Song Dong, installation view, Stamping the River, 2000
The installation is still in full swing. As I walk in they are just finishing off a map of the world covered with Dutch sweets, to be eaten at the opening. The guard pays close attention as I have to resist picking up one of the ‘Haagse Hopjes’, at typical Dutch coffee-caramel toffee. The sweets are meant for the opening, I can have one then…
The exhibition, titled Art is life, Life is Art, turns out to be a chronology of the life of Song Dong. A testament to his own experiences, his family and the place he calls home. The first piece he shows me is ”my first home”. A shipping container, disused by his wife, happened to covered the same surface as the home Song was born in. Raised with the ‘waste not’ principle of his mother, he reconverted the container to the (mirror) image of his first home, including the original bed and bed-extension his father built, the tiny cabinet he slept on and the stove with the corner sawed off, to prevent people from banging their knees.
Song Dong spent nights in the box while it was standing in his studio, experiencing the views he, his parents and his older sister would have had and tried to recollect the impressions it must have left. He shows me some memories he’s scribbled on the wall, noting they’re not his memories; they are stories he’s been told, they are part of the collective memory of the Song family.
I’m fascinated by 30 piles of anonymous, lightly tainted, paper on a square podium. Song explained it’s the first time he’s exhibiting this installation. Before his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, passed away, he sat down with her to record some of her stories about his childhood. With water and a calligraphy brush he documented those stories on those square sheets of paper, pilling the used sheets per year; the writings have dried up, but those small piles of stained paper represent the first 30 years of Songs life. The memories he and his mother shared are now in his head and the public will never hear them. This very personal interaction between a son and his mother will never be part of our collective memory.
As we stand in front of a wall, filled with door numbers we talk about how the home he was born in no longer exists, torn down by a government in an attempt to modernise the city of Beijing it stood in. The disappearance of the hutongs are a recurring symbol in the oeuvre of Song Dong: installations with recovered door-numbers, installations with doors saved from the rubble of destroyed homes, some of his older videos. Song’s complaint is not about the actual renewal of courtyard alleys, but he laments the loss of the social fabric it represented. One courtyard, one family, everyone knows everyone, shares the common space to play chess, gossip and let their offspring play together. The social fabric of those collective memories has disappeared.
As we take the elevator to the third floor, where they are in the process of unpacking and displaying “waste not”, we’re talking about different reactions to the installation. I’m wondering if the well documented hefty reactions at the first installation in Beijing can be duplicated in the Netherlands. In China multiple generations have distinct recollections of most of the displayed items, they recognize the clothes, the washing bowls, the thermos flasks and as such have associations which I feel a non-chinese might not have. The cultural context for all the things his mother kept (Song emphasises that his mother did not collect, but kept everything) seems rather important. I don’t know if the average visitor to a Brisbane museum, to MoMA in NY or the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands can experience the same interaction with the work.
Song seems very pragmatic about this question. First of all, for him personally, the installation process is probably more important than the final display itself. The fact his daughter now helps, and asks questions about her grandmother, offers him an opportunity to share his memories, to share his stories and transfer them to a new generation, all the while creating new shared memories with his own family (his wife Yin Xiuzhen and his older sister also regularly assist with the installation).
Secondly, he points to the text on the wall. Without reading that text, written by himself, in which he explains how the work came to be, you probably would not be able to grasp the monumental installation which it is. But, Song pointed out, he has noticed that the work does trigger certain emotions and memories even for those outside of his own cultural context. A man suddenly felt the urge to call his own grandmother who hadn’t spoken to in 5 years, a journalist spontaneously recollects the hoarding frenzy of his own mother. The explanatory text on the wall has become an integral part of the installation, and provides a story to trigger the audience.
I can’t help but notice we’ve come a long way from the tiny container space Song calls his first home, where he re-places everything inside a tiny space, to Waste Not, where everything is taken out of the container it used to house in , and is now part of a monumental display. Its seems like a journey from Song Dong hearing collective stories about a past he doesn’t remember to Song sharing his own memories with us, and triggering collective memories for us.