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San Francisco
Family Ties: An Interview with Song Dong
by Natalie Hegert

Philadelphia, Dec. 2013: It could be considered that one of Song Dong’s most important collaborations was with his mother. In 2009, Song arranged the entire contents of his mother’s house, along with the house's small wooden frame, throughout MoMA’s expansive atrium. The installation, Waste Not (2009), revealed in its precise organization – neat rows, stacks and stockpiles of bowls, suitcases, plastic buckets, clothing, shoes, boxes, small scraps of fabric – his mother’s compulsive refusal to discard anything that could be possibly salvaged for future use. It was a behavior instilled in her during the scarce times of the Cultural Revolution in China, and intensified with the loss of her husband. I didn’t yet live in New York when Song Dong exhibited in MoMA, but just hearing about the concept of the project resonated with me, quite personally. I imagined the contents of my own mother’s house – whose hoarding habits likewise increased in the wake of the loss of her father – in an expanded view: the impossibility of it all, the endless accumulation, and all the collected memories, skewed sense of value, and fears of loss associated with each and every object. For Song, this project with his mother was a catharsis, laying bare and resolving the emotional knots that were tied up in every object, a way to work through the loss of his father.

Family has always played a strong role in Song’s life and art. And collaboration has taken on an increasing importance in Song’s work in the past decade. Since 2001 Song Dong and his wife, artist Yin XiuZhen have been collaborating on "The Way of Chopsticks," whose latest iteration is taking place at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. The project involves the creation of two “chopstick” sculptures – which are vaguely cylindrical, but far from the form of any chopstick you’ve ever used for eating – each one created by the artists in seclusion from each other until the final reveal as a single sculpture composed of two parts. The exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Alliance is unique, however, in that it’s the first time the couple has now invited their daughter, Song ErHui, to participate in the project. The exhibition also includes a video work and several other sculptural collaborations and installations involving everyday domestic furniture and appliances. I had the opportunity to ask Song Dong a few questions about the exhibition, about family life and the nature of their collaboration.

Yin Xiuzhen, Song ErRui and Song Dong, Three chopsticks from the exhibition "The Way of Chopsticks"; Courtesy of the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

Natalie Hegert: What was it like responding to the architecture and site of the Philadelphia Art Alliance? To what degree did the space dictate the form of the exhibition?

Song Dong: For this exhibition, we hoped to show more than just “artworks” – we wanted to show the concept of collaboration. Since 2001, Yin Xiuzhen and I have been [working on] “The Way of Chopsticks” to explore not only art, but its relationship with life, the world, culture, politics and society, so we were very interested in the Philadelphia Art Alliance’s background [as a residence]. We have three families: one was the Wetheill family who established the PAA in 1915; another is our family, Yin Xiuzhen, Song ErRui, and myself, who brought the “Chopsticks” concept to life; the third family is the Philadelphia Art Alliance itself, linking the art community to our lives. We think the whole building embodies our work, so we made three layers to show that: the furniture on the first floor explores the way we grew up; the second floor focuses on “The Way of Chopsticks” in sculptural form; and on the third floor we created a cinema to explore our thoughts and feelings about the future and the spirit.

NH: Can you describe a little about the video work that's on display?

SD: The short film focuses on the future – our daughter. We made two short black-and-white films that are shown side by side, and my daughter, Song ErRui, is the performer playing a girl who lives alone in the world in the future. She seeks connection with others, and plays by herself with her wolf toys, exploring her surroundings. In our generation, one can have only one child in China, so we really worry about her as she grows up. Loneliness always follows her, much like a wolf.

Family portrait: Song Dong, Song ErRui, Yin Xiuzhen - Part of the exhibition "The Way of Chopsticks";  Photo courtesy of Matt Suib/Greenhouse Media.


NH: This is the first time you've involved your daughter in "The Way of Chopsticks." Do you see her following in her famous artist parents' footsteps?

SD: She was very interested in working on "The Way of Chopsticks.” When we brought her to the opening of our Chopsticks show in New York in 2011, she asked us if she could participate in the next show. We said, “But there are only two chopsticks.” She said, “Why not have the third?” We think she is right. “The Way of Chopsticks” is not only for two, so we decided to bring her on board, and we’re very excited that she’s collaborating with us.

In our family we believe in democracy, independence, creation and collaboration, so ErRui is always encouraged to do something new or create something by herself. She was really focused and worked hard to make her chopstick. She was very excited to participate; she said she is an “independent artist.”

NH: Families shift and change as new members come into the world and elders pass on, but I'm curious as to how including a new member affected the art making. How did the dynamic of the collaboration change by adding your daughter's input into the mix? 

SD: For us, we think life is art – so art is at the center of our life, and we are always creating. We teach our daughter to make art something that belongs in her life, too. Sometimes we learn something from ErRui; we are her parents, but sometimes we become her friends. Sometimes we become her classmates. Sometimes we become her students.

NH: I must say, Er-Rui's wolf-fur chopstick is my favorite of the three. Were you surprised by her contribution? Do you have any knowledge of what the others are working on before seeing the final pieces?

SD: We were also very surprised, and loved her creation. Her work joining our works has become a very important memory in our family. I made a fake remote control, but the GPS is real – I hope my daughter never forgets the way to get back home. Yin Xiuzhen made a flute for three people to play. And ErRui’s wolf chopstick shows her love for us.

NH: I see this exhibition as a way of looking to the past (exploring your respective childhoods), looking to the present (exploring the current cultural climate in China), as well as looking to the future (by involving your daughter). Is this what you were aiming to do?

SD: “The Way of Chopsticks” is all about collaboration – how we can remain independent and how we can work together.

His-and-hers Furniture, 2013, Part of the exhibition "The Way of Chopsticks "; Photo courtesy of Matt Suib/Greenhouse Media


NH: Is there a noticeable difference in how your artworks' content and themes are received and responded to between Chinese audiences and US or European audiences?

SD: Chopsticks are a huge part of daily life for Chinese people. But we think that nowadays, more American and European people are also using chopsticks, so we think everyone can appreciate the concept.

NH: What upcoming projects, collaborative or otherwise, can we look forward to seeing next year?

SD: Next year, we will show works in Brazil. We also hope to show "The Way of Chopsticks" at other museums in the future as the project continues to evolve.


Natalie Hegert 



ArtSlant would like to thank Song Dong and Carolyn Huckabay for their assistance in making this interview possible.


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