Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Song Dong’s 36 Calendars

The ‘making of an archive’ as the driving theme of the 
project, was based on impressions of memory and printed 
materials for the artist-in-residence at Asia Art Archive.

Song Dong himself examining the exhibits on walls 
while the drawings produced by the public were 
attended to at the foreground.

The calendars of 1978 at the hall preceding the 
others in the grand room.  There was a total of 
432 pieces including twelve as blanks for 2013.

The articulate pencil drawings, comprising 36 years of moments chosen by the artist, brought interstices of memory while I was strolling along the walls of drawings in calendar format.  From the year 1978, 1979, 1980 to 2013, Song’s recollections were manifest as one drawing per month and hung orderly on walls for perusal.  As sentimentality waned, they began to elicit fresh revelations of living as an artist or indeed a common individual in China.

Journeys of Destiny

A visitor inspecting the walls of calendar-styled 
drawings.  A sense of ‘wish you were here’ was up 
in the air for musing.

Russian Ark: the French marquis in marvellous 
gaze of the Hermitage whilst at the outside 
a sea of storms was closing in.

At the end of the film – the inevitable storms.
(two images  Russian Ark)

Like Sergei Dreiden, the Marquis de Custine in the film Russian Ark, who led the audience through 300 years of Russian history in the Hermitage, Song Dong guided the visitors to follow his professional developments with touches of personal life in the last three decades.  Accompanied in context of the same era, snapshots of world events and upheavals in China according to Song were also marked on the calendars.

While the French interloper takes a detached exploration on his country of interest, I am intrigued with Song’s life in China – a place so near yet so different from home.  But unlike the marquis who finally decides to stay with the Russians before the impending revolution and wars, I am relieved to lie at the edge of China’s shadow – a situation almost too fragile to prevail.  This is a reflection I gathered; and for other visitors in the exhibition, everyone would find their own revelations.  No one with an understanding of China or experience of the former communist regimes worldwide would leave the venue uninspired.  With moralistic overtone - a leitmotif often recurred in Song’s projects, the exhibition was a success.

Sampling Picture Calendars

January 1978 - the New Year Variety Show on 
national network was Song’s first entry 
on the calendars.

July 1978 – two teenagers the artist met practised
 swimming with intent to enter Hong Kong illegally by sea.

September 1982 – The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David 
among other oils from France was exhibited in Beijing.

November 1982 – Andy Warhol’s propaganda-styled 
visit to China.

July 1984 – Xu Hai-feng, the first Olympic gold 
medallist of mainland China.

August 1989 – Song’s artwork in the national art exhibition
earned him a certificate of recognition – an abused form of honour much used for every trade, business and school activity.

December 6, 1991 – Song marked his 25th birthday to be 
allowed to apply for marriage permission license.

August 1995 – Ice bags hung on wall with dripping 
water to express “leakage”.  The artist was questioned 
by police on the day of action.

November 2003 – Dance with Farm Workers by the artist.  
Real labourers were tied to each other and 
freely roamed about in the exhibition room.

September 2012 – the M+ Museum, Hong Kong accepted 
1463 Chinese contemporary artworks as donation from 
Uli Sigg to the approval of the artist. 

(Song’s express of admiration may be challenged by local concerns that this controversial deal involves the purchase as well as donation from Sigg. The calculated undertaking simply consolidates the value of Sigg’s remaining collections. Another contention centres on the fact that the majority of the donated works do not represent local art the museum was initially designed for.)

Feb 2012 – In praise of ‘The Artist’, winner of 
five Academy Awards. Among the hundreds of sketches he did, 
there are the arbitrary ones including this. 

Some Critical Thoughts

Public participation was organized prior to the 
exhibition and works were displayed on low tables.

In the same vein that any retrospective of a person amid historical events is emotive enough to affect any sensitive being, Song’s exercise was a clever plot to strike a chord with people.  However, it did not evoke new depth through the manifestation of this impressive chronicle.  Some of the images and related narratives could not escape the cannon of historicist viewpoint, for example the Challenger disaster and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  They make little difference to knee-jerk reflections of watching annual news review on television.  Nor did the timid subject matters of the Academy Awards or Mayan Doomsday have enough prowess to excite.

Just as the deployment of mass and scale are common in his installations, Song often retraces the idea of homogeneity as a means of representation.  The high-profiled public participation, represented by the drawings on low tables, fell short of expectation in terms of ideas generation.  The restrictive use of Song’s duplicates to be drawn upon as much as undue assumption on the ability of the public ended up with lukewarm qualities.  Many of these drawings did not rise above the level of colour-by-numbers.  Only very few were focused with intent and able to arouse interest.  As a result, the public involvement was a visual treat rather than an inspiring joint-realization.

The Voices within the System

Waste Not - Song’s installation at Yerba Buena 
Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2011.  It was 
an installation of discarded objects collected by 
the artist’s mother after her husband’s death in 2002.
(photo www.thehousenews.com)

Touching My Father – Song’s work of 1997 also 
exhibited at Yerba Buena in 2011.
(photo www.thehousenews.com)

Eating the city - edible installation at the Selfridges Department Store,London, 2006.  Perhaps it might be met with strained eyebrows at first; but when one is questioned with "What's eating our cities that makes them so similar 
among each other?", Song's exercise begins to make sense.
(photo ∣ www.londonrubbish.com)

Critical comments aside, the efforts by Song inspired my perennial admiration for the unfailing resilience of the common people in China.  The exhibition would not be possible in the mainland without some of its content censored.  As an artist inherently possessing acute observations, he is a perishable breed to speak out in a totalitarian system.  To rise above the repressive regime, it is hard enough to survive with sanity no matter what lightness of being.  It is for this consideration that Song, representative of the forces of the artist and ordinary folk in China, deserves respect and appreciation.  I am only too eager to see more works by him in future.

Co-presented by Asia Art Archive and M+ Mobile, 
‘Song Dong: 36 Calendars’ is open from 22nd January to 
8th February, 2013 at ArtisTree, Hong Kong.

宋冬:三十六 曆   〈中文摘要〉


正如電影《俄羅斯方舟》裡法蘭西侯爵(Marquis de Custine)漫遊隱士廬博物館(the Hermitage),體現三百年俄國歷史;宋冬帶領我們回顧三十六年的個人體驗及其選擇的世界大事。當這法裔貴族旁觀該國的史事,我卻不由被宋的掛曆牽引著。當該貴族最終决意留在俄國,有感動盪的革命及戰禍即將彌至,我只能興幸生活於大陸政權陰影的邊緣,尚有自由空氣。這是本人思想上的反饋;無疑其他對近代中國有多少認識的觀眾,看畢展覽不難有自己的感受,甚至因而對近代文史事件重新評價。一如宋的創作往往觸及道德層面;基於上述尺度,作品是成功的。




《宋冬:三十六 曆》由亞洲藝術文獻庫及M+ Mobile合辦;展覽於ArtisTree舉行。

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