Song Dong

The first time I saw the artist Song Dong’s work Waste Not, was in Berlin at the House of World Cultures in 2008. It was an epic experience so I’m a bit giddy with joy to have the very same installation currently on display at the Barbican.

Today I went to hear him speak about the work at a special event, and his insights added a whole new dimension to what I thought and felt the work was about .

Song started by talking about two other works that together with Waste Not, represent a bulk of the art he has created. Being a performance/installation artist, much of what he produces is difficult to commodify or classify as art objects. In 1998 he made a piece called Touching My Father which stars his father with a projection of Song’s hand on his shoulder. Out of respect and as per his tradition, the act of physically touching his father is not something Song would naturally do. But apart from being a cultural comment, the very making of this work changed the relationship he had with his father. From a more authoritarian one, their relationship changed to one of collaboration and friendship, and remarkably so.

When Song’s father passed away a few years later, he made Part II of this piece which is an actual video of him touching his dead father’s body. While this sounds completely spooky, Song has only watched this video once in his life. And when he displays the work in a gallery setting, all you get to see is the labeled cassette which is quite a relief. As nice and artistic as Song seems, I really don’t want to see the actual video. For once the symbolism is more than enough for me.

Song’s other piece is Water Diary which is a stone on which he writes a daily diary. This writing however is done using the medium of water. So although Song has been performing this ritual on the same stone since 1995, every day he returns to a fresh surface that carries no trace of the days gone by. This work has multiple layers but could also be analyzed as a comment on freedom of speech. But as Song says, his art is not political but about him and his daily life. The closer you look, the more you realize that it is about nothing at all.

Song Dong’s Waste Not  is a very personal display of the household items his parents have collected over the years, dating all the way back to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In those days, the idea of saving things you might have use for in the future was quite common. What those same items are perceived as half a century later is however quite different.

Seeing this display makes me think about how one person’s memories can quite easily be another person’s junk. And I see this happen ever so often when I take on my serial hoarder of a mother. Is it true that the older we get the more we tend to collect and get attached to? Or is the need to collect everyday items linked to having experienced poverty and loss?

What I really love about this display is that it is not about the objects, but about the connections and the relationships they bring to mind. The relationships between Song and his mother and father, between the gallery audience and the objects, and also one object to the other, is what makes Waste Not special. That and the fact that the entire process of putting the installation together is something Song partakes in with all his family members. When his mother was alive, she was very much a part of the installation and the exhibition of the work. In fact I think I saw her rearranging bottle caps at the Berlin exhibition if I am not mistaken.

In the previous seven times that this work has been displayed, the room was usually a warehouse like space; cavernous and large enough for the entire display to be taken in at one glance. But it is so very different and more thought-provoking at The Curve gallery in the Barbican. Because of the narrow, circular shape of this space, you get to see bits and pieces of the installation and not the whole thing at once. And this gave me more time to browse and absorb different aspects independently.

Looking at Waste Not you realize that though we are cultures and generations apart, we have more similarities than we think. Our lives and our sentiments are not all that different when closely examined. And that’s something I don’t mind being reminded about.

Song Dong: Waste Not
Upto 12 Jun 2012

And you’re allowed to take pictures which means I go back with my camera next week….whooop.

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