View of “Song Dong,” 2017. Foreground: Policemen, 2000–2004. Background: Mirror Hall, 2016–17.

View of “Song Dong,” 2017. Foreground: Policemen, 2000–2004. Background: Mirror Hall, 2016–17.

Song Dong

Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) 上海外滩美术馆

View of “Song Dong,” 2017. Foreground: Policemen, 2000–2004. Background: Mirror Hall, 2016–17.

However much postmodern or global influence has shaped contemporary China, this Confucian maxim has not escaped people’s outlooks: “At thirty I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the mandate of heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of the truth.” This proverb is also the reference point for fifty-year-old Song Dong’s solo show “I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven.” The exhibition, curated by Liu Yingjiu and Xu Tiantian and replete with dense materials, provides more than enough jigsaw pieces to construct Song’s life and career, while also presenting the creative path of an established artist who, like many others, struggles between cultures and turns that struggle into conceptual fuel.

The show was composed of seven chapters: one theme for each of the six floors and one commissioned work that occupied the whole building. In the latter, Sketch: RAS (Exterior), 2016–17, Song used LED lights and black tape to mark all of the dimensional measurements of the building, turning the museum’s historic architecture into a design draft. Giant beams composed of arrows and numbers shone on the facade, creating an exterior spectacle every night, and contrasting starkly with the classical lighting illuminating every other colonial building on the Bund. As became evident throughout the show, spectacle making is one of many Conceptualist approaches Song explores. Another example is a series of sixteen life-size statues of law enforcement officers (Policemen, 2000–2004), each bearing the artist’s visage, and standing at the door, in the elevator, on the terrace, and in the restrooms confronting the defenseless viewers. Aside from visual and audio elements (Song’s videos have all kinds of sound), the exhibition also contained psychological and phenomenological aspects.

The chapters “Mirror,” “Shadow,” “Word,” and “Revelation” (occupying, in order, the first through fourth floors) covered a wide variety of media, delineating a spectrum of methodologies and Conceptual approaches, many of which Song shares with his peers. His wide range of artistic strategies includes video sketch, word games, conceptual painting, large-scale spectacle-driven installation, participation, plays on translation, oscillation between mundane and culturally specific materials, archiving, and so on. Placed in the middle of the entrance lobby on the first floor, a ready-made bottle-rack chandelier (The Use of Uselessness: Bottle Rack Big Brother, 2016) welcomed visitors and introduced a trajectory of searching for self-taught Conceptualists like Song: Whose mentor isn’t Marcel Duchamp?

The fifth floor was themed 历 (Experience), which can also be translated to “History,” and included biographical works about Song’s mother, wife, and daughter, as well as a collective he cofounded. However, with the women in his life relegated to a side wall, colleagues in the middle, and Migrant Workers, 2003, in the two corners, the spatial layout of this section seemed overtly conventional and perhaps a little too obvious for a successful male artist. According to the introductory text, Song believes that “life is art,” and this sentiment is manifested throughout the exhibition, especially on this floor. But the motto can be understood within not only a Duchampian, deconstructionist, or Pop context, but also a Confucian one. In literati painting, the artist’s aesthetic presentation must be in accordance with his life, attitudes, and values. The male artist-cum-intellectual is either retired from or pursuing an official state position, and his artistic expression reflects his career. The image of a traditional literati emerged around the end of the show. To balance two “life is art” systems is not easy, and the task of balancing is present—even fundamental—in the ouevre of countless artists who participated in the early stages of Chinese contemporary art. In this sense, the exhibition represented not just a proud rebellion against “At fifty, I knew the mandate of heaven,” but an acquiescence to it. This sarcasm, intentional or not, is very Conceptualist.

Hanlu Zhang