An exhibition of the Celebrated Chinese artist, Song Dong known for his conceptual and often poetic and essentially personal performances and installations opens at the Barbican on 15 February 2012. This is his first solo exhibition in a major UK public gallery, Song Dong is installing the monumental work,Waste Not, in The Curve. Comprising over 10,000 items collected by Song Dong’s mother over five decades – ranging from a section of the house to metal pots and plastic bowls to blankets, bottle caps, toothpaste tubes and toys – the installation is a tribute to his mother, as well as a meditation on family life during the Cultural Revolution. The activity of saving and reusing objects of all kinds is in keeping with the Communist adage wu jin qu yong – ‘waste not’ – a prerequisite for survival during periods of social and political turmoil. Waste Not opens in The Curve on 15 February 2012.
Head of Art Galleries, Barbican Centre, Kate Bush, said: “I am delighted that Song Dong is installing his most powerful and poignant work, Waste Not, here at the Barbican. As well as being a collaboration between a mother and her son, and a collection of memories, Waste Not, is a portrait of China, and a history of survival through great times of change”.
During the early post-War Communist years in China, being frugal was the only way for a family to survive. Song Dong’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, saved everything, including items we might view as rubbish or junk – for instance, old pieces of used soap and empty toothpaste tubes – for possible future use. Even when things improved a fear of shortage was ever present, leading to a life of thrift. Following Song Dong’s father’s death in 2002, she sank into deep depression. As Song Dong says, I understand her need to fill the space with those daily life objects more as a need to fill the emptiness after my father’s death. The artist wanted to make her happy and for her to find renewed purpose in life, to bring her out of the depths of grief, so he proposed that she work with him to make her possessions a work of art. In exhibiting her life, her things, and her philosophy: It gave my mother a space to put her memories and history in order. Song Dong’s mother died suddenly in 2009, but did install the first showing of Waste Not in 2005 in Beijing. A neon sign at the front of the Barbican, facing the elements, reads: ‘Dad and Mom, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well.’
Song Dong’s previous works have often referenced the impact of The Cultural Revolution on members of his own family. Labelled a ‘counter-revolutionary’, Song Dong’s father was sent to a re-education camp. In Touching My Father, 1997, Song Dong superimposes a film of his own hand over a film of his father, thereby forging an intimacy that was otherwise absent.
Breathing, 1996, is a piece that was performed in two separate locations and intimates a connection between an artist and his political and physical environment using that most basic of human actions. Using his body as a means of expression, the artist lay upon the cold pavement at Tiananmen Square and then simply breathed onto the ground for 40 minutes. A thin layer of ice began to form. On Houhai lake, the artist futilely breathed upon the icy surface of the water for 40 minutes but only managed to melt an inconsequential portion of the ice. It is one of numerous examples of the ephemeral nature of his art, blurring the boundary between art and life.
Song Dong has sought to highlight the dramatic economic and social changes occurring in China through a series of large scale site specific edible installations (Penjing) entitled Eating the City, 2003–2006 that were staged in Hong Kong, London (Selfridges), Beijing, Shanghai, Barcelona and Oxford. For Song Dong…the purpose…is for the city I build to be destroyed…As cities in Asia grow, old buildings are knocked down and new ones 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.
In 2011 Song Dong was invited to create a so-called Para-Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. To express his belief in the ‘intelligence of poverty’ he brought together 100 wardrobes from the neighbouring families of the Beijing community that was his home for 7 years.
Born in 1966 in Beijing, China, Song Dong initially trained in oil painting and graduated at the Fine Arts Department of Capital Normal University in Beijing in 1989. His work ranges from performance and video to photography and sculpture. He has been the focus of many solo shows around the world, including A Blot in the Landscape at Pace Beijing in 2010; Projects 90, at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009; and multiple times at Beijing Commune since 2005. Selected group exhibitions include The 10th Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool in 2010 ; Re-Imagining Asia HKW, at House of World Cultures, Berlin in 2008; China Now, Alors Le Chine: Chinese Contemporary Art , Centre Pompidou, Paris in 2003. In 2006 he won the Grand Award at the Gwanju Biennale in South Korea. Song Dong was also recognised in 2000 as the UNESCO/ASCHBERG Bursary Laureate.
Song Dong The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK 15 February – 12 June 2012 Admission Free