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The art of family with Song Dong

Feb 21, 2013

Two exhibitions by Song Dong, one of China’s most significant conceptual artists was arguably the highlight of the Visual Arts offerings at the Sydney Festival  in 2013. Presented by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (4A)  and Carriageworks , these two exhibitions reveal Song Dong as an artist who contemplates the cultural and historical context of his homeland and the most important and essential relationship of our lives- with family.

Dad and Mum, Don’t Worry about Us, We Are All Well, presented by 4A takes its name from the circular neon light work of the same title created by Song Dong in 2011, which hangs inconspicuously in the ceiling of the stairwell at 4A. It is easy to imagine that this work would go unnoticed by many patrons to the exhibition and this seems appropriate, given that the work was created to look to the skies to send a personal message from Song Dong and his family to his late father, Song Shiping and mother Zhao Xiangyuan. Viewing it is viewing a silent prayer willed into form and the work hanging silently and outside periphery seals the gallery space in a mood which is incredibly tender.

Downstairs, projections of Song Dong and his family dominate a black boxed room, with one of the works, Listening to My Parents Talk About How I Was Born (2001), projected over a wall and two pylons;  the pylons each displaying Song Dong’s parents in conversation. Unlike Carriageworks, 4A is not blessed with cavernous warehouse proportions, so walking in the modest space, my own black profile flits in and out of the artwork as I find the right angle in which to view the work. A similar thing happens when I go upstairs to view Father and Son Face to Face with a Mirror (2001), where I walk into the middle of two projections.  I feel a part of Song Dong’s story as I perform these unwilling interventions on the projections, this connectedness stems from the evocation of memory, love and loss in these works which strikes at the heart of us all. These emotions are only reinforced through the rest of the exhibit, with text which takes up entire walls with personal reflections by Song Dong, some childhood memories and others which are incredibly moving: “I am looking forward to the reunion with my parents. I don’t know how long I will have to wait before I can meet them again in heaven. But I believe their spirits will guard us, care for us and worry about us…”

Coming out of the intimate space and atmosphere of the 4A exhibition to view Song Dong’s Waste Not at Carriageworks is quite a contrast. Song Dong’s most well known installation has been exhibited eight times before arriving in Redfern including exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2009 and most recently at The Barbican, London in 2012. The slick lines and sharp framing of the works at 4A are still echoed in the meticulous placement of the household objects which sprawl over Carriageworks, and the depth of color and texture creates a sense of ordered chaos.  Song Dong embarked on the massive installation as a way to help his mother cope with the passing of his father in 2002, a literal unpacking of their families’ past through the deconstructing of the family home and the display of the possessions which were held inside. Although the installation Waste Not ties back to the universality of family which was so acute at 4A, the sheer volume of objects and trinkets, foreign to an ‘Australian’ childhood turns the viewer into explorer.  Walking through Waste Not is like sifting through a high art, Salvation Army thrift shop, with the constant motivation to dig around, less you miss a gem.

Much more has been remarked on Song Dong’s practice and its engagement with China’s identity- Song Dong grew up during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.  I am sure that amongst the volume of objects within the space at Carriageworks these concepts are simmering away. However at both spaces I reveled in the simple and universal journeys in Song Dong’s work, concerned with the strength of human relationships and the openness of the artist to share his own family with so many.

Dad and Mum, Don’t Worry about Us, We Are All Well at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art continues until the 30 March 2013

Waste Not at Carriageworks continues until the 17 March 2013