Song Dong is one of China’s most successful contemporary artists.
Song Dong is a Chinese artist active since the early 1990s, but who is less well known than many of his countrymen like Ai Weiwei and Zhang Huan. However, after many years of touring the globe Song’s massive scale installation Waste Not has arrived at the Barbican. At first glance it may just seem like a room full of rubbish – but Song Dong is a master of undercurrent and his work always contains a social message.
In the mid 1990s, Song Dong became one of the key pioneers within a group of artists longing for a new ideological system in which they introverted their work into private spaces, in an antagonistic rejection of the totalizing ideologies of state and institution.
Waste Not (detail)
These artists worked in self-imposed exile to free themselves from mass consumer culture and produced art that was unsalable and unexhibitable. One of Song Dong’s most important works within this genre is Writing Diary with Water (1995 – present) in which he writes a diary on a stone tablet using a traditional calligraphy brush and clear water. The physical trace of the calligraphy is only fleeting, it is the ‘feeling and psychological experience’ that remains.
In a similar project, Writing Time with Water which is not confined to the private sphere, but performed ‘en plein air’ in a variety of locations ranging from a Beijing Hutong to New York’s Times Square, Song Dong’s focus is the rapid consumption and disappearance of time. The work implicitly suggests a rejection of globalised architecture and comments on the modernity drive of ‘new’ China that relies on the destruction of ‘old’ China and with it the dissolution of old ways of living. As with many of his other works, it also highlights the widening of the generation gap, where many of the older generation become alienated by the rapidly changing society.
It is partly within this context that we can introduce Song Dong’s Waste Not. The installation consists of over ten thousand items, collected from his mother’s house over five decades and represents a unique point in China’s social history, as well as a rapidly changing mentality – a vast ideological split between older and younger generations.
Writing Time with Water, 1995 – present
Whereas the young live in a fast paced world of disposable consumerism, the older generation, as indicated by this installation, grew up in hard socio-political times, (the Cultural Revolution and surrounding period) in which they abided by the term ‘wu jin qi yong’, roughly translated as ‘waste not’- a prerequisite for survival in times of social turmoil.
The objects mirror the age and location in which they were accumulated, on another level they act as an amazing anthropological study of human life, almost like a burial chamber. Taxonomic groups and rows of detritus line the floor: empty toothpaste tubes, plastic bottles, old shoes, metal pots, record players, childhood toys. It is a very personal look into somebody’s life, uncanny, a little unnerving, but fascinating.
In its initial conception Waste Not has an even greater intimate aspect – a way of helping the artist’s mother deal with her depression following her husband’s death. Situating the work in the Barbican’s Curve adds an extra dimension as the entirety of the show is not visible at once, instead it unfurls as you navigate along the curve of the gallery wall, taking you on a journey through the strata of somebody’s life – somebody who is a stranger, but strangely familiar.
Despite consisting of over ten thousand items, part of the strength of this work lies in what is not on display – the roof, the walls, the people. The items present have been displaced from their original location and are the bare bones, the atoms that made up something much larger, much more whole. Their presence works to heighten the loss of physical human presence, the death of Song Dong’s mother and father on one level and the death of a way of life on another. Whereas once these items would have crammed into every nook and cranny of a functioning household – they now act as cold historic objects, primary sources lining gallery floors, to be observed and dissected.
So despite containing items that would not have looked out of place in a landfill, this work is a complex portrait of despair, a psychological analysis of hoarding, a study of daily life and a picture of a past era. It is a great introduction into the work of Song Dong and hopefully one that will help build his reputation to the position it deserves on these shores.