Song Dong: I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven
Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai
21.01.17 – 04.06.17

Translated by Richard Dobson

The first time I heard about Song Dong was in a book by the educationalist Wu Hong, titled Waste Not: Art for the Common People. It was about Song Dong’s exhibition, Waste Not, and how it demonstrated the three-tiered relationship between people, between things, and between people and things. I was very curious, but also very dismayed. The more than 10,000 everyday items collected by Song Dong’s mother had been arranged into a large square formation. These everyday items connected the traces and warmth of the time spent together with loved ones and bore the understanding and respect for lives lived during times of deprivation. Waste Not seemed more like a display of memories of a bygone era. And as I am a very nostalgic person, Song Dong’s works have always evoked the deepest memories in my heart. ‘Art is life, life is art.’ This concept is the best way of interpreting Song Dong. From his earliest creative work, Breathing, to his later works, Touching My Father and Do Nothing, his performance art and his installations have been inseparable from his life.

The title of this exhibition, I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven, is taken from the Analects of Confucius, which won recognition as a philosophical work during the Song dynasty, and is a contradictory take on the line, ‘At fifty, I knew the mandate of heaven.’ Song Dong uses this to define the course of his own life and artistic creativity up to the present. Some people might think that he always uses trivial and obscure methods to retell the lives and emotional states of the members of a Chinese family. By viewing the world in a moderate, level-headed way, he can see the ‘wisdom of the poor’ all around him. This is not all, as Song Dong’s works have a unique charm, but it shows the close attention he pays to life and traditional culture. And although young Chinese artists have been very active in exhibitions abroad in recent years, Song Dong’s artistic concepts are significantly different from those of other artists. His work provides a more sensitive response to the rapid changes in today’s society and shows a keen instinct for formal and technical innovation. Not only does it bear witness to the realities of contemporary Chinese art; its individual artistic approach is ideally suited to coping with the changing times.

I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven is presented in a kind of boundless state. It includes Song Dong’s performance art pieces, videos, installations, photographs, paintings and many other forms of works from 1992 onwards. For the artist, this is not a retrospective solo exhibition but gives a new definition to his work. By adopting this open-ended approach, he is able to engage in a process of self-examination, in accordance with the dual concepts of ‘all things are teachers’ and ‘all things are a mirror’, and this can lead, in turn, to new ways of thinking and new understandings about life and art. He is very good at using his works to tell a story. Those stories about everyday and simple things always resonate with the viewer and inspire thought. He believes that ‘any media can be called new media, as even if the original methods that he uses have been used before, they end up looking new, when they’re used in a work in a new way’. From the early Waste Not, to The Wisdom of the Poor, to Surplus Value, to today’s I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven, all Song Dong’s exhibitions are concerned with constructing a relationship based on a general perception of time, new and old.

There is an intertextual relationship between the hundreds of works Song Dong has created: the new and the old are brought into dialogue with each other. This relationship is also very close to his understanding and definition of creativity. So I don’t perceive I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven as a purely fragmentary exhibition. It is a collection of events, and opens up a space in which the viewing public can participate. For example, on the first floor, the Mirror Hall can exist as an independent work, but it also coexists with another work, The Use of Uselessness: Bottle Rack Big Brother. While each work is viewed independently, the format of this exhibition means that it still forms one part of the whole, and uses a new way of examining old things, as well as new ones. When I think about the element of public participation in the work, I have to mention Eating the City. Song Dong spent many days building this in collaboration with the public, yet, as this was an artwork made to be eaten, it disappeared within the brief space of a few days. Encountering such a work, the public felt relaxed and were free to pick out and eat what they wanted. They could also share it with those around them. A ‘city’, in the minds of everyone participating in this game, quickly vanished. This work strongly illustrated the herd mentality of society as a whole, and presented a microcosm of social behaviour. In each of the spaces in the current exhibition, we can see how Song Dong allows for each work to be redefined and understood in a different way.

Song Dong is an artist who can draw strength from the past. It’s as if every one of his works has a unique personal feeling that can draw in the viewer from outside. His works give expression to a solid sense of life and enter into communion with our souls. They speak the language of individual experience and the boundlessness of universal feelings. Song Dong became renowned through his work Breathing, twenty years ago, and most of his works are indissolubly interconnected with his life. Most of them are performance art pieces or installations. In the way that he links life and art, Song Dong uses art to make observations on life, and art to create life; he uses a kind of personal form of expression as a way of dealing with misfortune. At the core of his artistic creation is the idea of ‘having’ and ‘not having’. For him, these two propositions represent different sides of the coin: to have is a great deal of nothing, and to have not is to have it all. At 30, I wasn’t established; At 40, I was perplexed; At 50, I don’t know the mandate of heaven: these are works from across the different stages of Song Dong’s life, each a new description of the course his life has taken. It is especially worth mentioning that At 50, I don’t know the mandate of heaven was created especially for this exhibition and uses fifty dolls modelled on himself. In thedifferent shapes I see memories of a peaceful life, when he was a child. Seeing his more classic works leaves one feeling more ambivalent, like being able to grasp the very essence of the work, while the work itself seems unable to grasp the implications.

The entire exhibition space at the Rockbund Art Museum, including the structure of the building itself and the internal and external walls, has become an expression of Song Dong’s creative voyage of discovery until the present time. The new context has given both past and new works a new vitality, and this backdrop has also increasingly enabled the artist’s own reflections and understanding of the creative principle to develop. His artistic view overall is maturing, and his works increasingly exude a sense of peace and calm. In the modern world, people pursue the changing moods of the time, but where is the spiritual essence? Ultimately, why do we need contemporary art? What contemporary Chinese art embodies the spirit of the time? What kind of creative language can it employ, in the midst of the current plethora of artistic forms and themes? Should art refer back to history or focus on reality? Art that carries the spiritual connotations of humanism, rationalism and universalism is always referred to as contemporary Chinese art. And artists’ levels of achievement often depend on their unique artistic language, as well as the extent and depth of their human enquiry. ‘Art’ is often difficult to define: what can and can’t be called ‘art’ differs among artists, who don’t share the same outlook. For Song Dong, art and life are often boundless, and life is the best kind of art.


2017 年1 月21 日 – 2017 年6 月4 日

我第一次了解宋冬,源于巫鸿老师的一本书—《物尽其用—老百姓的当代艺术》,这讲述的是一个展览,“物尽其用” 呈现了人与人, 物与物, 人与物的三层关系。我很好奇,同时也感到非常震憾。这是由宋冬的母亲积攒的一万多件日常用品组成的庞大方阵,“这些日用品连接了亲人间朝夕相处的痕迹与温暖, 承载了物资匮乏时代对生活的理解与敬重”。“物尽其用”更像是对一个消逝的时期记忆与展览。我是一个极其怀旧的人,宋冬的作品总是唤起了我内心深处最深的记忆。

“艺术就是生活,生活就是艺术。”这想必是对宋冬的最好诠释。从最早期创作的作品《哈气》,到之后《抚摸父亲》《不做白不做, 做了也白做》,他的行为, 装置作品都是与他的生活密不可分的。

这次宋冬把展览命名为“不知天命”,源于其对《论语》中“五十知天命”的反转引用,借此对于自己这个时期人生和艺术创作的里程有一个定义。有人会认为他一向以琐碎的, 隐晦的方式展示中国最普通家庭的生活情况与情感状态。其实是以一种最平易近人的观察形式,来表现他所理解的“穷人智慧”。在我看来不仅仅是这样, 宋冬的作品还是独具个人魅力的,更是展现他对生活与传统文化的审视和关注,尽管近年来中国青年艺术家在国外的展览非常活跃,但是他的艺术思想却和其他的艺术家有着明显的不同。他的作品反映的是当代语境中社会的迅速变化,作品的形式与技巧也不断的创新。不仅是亲历中国当代艺术的现实, 现场和现象的高度关注,还用自己独特的艺术方式应对着时代的变化。

展览“不知天命”呈现的是一种无界的状态。全面覆盖了宋冬 1992 年至今的行为, 录像, 装置, 摄影, 绘画, 戏剧,甚至多方面形态的作品。对于宋冬来说,“不知天命”并不是一次个展回顾, 而是赋予了自己作品新的定义。以无界的方式,遵循“万物皆为师” 和“万物皆为镜” 两个理念,对自我进行的审视。由此可以引发对生活, 对艺术新的思考问题和认识。宋冬极擅于用自己的作品来阐述故事,那些再日常, 再朴质不过的故事总能够引起观者的共鸣与思考。宋冬认为:“任何媒体都可以称其为新的媒体,原来没有尝试过的,以一种新的方式呈现在作品中,那就是新的。”宋冬从早期的“物尽其用”到“穷人的智慧”,“剩余价值”再到今天的“不知天命”,都涉及到普遍时间意义上新与旧之间的建构关系。他的超 百件的作品中,作品之间有一种互文的关系—由新延伸到旧再到新,这种关系也是极其贴近宋冬对创作的理解与定义的。所以在我看来“不知天命”并不是一个纯碎的展览。“不知天命”是一系列事件的集合。展示的是一个公众可以参与的空间。比如说一楼的镜厅可以作为一件单独的作品存在,也可以与另一件作品《瓶架大哥》共存。每件作品单独去看的同时,在这个展览的形态中又形成一个整体,以一种新的眼光来审视旧物。一提到公众参与的作品,不得不提到的就是《吃城市》了,这是宋冬与众人花了好几天时间搭建起来的。但是在很短的时间内就不复存在了。因为这是一件可以吃的作品,那参与者在面对这样的作品时,更是一种放松的状态,随意的可以拿起来吃,也可以分享给身边的人, 一座“城市”在众人这种游戏的心理状态下很快就消亡了。以此件作品来说明整个社会的从众心理是很强的,这也是社会状态的一种缩影。可见不管在任意一个展示空间里,宋冬让其每一件作品都有了新的定义与再认识。

宋冬是一个可以从过去事物中得到力量的艺术家。好似他的每一件作品都能有一种独特的私人情感,能把一位观者从状态外吸引进来,他的作品充满了扎实的生命感,有一种灵魂的语言。这种个体的经历和普世的情怀也就没有了边界。宋冬是由二十年前的作品《哈气》为世人所知。宋冬的作品大多与他的生活密不可分,多为一些行为, 装置等作品。宋冬把生活与艺术连接起来, 以艺术观生活,用生活去创作艺术,用一种个人表现的方式应对变故。宋冬进行艺术创作的核心是“有”和“无”,对于他来说这两者为同一个角度,有是极大的无,无是极大的有。《三十不立》《四十有惑》《五十不知天命》分别是他生活的不同阶段创作的作品, 每一个作品都是对他生命里程的一种新的描述。特别值得一说的是为这次展览特别创作的《五十不知天命》,这是他以自己为原型定制的50 只娃娃,形态各异,我看到的是一种生活的平静以及他儿时的记忆。看宋冬比较经典的作品,感觉像是在与不在之间,感觉像能抓住作品本身,同时作品本身好像又抓不到。

此次的展览,包括上海外滩美术馆的所有场地,建筑本身的内在构造和所有墙面都将成为宋冬对以往和当前艺术创作探究的一种内在表达。过去的作品与新的作品在一个全新的语境下被赋予了全新的生命力,这是艺术家对于生活的反思和新的诠释,也将在此背景下愈发浮现出来。宋冬的艺术观总体来看是趋于成熟的,他的作品越来越具有日常的平和气息。在当代,人们都在追求一种时代精神,那这种精神实质是什么呢?我们需要的当代艺术究竟是怎样的?在当代艺术这种形形色色的艺术形态中, 无论表达的是什么主题,或是采用什么样的创作语言,无论是历史追忆,还是现实关照:“那些传达了人本主义, 理性主义和普适主义的精神内涵的艺术创作总还是能被称得上是中国的当代艺术。”而艺术家的艺术造诣往往都与他独特的艺术语言以及对人性探索 的深度与高度密切相关。“艺术”一词往往是很难被定义的, 什么能称作艺术,什么不是艺术,对于不同的艺术家都有不同的见解, 对于宋冬来说艺术和生活往往都是无界的,生活就是最好的艺术。

1. 美巫鸿编著《物尽其用:老百姓的当代艺术》,上海:上海人民出版社,2011 年5 月:第20 页。
2. 王端廷,《什么是中国当代艺术》,《美术观察》,2012 年12 期, 第2 页。