy surface for forty minutes, but the area on which he breathed showed no change at all. This contrast seems to point to a connection between man and environment. As soon as this connection attains a certain condition, new things will arise. In this case, the political nature of Tiananmen allows a new thing to come about, but Houhai, which subtly symbolizes the everyday, cannot but return to a kind of unchanging existence. The year in which this work was created—1996—is especially significant. In the early 1990s, China began to implement capitalist-style economic reforms, but control over the nation in general was still administered by the centralized, socialist bureaucracy. Pulled in these two different directions, society cannot but remold its new character and characteristics. Since the mid-1990s, people living in China have experienced two social modalities, conflicting but intertwined. The everyday nature of Chinese contemporary art is locked in constant conflict its avant-garde tendencies. The political stance which emerged from its earlier avant-garde position is now sinking into a mere posture. And the attitude engendered by Chinese contemporary art is now turning its original mission (convergence with the West, creation of a great 21st century art, etc.) and position (freedom, challenge, etc.) into a game of wit and strategy. This is characteristic of Chinese contemporary art, but also of the globalization of contemporary art writ large.

To say that Song Dong's "Breathing" is an examination of social change is not as apt as saying that "Breathing" seeks to discover and eke out its own kind of social space in a society that is itself changing.
This space defies definition, and lacks a specific object. In the end, only a "measurable" trace (the iced-over breath) is left to show the artist's presence. And the artist is left with only his action by which to call up a trace of himself. Song Dong's works "Printing on Water" (1996), "Jump" (1999), "Slap," and "Feel" all have similar characteristics. In "Jump," the artist wrote, "Not jumping is pointless, but jumping is also pointless; even if it’s pointless, jumping is still necessary." This is not actually referring to "jumping," but to the "jumper," the artist himself. Self-image appeared as a deeply meaningful part of contemporary art in the late 80s and early 90s. In the beginning, this self-attention was cynical, then bored. In the mid-90s, it attained a certain professionalism. "I" am the "artist," "I" am an emblem of the "artist," and "I" am created and enlarged by the artist's professionalism. Song Dong's works are all related to self-perception. Whether in "Breathing" or "Printing on Water," if the artist himself, and the image of the artist, were not present in the work, the work's expressive power would be diluted, and the value and meaning of the artist’s personal brand would perhaps be ignored, or damaged. And this is precisely what Chinese contemporary art has tried hard to avoid in the twenty years of its development. The creation of personal brands by Chinese contemporary artists is connected to the maturation and growth of their self-consciousness, so in Chinese art, "self" is always connected to "endurance," "experimentation," and "self-testing." But for Euro-American artists during the same period, the self became the product of performance, something more resembling a "model" that has been artificially manipulated and enhanced. Song Dong's "Breathing" became a manifestation of "endurance," "experimentation" and "self-testing," from which the form of the "self" molded and formed, and this entire process became "art." In his Indian work "Song Dong Came Here and Faced the Wall," he imitated the great Indian monk Dharma, quietly sitting on a bed, facing a wall. He inscribed the phrase "Song Dong Came Here and Faced the Wall" in big characters on the wall. But next to it, he inscribed in small characters:
  "A long long time ago
  Dharma went to China from India
  The reason was Zen.
  A long long time after,
  Song Dong came to India from China
  The reason is "Art."
  Dharma did not speak Chinese.
  Thus Dharma faced the wall in silence
  For 10 years
  Leaving his image on the wall.
  Song Dong does not speak Indian
  Thus Song Dong faced the wall in silence
  For 10 days
  Leaving "Art" on the wall."
Song Dong the artist is equivalent to art; or rather, art is equivalent to Song Dong. Although in his works we see very strong traces of traditional culture, the artist’s goal is not to praise and popularize that culture, but rather to engage with it in a process of "self"-creation. From a broader perspective, the diversity of culture brought on by the globalization of contemporary art is not so much expressed as the discovery of the multivalence of culture, but rather as the appropriation of cultural multiplicity in the midst of rapid development. Of course, the "appropriation" referred to here does not have negative connotations, but rather refers to a contemporary attitude toward traditional culture. This attitude is built on the foundation of contemporary practicality and snobbishness, full of self-confidence and self-aggrandizement. "Tradition" is only one of the weapons used by contemporary artists in their struggle. This weapon is widely, discretionarily, and thoroughly used by artists in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania. Can it not then be said that this attitude toward and use of tradition perfectly reflects the contemporaneity of contemporary art? "Song Dong came here and faced the wall," and whether India had any more of Song Dong's art after that is not important to Song Dong or to the art world; The important thing is that Song Dong went there, and faced the wall. In doing so, the artist accumulated and consolidated his global image.

From this we can also see that documentation of performance often becomes a more important expressive strategy than the performance itself. Artists are acutely aware of this. Song Dong's work "Breathing" was witnessed first-hand by almost no one, and so photography became the most important media for its expression. Based on his understanding of the importance of medium, Song Dong went a step further in making medium into an integral part of his work. In "Family Members Photo Studio" (1998), the artist recorded his family members using a video camera, which he then projected onto a wall. Exhibition-goers could choose for themselves which of the images to project, then stand in front of the projection and be re-photographed. The real images of the viewers and the empty projections of Song Dong's relatives overlapped with one another, creating yet another image. This is actually a performance work that depended on the medium for its production. In his 1997 work "Touching my Father," the artist first shot footage of his hand, then projected this hand onto his father's body. Holding a video projector, the artist caresses his father with a hollow hand. The recorded image of the hand ceases to be document, becoming instead part of the performance, as the tension inside the work between real and artificial turns into a dialogue. "Catching Moonbeams on Water" (2001) directly takes this dialogue between real and artificial and visualizes it as a Chinese set-phrase. His intermittent use of "real" and "artificial" images has lent a fresh flavor to Song Dong's video works. In "Broken Mirror" (1999), "Crumpling Shanghai" (2000), "Father and Son Face-to-Face with the Mirror" (2001), "Burned Mirror" (2001) and other works, the artist gives "empty images" a kind of elasticity. They can be made to disappear under the pressure of "real images"—like "breaking," "crumpling," and "burning"—and made into the consignee of performative action. In "Broken Mirror," a hammer repeatedly bangs upon the image reflected in a mirror. Only when the hammer slams into the mirror and destroys it can the artifice of the image in the mirror be experienced; conversely, only the fragility of the artificial image can attract the power of the hammer. "Fragmentation" comes to signify a contradiction between beginning and end. This is also the contemporary attitude toward criticism itself, and simultaneously allows for the exhilaration caused by destruction. Today, the revolution is only powerful in the realm of discourse. In his video works, Song Dong manipulates images for different effects. Through these images of varying quality, Song Dong develops his own video style.

In the entire realm of contemporary art, Song Dong's art is personal and quotidian. Sometimes it seems to hide in a corner, unwilling to be discovered. Even in a large-scale opening-event work like "Edible City," the fundamental entertainment of the "eating", its plasticity, its eventual and inevitable disappearance—all conspire to engender a kind of endurable distance. This distance cannot be framed in terms of East and West or tradition and modernity. It is formed by difference between the quotidian nature of everyday life and the exacting requirements on contemporary life produced by this conventionality. The globalization of contemporary art is turning this distance into a universally understood feeling, as the ineffable "hidden forms" similarly become yet another mode of contemporary expression. If we say that Song Dong's art is hiding in a corner, then the "hiding" itself is extremely meaningful.

1 These titles are nearly impossible to translate idiomatically. "Fish and meat" can also mean "to treat badly, devour," and "river and mountains" is metonymy for China itself. The second title is a play on Mao's famous poem, "The River and Mountains are So Full of Beauty," and the third is a corruption of another famous poetic line, "Having seen all the beautiful peaks, I write a literary manuscript."

2 The date is given in the traditional Chinese "roots and branches" system.