Song Ta, These Are Your Test Scores, and You’re Still Playing Around? (detail), 2014, paper, found objects, dimensions variable.

Song Ta, These Are Your Test Scores, and You’re Still Playing Around? (detail), 2014, paper, found objects, dimensions variable.

Song Ta

Song Ta, These Are Your Test Scores, and You’re Still Playing Around? (detail), 2014, paper, found objects, dimensions variable.

Entering the exhibition space, viewers were greeted with two rows of elementary-school examination papers, hanging like Tibetan prayer flags. Each sheet bears the same score, 59.5—just half a point under the passing grade of 60. The exams were culled from schools in poor and remote mountainous regions, some of them populated by ethnic minorities. The quasi-religious mode of display may have allegorized the students’ hopes, but in choosing to display only the tests of those who failed to pass by just half a point, Song Ta projects his coldly satirical intent, evident in the work’s title, These Are Your Test Scores, and You’re Still Playing Around? (all works 2014). As Song himself put it to me, he has “played a prank.” Its effect may have been to make the audience chuckle bitterly but also to question the educational system responsible for this awkward and hopeless situation. Could it really be possible that a negligible half a point has forever hindered these students’ futures? How much difference can there be, really, between a failing 59.5 and a passing 60? And how much of that disparity might be the result of human error or subjectivity? We can’t help but second-guess the institutions and people who have engaged in what appears to be such a sadistic game.

Many of Song’s works cast a similarly jaundiced eye on the culture of data collection and surveying. In his 2012 exhibition at Beijing’s Arrow Factory, “My Ten Favorite Doctors,” he presented a ranking of physicians in several of Beijing’s acclaimed hospitals, based on artists’ first impressions of them; and in Uglier and Uglier, 2012, on view at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in 2013, he ranked female university students on a scale from beautiful to ugly. Such projects reveal that even an apparently rational or scientific methodology reflects capricious judgments.

The title of this exhibition, “The Loveliest Guy,” was borrowed from a 1951 essay, later incorporated into high-school textbooks, describing the lovable nature of soldiers serving their nation in the Korean War. To make his video installation Who Is the Loveliest Guy? Song offered sailors on active military duty the experience of riding Guangzhou’s most frightening roller coaster, thus displacing their military bravery onto an entertainment venue. The video focuses on moments of suspended flight and the roller coaster’s dynamic undulations; it looks as if the sailors were flying across the ocean in combat. The snapshots of the sailors are in folders like those used for souvenir photos. Song has embellished each portrait with either cute bunny heads or flying eagles to highlight “the loveliest guy.” Three group photographs of the entire crew as well as these individual portraits were pasted on the entrance to the video room. Through this situational transfer, Song undermines the reverent attitude toward the military held by most Chinese viewers.

But the artist’s insouciance is aimed not only at others. In People That Write Like Me, Song references his own calligraphic style in a type of self-deprecating mockery that plays on the Chinese idiom “zi ru qi ren”—which literally translates as “script reflects one’s character.” He collected writing samples from more than thirty people whose handwriting, he felt, closely resembles his own. His specimens include the work of famous calligraphers; propaganda from second- and third-generation revolutionaries, such as Mao’s son and grandson; doctors’ prescriptions; and passages from schoolchildren’s notebooks. Their writing samples are displayed next to their portraits, which the artist found online, a juxtaposition that seems nonsensical. The addition of these unprepossessing portraits only underlines the absurdity of confusing calligraphic masterworks with mere scribbles. Here, as so often in his oeuvre, Song pulls the viewer into a cognitive gray zone in which only a sense of humor—unfortunately, no one’s birthright—can help one challenge existing standards of situational awareness.

Fiona He

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.