The depth of meaning embedded in Song Dong's multimedia installation Dad and Mom, Don't Worry About Us, We Are All Well, currently on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), seems infinite, like the vast ocean that he and his family traversed en route to San Francisco. Song was born and raised in Beijing, where he continues to live and work as a leading figure in Chinese contemporary art, and the complex sociopolitical, economic, and environmental histories of modern China are undeniably present in this exhibition. However, Song's increasingly global avant-garde practice transcends the conceptual and physical boundaries of contemporary art and geopolitics. As expressed by the title, it is the notion of family that carries the greatest significance -- a family that he has purposefully situated in a broader, more fluid, and fleeting reality. In his words, 'Art is my hobby. Life is my true creation."
The monumental assemblage Waste Not (2005–2011), now in YBCA's main gallery, first appeared in Beijing six years ago. The contents have since been reinstalled in Korea, Germany, England, and Canada, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, each time reconfigured and thereby revitalized into a new site- and time-specific composition. YBCA's gallery is brimming with over ten thousand well-used objects: cardboard boxes, televisions, couches, toys, TVs, leather bags, shoes, keys, and other ephemera form a cumulative living landscape of memory. Song conceived of the installation with his (now deceased) mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, in response to his father's death, recuperating and remembering his life by ritually rearranging their beloved joint possessions. Zhao and Song processed their grief by laboring over the installations -- unpacking, touching, and placing the items in art galleries around the world. At its core, Waste Not is a conduit for familial love and stewardship.
It might be tempting for eco-conscious Bay Area residents to interpret Waste Not as environmental art, demonstrating the green ideals of reduce, reuse, and recycle that have emerged after decades of indulgent capitalist consumerism. My own aversion to plastics and nostalgia for natural materials, such as the mysteriously preserved mango pits, were indeed heightened when immersed in this installation.
The poetic power of Waste Not is its ability to challenge these inculcated personal values and reveal a different perspective specific to Song's life experience. His mother, Zhao, endured decades of rigid Communist rationing wherein basic goods like fabric and shoes were rendered scarce by a government intent on controlling equality and fashion. She managed her family's well-being by celebrating the potential longevity, rather than disposability, of plastics and other received goods. She saved and cared for every item on display.
"Waste Not," 2005–2011; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Justin Korn.
Song's early training as a painter and fascination with light are evident in the formal aesthetics of Waste Not, as well as in his other experimental videos and photographs. He eloquently harnesses the visual language of colors, forms, frames, mirrors, and projections as representational mechanisms for casting an illusionary pall over what is commonly perceived to be a factual material reality. No matter the subject of any particular artwork, it is this combined sensibility that underlies Song's reputation as a premiere contemporary artist, further merited by his unique approach to life as art.
The evolution of Song's gently interventionist work is marked by two other installations in YBCA's adjoining galleries: Touching My Father (1997–2011) and My Daughter is My Four Seasons (2010). Touching My Father includes one single-channel video, two digital prints, and a videotape sealed and preserved inside an acrylic box. These various formats document an experimental artwork wherein Song projects a video of his hands onto his father's body. His projected hands bend over the flesh of his father as a meditation on the permeability of figurative light on human skin. Through this exceedingly personal work, Song attempts to breach the Chinese cultural mandate to maintain physical and psychological distance between sons and fathers.
Song created My Daughter is My Four Seasons while in residence at New Zealand's Govett-Brewster Art Gallery with his wife, Yin Xiuzhen, and their daughter, ErRui.1 In this work, four videos capture the essence of classical Chinese landscapes during the four seasons of the year. Each one is saturated in color and framed by a circular window cut out from a serenely white, wall-mounted box, a minimalist interpretation of traditional Chinese garden architecture. Song's daughter unexpectedly appears at timed intervals in the video loops; her presence establishes the miniature scale and uncanny artifice of the four seasonal scenes, which are actually made of food.
In one, she sleeps peacefully behind a stone-like pile of green bell peppers and pears; in another, she blows through a straw to make ripples in the aquamarine water surrounding hills of fried chicken; and, in my personal favorite, she uses chopsticks to select a piece of pink salmon layered like sedimentary rock and sprinkled with parsley trees. In the critical moment of consumption, Song resists the art-as-commodity paradigm, instead strengthening a familial bond with his daughter, a budding artist who is learning from her father that life itself can be playful and pliable.
Similar to Waste Not, these installations serve as conceptual portals, combining a painterly aesthetic with reflections on reality to explore the metaphysical relationship between perception and touch. YBCA exhibition curator Betti-Sue Hertz did well to persuade Song to show these living new-media portraits alongside his larger assemblage of material culture. The show presents the Bay Area with a marvelous introduction to his work, his family, and his uniquely personal approach to making globally relevant art from life.2
Song Dong: Dad and Mom, Don't Worry About Us, We Are All Well is on view through June 12, 2011 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.For more information visit ybca.org.
1. Yin Xiuzhen is also a leading figure in Chinese contemporary art. She has exhibited widely including the 2007 Venice Biennale, 2008 Shanghai Biennale, and last year at MoMA.
2. Paraphrased by Song Dong's longtime friend and colleague, Wu Hung, during the Scholar's Roundtable hosted by YBCA on Saturday, February 26, 2011.