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Song Dong at the 6th Liverpool Biennale

The work of Chinese artist Song Dong represents a perfect illustration of the notion of anti-monumentality. His series of public interventions centred on writing poems on street pavements only using a brush and water clearly demonstrates his interest in the ongoing process of the dematerialisation of art. His ephemeral actions imply a titanic effort, but the results thus achieved vanish before the action can be said concluded.

The notion of impermanence is a useful conceptual tool for accessing his practice, a notion that becomes most pressing when it is applied to the domain of public art, since its focal point lies in the audience’s expectation of physically meeting art and not just ideas.

One of Song Dong’s most ambitious projects to date is entitled Waste Not, presented at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2009. This work encompasses almost fifty years of Chinese history by displaying all the purchased items that have come into his mother’s home during the last half-century. The piece, based upon the Chinese concept of wu jin qi yong (the ‘waste not’ of the title), translates a strategy of survival into a poetic tribute to personal history, domesticity, familial bonds and affections. At each presentation the work is reconfigured by the artist with the help of his mother, so that it is a factual collaboration that interestingly challenges the notion of authorship.

Song Dong has also referenced his father through his work and addressed the repression of emotions derived from cultural conventions and social rules, notably in the piece Touching My Father (1998), an action and video-projection that narrates the artist’s inability to achieve physical (and consequently emotional) proximity to his father. In Chinese culture, physical contact between men of different generations is not socially acceptable. As Song Dong recalls: ‘In my mind, I have no memory of touching or hugging my father.’ This work exemplifies how very important it is to art and life to dare to touch. 


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