Song Dong

Song Dong  宋冬

Who is Song Dong?

Song Dong was born in Beijing in 1966, right at the start of the Cultural Revolution. The turbulent events in China during his early childhood had a profound impact on him, which continues to play out in his work today.  A contemporary artist, his work encompasses sculptureinstallationsperformancephotography and video. His relationship with his family has often been the focus of his work. He is interested in Chinese history, the transformation of modern China, and the constant flux and change of his world.

Watch this video which shows a time-lapse of the installation of his enormous installation 'Waste Not' at Carriageworks in Sydney at the start of 2013:

(in case embedded video not working!)

Look at the images of 'Waste Not' below and think about the ways in which the objects have been organised in the space:

Critical Writing #1

Read this extract from a longer review of Song Dong's work 'Waste Not',"The Ancestral Temple; Memory and Mourning in the work of Song Dong", and then write your own description of a different work by the same artist.

Begin with a descriptive account of the work - what it is, what the artist did, how the work was exhibited/presented/performed/documented, and then some of the background context,

Ten thousand objects collected by the artist Song Dong’s mother Zhao Xiangyuan, over the course of her adult life, are arranged in neat rows and grids on the ground. During the Cultural Revolution, a period of extreme uncertainty and privation, she began hoarding – drying out and keeping even her allocated bars of soap for fear of future soap shortages. Continuing right through to her last years, Zhao saved everything, in a process called “wu jin qi yong”, translated as “waste not”. This is the latest incarnation of Chinese artist Song Dong’s extraordinary installation, itself entitled ‘Waste Not’. 

Entering the vast space one first sees a row of old chairs, and beyond them the reconstructed frame of Zhao’s traditional timber home. Radiating from the skeleton of the house, the possessions it once contained are laid out on the floor: among them 4 TVs, 3 record player turntables, numerous clocks and watches, broken toys, lamps, old umbrellas, plastic buckets and tin washing tubs, rows of shoes, coat hangers, threadbare face washers, stacked quilts and blankets, polystyrene food containers, empty plastic bottles and their lids, and hundreds of plastic bags folded into neat triangles. They are unbearably poignant in their sheer ordinariness.

People wandering through the rows of objects wonder aloud how one person could possibly have collected and kept all this stuff. Anyone encountering this work here in Sydney or in its previous iterations in New York at MOMA, or in Beijing, Korea, Berlin or London’s Barbican will respond in ways which reflect their own relationship with possessions - and with their parents. There were uncomfortable resonances for me with the experience of packing up my mother’s house, a process of poring over photographs, letters, postcards sent to her by my younger self, clothing, toys, scraps of material and half-finished knitting, astonishing stacks of newspapers: every item the repository of memories good and bad. Similarly here, every object tells a story about the artist and his family. It has become a memorial to Song Dong’s mother, who died in 2009, and to his own childhood. Prior to her death, however, she was actively involved in the work, to the point of sitting in the installation and engaging audiences in conversation about the significance of the objects and the memories they contained. For Song Dong himself the genesis of the work was a way of trying to help his mother through a period of intense mourning after the death of his father in 2002. At a time when she was almost incapacitated by grief, he developed an artistic collaboration with his mother which challenged accepted notions of the artist, and connected artmaking with a deeply rooted Confucian tradition in Chinese culture centred on family relationships. This is a work is about love and filial duty, and together with the works in ‘Dad and Mum, Don’t Worry About Us We Are All Well’ Song Dong’s practice connects three generations and reminds us of the central importance of family.

Luise Guest, 'The Ancestral Temple: Memory and Mourning in the Work of Song Dong published in 'The Art Life'

What was Song Dong's main motivation for creating this work?

Song Dong. Waste Not, installation view, Carriageworks,
photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of 4A Centre for Contemporary Art

Watch this video about Song Dong's installation at the Barbican in London ( in case embedded video does not work)

Now read Critical Writing #2, from the Museum of Modern Art New York in 2009

The Beijing-based artist Song Dong has been at the forefront of Conceptual art in China since the 1990s. Song grew up in a tight-knit, traditional community, and his work often examines the everyday realities and issues of his neighborhood. His performance, video, sculpture, painting, and installations are often ephemeral and made of modest materials. They offer multivalent perspectives that draw in equal measure on the past and the present, the personal and the universal, the poetic and the political.
Presented here for the first time in the United States, Waste Not is an installation of the full complement of worldly goods belonging to the artist’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan (1938–2009)—including the wood frame of her house. Song’s mother was typical of the generation of Chinese who lived through the hardships of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s abiding by the dictum wu jin qi yong (waste not). This guiding tenet deemed that resources be squeezed for all their value and nothing be wasted. For the subsequent generation—Song Dong and his sister, Song Hui, among them—the result was a childhood surrounded by partially used bars of soap, loose buttons, assorted buckets, and scraps of fabric, stockpiled and preserved as protection against future hardship, even in the face of improving economic conditions.
Waste Not is a collaboration with the artist’s mother, initiated in an attempt to wrest her from grief following the death of his father in 2002. In the process of organizing and arranging the goods, the baggage of the past was, quite literally, unpacked and given a new life. Zhao’s unexpected death last year adds a special poignancy to the neon sign high on the wall that reads, “Dad, don’t worry, mum and we are fine.”

 Watch this video interview with the artist: 

(in case embedded video not working)

Select any major artwork by Song Dong and write a piece of art criticism in no more than 750 words. Follow this structure:

  • Analyse how the work has been made – what materials are used and why?
  • Explain the background context of the work - why was it made? What processes, and techniques have been used? Is this typical of his practice?
  • Interpret and explain some of the meanings in your selected example
  • Make a critical connection to the work of ANOTHER artist - find the LINK (possibilities include Claire Healey and Sean Cordeiro, Christian Boltanski, Dinh Q. Le or Xu Bing)
  • Evaluate the significance of the work

Vocabulary to incorporate:
·        Non-art materials
·        Installation
·        Ephemeral / temporary / impermanent / transitory
·        High Concept / Low Materials
·        Conceptual Practice / Material Practice
·        Cultural Revolution
         Performance Art

        What If?

      What if you made an installation about the contents of your family home?

    What would be there?
    How would you arrange the objects?
    How would you expect audiences to respond?

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