The Art of Doing Nothing in Contemporary China: Song Dong at Pace Gallery

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Doing Nothing Mountains (2011-12). Photo: Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

- In today’s China where even the rich and the powerful seem to work three shifts, doing nothing is hard. “Song Dong Doing Nothing,” a two-part survey of Beijing-based artist Song Dong’s works from 1994 to 2012, including recent projects for Documenta 13 and the Kiev Biennale, shows the artist constantly doing something. The show, on view until 2 March at Pace Gallery in Chelsea, New York, illustrates a perspective informed by Zen (or in Chinese, Chan, referring to a school of Buddhism developed in China under the influence of Daoism) that plays with the dialectic relationship between zuo (doing, or action) and buzuo (nothing, not-doing or non-action).

In the past 50 years China has gone from the extreme of material deprivation to the extreme of material accumulation. Many artists such as Wang Qingsong and Wang Guangyi have made a career out of satirizing or parodying the blatant materialistic consumption in contemporary China, while simultaneously flashing in-your-face visual effect generated by the clash between symbols of Western capitalist brands and images of China’s nominally socialist environs. Song Dong has taken a different approach. Instead of ridiculing the flamboyant indulgence of the new rich, he celebrates the resourcefulness of the underdogs. Using an eclectic mix of performance, photography, installation, video, sculpture, drawing, painting and calligraphy, he turns the notion of material accumulation on its head by calling attention to the meaning of waste and human endeavors in a transient world.

I got to know Song Dong personally when Leng Lin opened his first gallery Beijing Commune in 2005, long before Leng Lin became the President of Pace Beijing. Back then Leng Lin still taught at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Beijing Commune was an experimental space he founded in Caochangdi, an offshoot of the then still relatively unknown 798 Art District. Song Dong, Leng Lin and Zhang Dali were buddies, so after Lin, Dali and I rounded up our studio visits or hung out at Huang Rui’s At Café, Song Dong would often join us for dinner.

Song Dong’s para-pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Photo: Chiu-Ti Jansen.

At that time I already knew about Song Dong’s works after seeing a diptych in New York that documented his early performance, titled Breathing (1996), also included in the current Pace show. In the first image he lay face-down on the stone pavement of Tiananmen Square for forty minutes until his breath created a pad of ice on the freezing ground. In the second he repeated the performance on a frozen lake in Beijing, where his breath made no impression on the icy surface. To me, the contrast between impact and non-impact seemed inessential, because from the perspective of social intervention breathing on the Tiananmen Square did not necessarily have a greater impact than breathing on an icy lake.

At the time, the Chinese gallery system still in its infancy, and many Chinese artists knew self-promotion was the name of the game. Armed with English-speaking assistants or, even better, wives as their agents, they used their meticulously updated websites as virtual galleries. I cannot recall seeing Song Dong keeping a website or an assistant. During our many group dinners and conversations, Song Dong never attempted to impress me with big ideas about an upcoming show or project, even though he knew I collected contemporary art and sat on a contemporary Chinese art committee. At a time when contemporary Chinese art was still a “group” concept on the international art scene and when Chinese artists were lumped together in group-shows in the major Western museums, Song Dong looked like one of the many “up-and-coming” artists in China. But this would change as he continued to grow his art.

Over the years, I have seen him writing calligraphy with water that appeared and vanished in Times Square (Fifty-ninth Minute, 2005); simulating traditional Chinese ink landscape painting with raw beef and fresh vegetables in his “eating landscape” performance at Pace Gallery (Penjing, 2009); and installing the monumental Waste Not (2009), consisting of mountains of quotidian “junk” that his late mother accumulated throughout the years, in the MoMA’s Marron Atrium. By the time his wife Yin Xinzhen showed her own installation at the MoMA in 2010, even the security guard knew her as “Song Dong’s wife.”

I was delighted to find at Pace some pieces that I had not seen before. In an ongoing performance Throwing a Stone (1994), Song Dong picks up a stone, writes on the stone, throws it away, and looks to find the stone again, repeating the process until he can no longer find the stone. Then Song Dong would find another stone, documenting on the second stone in drawing and writing where and how he found and threw away the first stone. The “history” about finding and throwing away the first stone, as told through the second stone, often ended with the phrase “vanished.” Even though the act of throwing a stone seemed to be an act about nothing and yielded nothing, as both the stone and the act itself vanished from sight, the second stone preserved the experience of nothingness itself and turned that into art.

Throwing a Stone (1994- )(detail). Photo: Chiu-Ti Jansen.

In 2011 I visited Song Dong on the outskirts of Beijing, where he shares his home and studio with his wife Yin Xinzhen, an artist and frequent collaborator. Song Dong was busy working on a site-specific project commissioned by Bice Curiger, the Director of the 2011 Venice Biennale, which would be shown at the entrance of the Arsenale. Song Dong would recreate his century-old family home in Beijing with a labyrinth of salvaged architectural remnants, including closet doors, room dividers and window panels. Despite his obvious absorption by the project, Song Dong did not show any streak of self-importance.

Song explained to me that his work for the Venice Biennale would be a continuum of The Wisdom of the Poor (2005), a drawing on his fascination with how the impoverished Beijing population was adept at scavenging windows, doors, doorknobs and electrical outlets to create whimsical living quarters as extensions of their cramped corridors.

Song Dong with The Wisdom of the Poor in his studio (2011). Photo: Chiu-Ti Jansen.

In many ways, Song Dong’s art is thematically and methodologically aligned with the tradition of Zen art. Centered on everyday objects, Doing Nothing Mountains (2011-2012) is a sculptural installation of mounds covered with ceramic bathroom tiles and topped with salvaged construction fragments from mid-twentieth century Chinese houses. Compositionally echoing the landscape painting by the Southern Song Dynasty painter Ma Yuan (ca. 1160-1225), which has influenced Zen painting, the piece emphasizes mountains silhouetted against the whiteness of the expansive empty space.

Doing Nothing Mountains is accompanied by neon-lit wall signage that reads like a Zen ko’an (or gong’an in Chinese; conundrum): it’s a three-part sentence about various states of action and non-action. An artist book published by Hatje Cantz to accompany the Documenta 13 installation compiled a dozen translations of this sentence by professional translators, lay speakers and Google’s automated translation. The varying translations offered wide-ranging interpretations of the conundrum. While most of these translations attempted to “make sense” of the riddle-like language by supplementing it with logical connectors and grammatical fillers, Song Dong offered his own translation that was largely ungrammatical and riddle-like: “Doing-nothing / why not not doing / Do-it / as Doing-nothing / Doing-nothing / but do do.” I read this as a great Zen paradox: doing and doing-nothing are not binary opposites. Like an old Zen master who often resorted to seemingly illogical, circular ko’an to smash his disciples’ entanglement by the worldly logic and obsession over “meanings,” Song Dong’s twenty years of “doing nothing” seem to be a great affirmation of “doing” itself.

Song Dong Doing Nothing

Part I: Works from 1994-2012 

Pace, 534 West 25th Street, New York

(January 18 – March 2, 2013)

Part II: Recent Works 

Pace, 510 West 25th Street, New York

(January 18 – February 16, 2013)

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