The Chinese Avant-Garde Artist Who Explores Ideas Of Memory, Impermanence and Spontaneity – Song Dong
Song Dong is a Beijing-based artist who has emerged from a strong Chinese avant-garde performing arts community, and developed into a significant contemporary art figure in the progression of Chinese conceptual art. In his wide-ranging practice, Song Dong explores ideas of memory, impermanence, and the value of human expression within the context of China’s rapidly changing society.
Ranging from photography, video and painting to performance, sculpture and installation pieces, Song Dong’s works are often made of modest materials and offer multivalent perspectives that draw in equal measure on the past and the present, the personal and the universal, the poetic and the political.
Several of Song Dong’s works have conveyed a theme of the impermanence of change. Starting from 1995, he has been keeping a diary on a flat piece of stone using clear water rather than ink. The writing of this invisible diary rapidly evaporates, though still represents an act of purification for the artist. “Although it is just a stone, it actually has become thicker day by day, with my own thoughts added on it”, says Song.
In 1995, Song Dong visited Tibet and photographed himself repeatedly striking the Lhasa River with an old style Chinese seal. Song respects the laws of nature and believes in effortless action. Many of his works show the philosophy of Taoism, which emphasizes naturalness, simplicity and spontaneity.
Song’s relationships with his parents have also been a recurring theme of his work. Touching My Father, created in 1997, tackled his distant relationship with his father. It consists of a video in which Song’s own hand, superimposed over a film of his father, appears to stroke him.
Waste Not is an installation which comprises 10,000 objects that Song’s mother accumulated over the past five decades. Song’s mother was typical of the generation of Chinese who lived through the hardships of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, abiding by the dictum 物尽其用 (waste not). This guiding tenet deemed that resources be squeezed for all their value and nothing be wasted. For the subsequent generation, the result was a childhood surrounded by partially used bars of soap, loose buttons, assorted buckets, and scraps of fabric, stockpiled and preserved as protection against future hardship, even in the face of improving economic conditions.
Between 2003 and 2006, Song highlighted China’s dramatic transformation through a series of edible installations called Eating the City, that were staged in Barcelona, Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Oxford and Shanghai. As he puts it, “the purpose is for the city I built to be destroyed. As cities in Asia grow, old buildings are knocked down and new ones being built almost every day. My city is tempting and delicious. When we are eating the city we are using our desire to taste it, but at the same time we are demolishing the city and turning it into a ruin.”
Situated in front of a Baroque castle in Kassel, Germany, Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden was a mound of grass, flowers, and plants. It grew approximately 6 meters high upon several layers of rubble and biological waste. In the middle of this vegetation a neon sign says “Doing Nothing” in Chinese, reflecting a sense of futility in the process of repeatedly consuming, wasting and recycling of resource.
Song believes that “humankind falls into an endless cycle of development and destruction. Efforts are undertaken, but nothing is guaranteed in the end. What truly matters is the process that we have been through.”