4/6: Breathing by Song Dong (2012 Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale)

To celebrate the opening of the 2012 Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, which opened last Saturday, all this week I’ll be posting texts that I wrote for the catalogue of said exhibition. In this fourth piece, of the six in total, I talk about the fact that many of Song Dong’s works deal with the traces we leave and the access that gives us to the perpetrators.

“Breathing”

Colour photography, 1996

These twinned photographs record two actions performed by Song Dong in Beijing during the winter of 1996. Alternately laying face down in Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square (the de facto locus of recent political history in China) and then on the frozen surface of Houhai Lake (one of the man-made lakes fringing the Western edge of the Forbidden City, to the North-West of Tian’anmen Square), in each case Song simply breathed for 40 minutes onto the surface in front of his face. In the sub-zero temperatures of those winter nights his warm, moist breath formed a crust of ice on the flagstones in the former location, but reportedly had little effect on the lake’s thick ice. By the morning all trace of these activities had disappeared leaving these photographs behind as their record.

In these actions the artist used his body and its attributes to effect a slight change in his surroundings, without having any long-term effect on them. This activity also called upon the physical nature of the surroundings to produce the effect and thereby keyed into the meanings of the surrounding through these acts. In this way the nature of the surroundings (their political/historical aspects) informed the actions without it being necessary to overtly call upon them – the immediate vicinity taking the simple act of breathing beyond itself and into a subtle reflection on the context.

This use of the body to make marks or gestures, with a focus on the ephemeral (and perhaps futile) aspect of those gestures, is a strong element in Song Dong’s work. The long-running Throwing a Stone (1994–present) sees the artist writing the time the artist finds a stone on its surface, then throwing it away, finding it again, writing the new time on it, throwing, and repeating this series of actions until he cannot find the stone anymore. Writing Time with Water (1995–present) transposes this gesture of recording the time and applies it to the various sites of the action, allowing it to disappear of its own accord. The water evaporates leaving no record of this activity nor of the information held in watery form for the short period it was visible.

Water also evaporates in the video A Pot of Boiling Water (1995), recording the artist passing along an alleyway carrying a kettle of boiling water, leaving a line of water in his wake that disappears in steam. Stamping the Water (1996) also leaves no trace, as the artist sits in a lake, throwing down a large wooden seal carved with the Chinese symbol for “water,” to make an impossible impression on the water’s surface.

Another important element that extends Song’s work with the body is his relationship with his family. In a way this is already present in the pieces mentioned already: Song’s use of water is attributed to his Father’s recommendation to practice calligraphy with water to save on ink. But in other pieces the presence of the family is more tangible. In the video Touching my Father (1997) Song’s father sits watching the artist’s caressing hands projected onto his body. The link to family members carries on in more recent work such as the encyclopaedic Waste Not (2005) taking as its material his Mother’s possessions, obsessively collected over the course of her life. Presented in the gallery spaces, this mass of objects is arranged by the type as if in a scientific taxonomy of the Mother’s life.

The mass of material in Waste Not becomes the visible trace of Song’s Mother through her urge to hoard as a way to stave off future lack. Breath, in its way marks the artist’s own attempts to “make a mark” on the world, knowing full well that these marks are temporary and destined to disappear – as are we all.

Author: Edward Sanderson

  • Originally published in Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu, Su Wei (eds.) (2012), Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World, Guangzhou: LingNan Art Publishing House. pp.88–91.
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2 thoughts on “4/6: Breathing by Song Dong (2012 Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale)

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