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2013.11.08 Fri, by Translated by: 陈婧婧
Opening Time Capsules: Song Dong’s “Waste Not” at the 5th Moscow Biennale

5th Moscow Biennale: More Light

(Curator: Catherine De Zegher; Artistic Director: Joseph Backstein)

Manege Central Exhibition Hall (1 Manege Square, Moscow, Russia) Sep 20–Oct 20, 2013

Previously exhibited at New York’s MoMA (2009) and London’s Barbican Center (2012), the household-worth of objects belonging to the Beijing-based artist’s mother is once again unpacked and assembled on an expansive floor space. This time, it’s in Moscow’s Manege Central Exhibition Hall, the biggest exhibition hall in the Russian capital, on the occasion of the 5th Moscow Biennale. Both the geographical context and the curatorial theme add a new dimension to the time capsule of a Chinese family of the 1950s and ’60s.

The 5th Biennale is curated by Catherine de Zegher (b. Belgium, curator of the Australian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale) with the title derived from Goethe’s famous last words: “More light!” “More Light” is not a blinding lineup of spotlight-wary, biennial-ized superstars. The work of eighty artists from twenty-five regions is divided across two floors: the upper serves as the bright habitat of objects and the dark, lower floor is entirely dedicated to video and new media works. True to the title, one observes how de Zegher’s curatorial light is attuned to issues of representation. This biennale is made up of artists from the geographical or else post-modern-art-world’s periphery: recognizably, there is Australia’s Simryn Gill and Finland’s Eija-Liisa Ahtila, but also powerful sculptural installations on the psychology of violence by a Chechen artist, Aslan Gaisumov, to name a few. “More Light” shines subtly and as if through a muted color filter that unites artists across diverse regions, highlighting their shared political and environmental concerns. This delicacy of the curator’s stated intention stands in contrast to the bright red of Red Square across the street, the imprisonment of Pussy Riot and ongoing culture wars in Russia. “More Light” hints at the project of the Enlightenment which Russia (and China) notoriously skipped, which adds an unspoken tension to the project. As a foreigner in Russia, de Zegher maintains a sensitivity about Third World fetishes and oriental fantasies. Yet, there is a surprising dominance of aesthetic concern over the conceptual, significantly material or “crafty” aspects of the works selected. Inadvertently, one questions this identification of “the periphery” with “craftsmanship,” but de Zegher’s particular angle on feminist art history in her career successfully answers that problematic.

5th Moscow Biennale, exhibition view
第五届莫斯科双年展, 展览现场

Song Dong, “Waste Not”, mixed media, 2006
宋东, 《物尽其用》, 混合媒体, 2006

Meandering clockwise through the exhibition, one comes last to Song Dong’s “Waste Not,” which spreads out behind a barricade of old cardboard boxes (also part of the work). Song Dong’s installation, by far taking up the largest amount of floor space and arguably stealing the show, conceptually stands apart from the works of other artists, mainly due to the fact that it uses materiality and aesthetics to deal overtly with the death of a loved one, and because it evokes nostalgia. In a statement provided by the artist himself, Song says the work was a way of dealing with the loss of his father in 2002 and the need to clean out the family home and process that loss. One witnesses how the obsessive precision and color-coordination of the thousands of laid-out objects belonging to his mother Zhao Xiangyuan (1938-2009)—the various purses, hairbrushes and old toys —is about mourning and healing for the artist and his family: in a Chinese traditional manner, this is like a shrine of everything that the deceased might need in the afterlife. Yet, unlike an offering of an orange and some cigarettes, this is also an offering to the parting of an era. The accumulation of items on display is indicative of a mindset developed from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and as that time has irrevocably passed, the spectacle of human futility is delicately lightened up by the sweet light of nostalgia. In relation to the theme of the show, more light breaks through the time capsule of “Waste Not,” becoming an open window and the opposite of suffocation, tradition, and dust.

Song Dong, “Waste Not”, mixed media, 2006
宋东, 《物尽其用》, 混合媒体, 2006

Song Dong, “Waste Not”, mixed media, 2006
宋东, 《物尽其用》, 混合媒体, 2006

Song Dong, “Waste Not”, mixed media, 2006
宋东, 《物尽其用》, 混合媒体, 2006

Although the work is self-contained and historical, the Moscow Biennale and the specific geographical context add a powerful resonance because of the history of socialism that the two counties share. Each and every object—from a used detergent bottle to an iron bowl to the colorful, aged scraps of cloth—is telling of an economic predicament and an ingrained class psychology. While a display at a Western institution might put Song Dong in conversation with American artist Sarah Sze—the American representative artist at the Venice Biennale this year who creates installations of obsessive, immaculately symmetrical displays of the objects that surround her—this affinity of the aesthetically balanced archival compulsion limits the socio-economic complexity of Song Dong’s work. The socio-economic reading is something not mentioned by the artist in his statement, but it becomes inherent in the consideration of a Chinese artist in Russia. The enormity of the display of impoverished items tells of a habit that is born of an insecurity about the future: akin to Russian grandmothers, whose children discover dried bread hidden in suitcases under the bed, nothing is thrown out in “Waste Not.”

Russia also brings the link to the work of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, an artist duo like Song Dong and his wife Yin Xiuzhen (whose work is also exhibited at the Biennale). The Kabakovs’ conceptual framework is reliant on this dichotomous sanctity and profound clutter of the USSR, where a story of a people—their tragedy and their passions—can be told by the contents of a single trash can. Ilya Kabakov is himself a hoarder who once famously said that he had never in his life thrown anything out. The Kabakovs’ work came out of Communist communal living quarters (obshezhitie), where a family had a personal room and shared the hallway, kitchen and bathroom with other families. The scarcity of objects available in communist Russia made for a situation where the relationship of people to these objects revealed the particulars of a family and a society. The Kabakovs’ “Kitchen Series” installation, part of their signature series on Soviet communal living, is exhibited alongside the Biennale at the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow; their oeuvre, also not devoid of nostalgia, stands in fantastical economic and personal dialogue with Song Dong.

Towards the end of the experience of the Biennale, and in particular when one steps out of the Manege and into the traffic of Moscow—where the chaos of political and social inequality washes over you like a puddle from a passing car (a BMW, most likely)—one questions this contemplative and often sentimental light that de Zegher had turned on for the audience and the artists of the exhibition. In the gray of rainy Moscow, is the Biennale not akin to a heat lamp, the kind used to stimulate sunshine for precarious plants? Perhaps with time, a beautiful and resistant flower will grow out of that Enlightened climate. Or else, like Goethe, it might whither away, wanting more.