On ViewPace Gallery
July 13–August 18, 2023
The Beijing-based artist Song Dong explores ideas of transience and the ephemeral nature of existence. His installations range in size from very large to miniature, and always involve everyday materials. The works tend to be labor intensive and take days and weeks to create, so he often works with a large team of assistants that sometimes includes his wife, the talented artist Yin Xiuzhen. (He reciprocates and assists on her large projects.) An example is Eating the City - Vienna 02 (2007), for which Song Dong used packaged cookies to construct a model city, and upon completion, the public was invited to consume.
Song Dong sometimes works with video to capture the impermanent. In Broken Mirror (1999), an everyday street scene in Beijing unfolds, as passersby going about their business are startled when their reflection in a standard size mirror is noisily smashed by a hammer in the artist’s hand. Unpretentiously and without fanfare, he develops sculptural and media artworks out of a mélange of marginalized materials and forsaken locations, which he hones in on to address lived experience, the personal and the communal, extracting meaning from what may be considered redacted truth. He holds onto the sense of life’s transience and poses thoughtful questions, searching for meaning in both the most obvious and most abstruse of circumstances.
Song Dong’s exhibition on view at Pace—his first overseas solo show since the COVID-19 pandemic—focuses on work he made while trapped in his studio during the long lockdown. Cut off from the world, he used the solitary time to his advantage and developed a series of subtle projects that reflect his interest in adapting ancient philosophy to a contemporary context.
The title of the exhibition is ROUND, a versatile word that in English functions as a noun, an adjective, and a verb. Each work in Song Dong’s exhibition is a “round,” or in other words is round-shaped, and each work “rounds about” in the manner of a continuously moving merry-go-round. The nineteen round clusters, each an assembly of individual wood frames around clear or colored glass and installed on the wall, encourage the viewer’s eye to meander over their surface. Similarly, the viewer walks around the sculptural pieces featured in the show. There are three distinct formats, and every object is imbued with subtle detail and was labor intensive to create.
The dozen Zou Ma Deng (Spinning Lanterns) (2022-2023) are zoetrope-like cylinders, around which viewers walk in circles. Each is set at eye level on a nested pair of Chinese dumpling steamers—an ordinary household object—and is placed on a delicate three-legged pedestal made of wood, each illuminated by a single light bulb set within. Each lantern also contains a panoramic photo the artist took in different urban landscapes (Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, etc.), which may be viewed head on and perceived as a shadow when seen through an opaque outer layer made of rice paper. When viewed through a tiny peephole cut into the rice paper, the outer edges of the little window carefully burned, the photos read like detailed snippets. When looked down upon from the top and through a piece of white cardboard with slots, through which hot air from the interior lamp gently passes, the panoramas look like subdued little merry-go-rounds. Sepia in tone, the images exude a sense of heaviness rather than delight. Each Spinning Lantern’s turn is the result of a tug of war between a gentle fan moving clockwise and concealed underneath, the fan’s movement slowed down and its direction reversed due to the hot air rising, caused by the light bulb’s heat. The metaphor could be that of individual desire tampered by repression, or the view that human life is a cycle of suffering and rebirth with escape coming from enlightenment.
On the rice paper exterior of each Spinning Lantern, the artist wrote a short poem in Chinese. The carefully written inscriptions identify the city depicted in the turning photograph, and offer the artist’s sentiment. The text featured on Beijing Nancai Flea Market (2022-2023) states:
Wait, for the photographic satellite
Move the temporary shed
The rain showers
Then, the sky clears
Each of the nineteen works installed on the gallery walls are carefully arranged in perfect circles. The title of this new series is “Da Cheng Ruo Que,” and may be translated as “the great achievement seems imperfect,” or as meaning “the perfection of imperfection,” and comes from the ancient philosopher Lao Tzu's text Tao Te Ching. Nearby, Ringed Gap (2021–2023) invites participation: viewers may duck under and enter to be surrounded by small frames installed on a low circular railing set on legs. Several frames contain mirrors, some clear glass, others colored glass, the work serving as a poignant reminder that the center of the world is where an individual stands.
Song Dong devised each of the small wood frames out of old windows that he has gathered since 2015 from construction sites’ waste, materials discarded during China's urban renewal process. He made the artwork out of the old wood, almost as a kind of memorial to tragedies of the past. Ringed Gap is imbued with what appears to be a peaceful yet contrarian sense of monumentality that connects the sculpture to celebrated historical genres such as Land art, for which simplicity is similarly meaningful. The poetry the artist sees in the recycled wood made me think about how it echoes the massive installation he created with his mother, Waste Not (2005), displayed over 10,000 mostly worn domestic objects formerly owned by his late mother (who refused to throw anything away if she could possibly reuse it), exhibited in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009.
Song Dong’s Thousand Hands is an elegant sculpture developed around a 661 pound gold-colored glass nimbus, roughly five feet in diameter, installed horizontally. A nimbus such as this one usually would be placed vertically, behind the head of a statue of the Buddha Guanyin, whose thousand hands would form a disc in a radial pattern of eyes, symbolizing the god’s care for the mortal world. Here viewers peer down upon the glass coffee table-like object, its concentric circles of open palms, each hand portraying an eye. Song Dong retained the imperfections that emerged in the factory during the making of the glass—tiny black specs of dirt embedded within; outer edges dripped downward during the pouring, which would normally have been trimmed off; moreover, a few hands are broken. The flaws suggest humanness, and by laying the panel horizontally, the artist allows the Bodhisattva’s eyes to become the focus instead of the entire figure itself looking out over the world. The glass is illuminated by fifteen lamps clustered below and mostly set on their side, in the position of a sleeping Buddha. The lamps were collected from different families and offices, which means the light is from people and from life.
Song Dong’s exhibition begs the question: what has meaning today? And what is the difference between illusion and disillusion? In today’s rapidly changing world where news—fake or otherwise—arrives instantly on smartphones and respect seems to fall by the wayside, Song Dong’s art conjures up a sense of humanity and tranquility. Carefully look and listen to what and who is around, he seems to say. He leaves us with as many questions as answers, what all art should do.