Song Dong

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consumerism, identity
Performing Arts (installation)
Visual Arts (photography, video art)
Asia, Eastern
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July 16, 2003
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Song Dong
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Between conservation and change

Song Dong is an avantgarde installation artist from China. Conceptual interests are at the centre of his practice, which embraces photography, installation and video. Emerging from a strong Beijing-based avantgarde performance art community, Song Dong´s practice explores notions of perception, transience and the ephemeral nature of existence.
There is the skeleton of a wooden house, and around it lies a collection of utensils of all kinds, the residue of 50 years of a person’s life and indeed of 50 years of material culture in China. Put in rows on small ceilings or placed casually on the ground, on cheap bedside cabinets, on a simple wooden bed, on a kitchen fridge whose surface has flaked away and on chests whose drawers are missing, they are Mrs Song’s dearest possessions. For 50 years she has hoarded and added to them.

Here in a neat row are four televisions - one big and three small - red, pale yellow and grey. There are neckties, some of them still in transparent plastic envelopes; there are ten 10-litre oil flasks, handbags with or without ornament for festive or daily use; there is black synthetic leather; there are heaps of bottles and portable army-flasks, briefcases and suitcases. There are also the relics of childhood: a skipping rope, cuddly animals and a now legless doll. In one corner there are baskets made of plastic, raffia and metal and there are sieves. There are also bundles tied up with string, bundles of socks and sets of belts. On the installation’s rim there are wooden chairs in front of a fence of wooden boards from sets of shelves.

The installation is being shown for the first time in the West. The concept and multi-media artist Song Dong has sat among crates and bric-a-brac in the foyer of the House of World Cultures and spread the hoard out with his mother’s care. He grew up in the house next to this wooden frame in the heart of Beijing. The shabby borough was cleared away in time for the Olympics, but the government neglected to replace the old houses, so there is now an empty area.

On it Song Dong would like to build another wooden house in the traditional style. Keen to uphold his city’s cultural riches, he appeals in writing for the preservation of old Beijing. Already his installation ‘Eating the City’ (2006) implicitly rejected the uniformity of global architecture. The installation was a modern city whose steel buildings, office-towers and concrete pillars were actually made up of about 72,000 sundry biscuits, wafers and jelly beans. This shrine to consumerism was eaten at the exhibition’s close, reflecting the pace of production and consumption in China now.

This pace leaves the older generation breathless. Grown up in poverty and having to make the most of few resources, it was used to recycling, re-allocating and saving utensils for future use. The socialist motto was: ‘Waste not’. The generation gap is wide.

Looked at from a personal angle, the installation documents the history of the artist’s family. Song Dong recalls: “Every resource should be used fully, and nothing should be wasted. This code served as the basis for my mother’s daily household operations. In my childhood memories, she always led a thrifty life, trying not to waste anything for the good of our family.”

His mother Zhao Xiang Yuan was born into a well-to-do family in 1938. At the age of 12 she moved with her grandparents to Beijing, but in 1953 her grandfather was accused by the communists of being a spy and was jailed. Soon after his release her grandmother died in 1961 and the family slipped into poverty. Mrs Song bought and kept things for 50 years, and her son is asking visitors to picture to themselves how they were all cooped up in a small house. The possessiveness of the old became the claustrophobia of the young. When finally Mrs Song’s husband died, her habit of hoarding became her passion, as if to ensure that nothing else slipped from her grasp.

Song Dong objects to his contemporaries’ consumerism and prefers spiritual and artistic satisfaction. Indeed the installation ‘Waste Not’ deftly achieves several aims with a single stroke. Besides offering visitors a picture of Beijing life, it has relieved his mother of the dead weight of half a century and has done so without making her feel that her hoarding was futile. In fact her collection is now touring the world and bringing her son international acclaim. What more could a mother hope for?

How did he become an artist? Song Dong recalls that as a child he was unwilling to go to kindergarten, so at the age of four or five, whenever his mother shut him up at home, he began painting. His subjects were animals and flowers, which he hardly cares for, and police and pistols. He painted on whatever materials were available, like books, cardboard and rubbish. At the age of seven he began going to school then from the age of 11 or 12 had a traditional painting education. Finally he studied visual arts at the Capital Normal University in Beijing. On leaving University in 1989, his life entered a new phase then in 1994 he gave up painting in oils. Song Dong, who claims that as a student he was never good but unusual, became one of China’s first concept artists.

Even today the Chinese art market is based on traditional Western art like oil painting and sculpture. Only gradually is the situation changing, so Song Dong’s works are bought mostly abroad. He expects the 2008 Olympics to help China’s development and to spread more understanding of Chinese culture, but he does not wish to contribute directly to the Olympics as an artist. He feels that his art is not specifically social or political and says that his art is life, and life art. He is called a concept artist by others, not himself.

Waste Not! His video installation ‘Writing Diary with Water’ (ongoing from 1995) is likewise about this motto typifying a generation. The artist has been writing his diary in water on a stone while heeding his father’s call not to be wasteful. But in a wonderful reversal of the gathering of material, his gathering of thoughts becomes an act of transience: The letters fade and submit to time and its wastefulness.
From an interview of the author with the artist in February 2008.
Heike Gatzmaga

Chinese avantgarde installations
By Karin Bergquist, 2004
Based in Beijing, Song Dong is one of a generation of Chinese artists that has come to the attention of the international art world in recent years. A performance and installation artist, Song Dong´s early work is characteristic of what the art critic Gao Minglu describes as ´apartment art´ - a practice that has emerged from an environment of limited resources and little recognition by commercial and official galleries.

Song Dong´s video installations project compelling and meditative images onto the surface of the exterior world, while his performances (often-sited outdoors) comment upon the transience of human endeavour. During the course of a four-month residency at the Gasworks Artists´ Studios beginning in April, the artist will be making and exhibiting new works at the Tablet gallery at the Tabernacle.

Many of his performances are meditations, such as his ongoing Writing diary with water project, in which the artist ritualises the daily actions of writing and uses serial photography as a means of recording this process.

Through his photographic series and short video pieces, Song Dong employs the sequenced image to explore rapidly modernising China and to capture notions of transience and illusion in contemporary society.

All quotations stem from an interview of the author with the artist in March 2008 in the House of World Cultures, Berlin
Author: Heike Gatzmaga/Karin Bergquist


1966: Song Dong was born in 1966 in Beijing, China.

Song Dong graduated from the Normal University in Beijing in 1989 and has exhibited in China, Europe, USA and Japan. Last year his work was included in Inside Out: New Chinese Art (PS1 and Asia Society Galleries, New York and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and Transience: Chinese Art at the end of the Twentieth Century (The Smart Museum of Art, Chicago).

Song Dong lives and works in Beijing, China

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

“Broken Mirror”, The Times Square Astrovision, New York, USA
“Waste Not”, Beijing Tokyo Art Project, Beijing, China

“Water Works”, Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester, Great Britain

“Song Dong in London", Tablet Gallery, London, Great Britain

“Song Dong in London“, Gasworks, London, Great Britain

Group Exhibitions (Choice)

“Festival of Love“, Asia Society, New York, USA
“Only One Wall“, Artspace, Sydney, Australia
“China Trade“, Centre A, Vancouver, Canada
“China - Between Past and Future“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany

“Placed in China”, Walsh Gallery, Chicago, USA
“Irreducible“, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA
“Karou Arima - How Latitudes Become Forms“, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Monterrey, Mexico
“Made for this World - Contemporary Art and the Places We Build”, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia
“I am Making Art“, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia
“Water, Water Everywhere. . .“, Scottsdale Museum of Modern Art, Phoenix, USA
“The Elegance of Silence Contemporary Art From East Asia“, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
“Beyond Delirious // Indeterminate States“, Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, Miami, USA
“Between Past and Future“, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, USA
“Between Past and Future“, Smart Museum, Chicago, USA
“Faces in the Crowd“, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy
“Between Past and Future“, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Great Britain
“Mahjong - Chinesische Gegenwartskunst“, Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern, Switzerland
“Shanghai Cool“, Shanghai Duolun Museum, Shanghai, China
“Between Past and Future“, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, USA
“Irreducible: Contemporary Short Form Video“, CCA Wattis, San Francisco, USA

“The Logbook”, Longmarchfoundation, Bejing, China
“Summer Breeze”, Art Beatus Exchange Square, Hongkong, China
“On the Edge”, Noanoa Center, Xian, China
“Asian Traffic“, Asia-Australia Arts Centre, Sydney, Australia
“La ville qui fait signes“, Le Fresnoy, Tourcoing, France
“Biennial São Paulo 2004“, Biennial São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
“Between Past and Future“, International Center of Photography, New York, USA
“Slow Rushes”, Contemporary Art Center (CAC), Vilnius, Lithuania
“Chine: génération vidéo“, MEP - Maison Européene de la Photographie, Paris, France
“Concrete Horizons”, Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand
“Doing Nothing anywhere is”, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, China

“Biennale Istanbul 2003“, Biennale Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey
“Alors, la Chine ?“, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
“How Latitudes Become Forms“, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy
“Der Rest der Welt“, Alexander Ochs Galleries, Berlin, Germany
“How Latitudes Become Forms“, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA
“The First Guangzhou Triennia“, Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, China

“Guangzhou Triennial 2002“, Guangzhou Triennale, Guangzhou, China
“Asia-Pacific Triennial 2002“, Asia-Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, Australia
“Unterwegs nach Timbuktu“, ifa-Galerie Berlin, Berlin, Germany

“Living in Time / Shenghuo zai Cishi“, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, Germany

“Edible Pen Jing (Bonsai)", Gasworks International Art Studio, London, Great Britain
“Canceled: Exhibiting Experimental Art in China", Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, USA

“Cities on the Move“, Museum of Modern Art, Helsinki, Finland
“Transience“, Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, USA
“Supermarket", Alternative On-Art Apace, Shanghai, China

“Living in Time“, Hamburg Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin, Germany

“Fuck Off“, Eastlink Gallery, Shanghai, China
“Cancelled“, Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, USA

“Look“, Contemporary Art Gallery, Peking, China
“Slap“, Ruins for Art, Berlin, Germany
“The First Kwangju Biennial“, Kwangju Biennial, Kwangju, Korea
“Inside Out”, Asia Society Galleries, PS1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, USA

“Another Lesson: Do You Want to Play with Me?“, Gallery of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Bejing, China


Waste NOt

There is the skeleton of a wooden house, and around it lies a collection of utensils of all kinds, the residue of 50 years of a person’s life and indeed of 50 years of material culture in China. Put in rows on small ceilings or placed casually on the ground, on cheap bedside cabinets, on a simple wooden bed, on a kitchen fridge whose surface has flaked away and on chests whose drawers are missing, they are Mrs Song’s dearest possessions. For 50 years she has hoarded and added to them.

Selected group exhibitions

Exhibition / Installation
2003: Sars Times. Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, ISE Foundation, New York, USA 2002: Chopsticks. Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, Chambers Fine Art, New York, USA 2001: The Flying Circus Project, Singapore Worldwide Video Festival, Amsterdam, Holland Cancel, Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, USA Home: Chinese Contemporary Art Show, Shanghai, China New Conceptual Photography: China Scene, Century Theatre Gallery, Beijing, China Invitation Arts Exhibition, Chengdu Contemporary Art Museum, China 1999: Khoj International Artists Workshop, India Cities on the Move 7, Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland Fast Forward: New Chinese Video Art, Macau Contemporary Art Centre, Macau, China.

Selected solo exhibitions

Exhibition / Installation
2002: Eyeball, Beijing International Switching System Corporation Ltd. BISC, Beijing, China 2000 : Song Dong in London, Tablet, London, United Kingdom. Edible Pen Jing (Bonsai), Gasworks International Art Studio, London, United Kingdom 1999 : Jump, performance, Tian An Men, Beijing, China and Venice, Italy


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.


Exhibition, Films, Literature, Dance, Conference

(13 March 08 - 18 May 08)

China - Between Past and Future

A project on contemporary art in China

(24 March 06 - 14 May 06)

Images of Asia

(08 August 03 - 26 September 03)
"Waste Not"
"Waste Not"
"Waste Not"
"Waste Not"
"Waste Not"