"I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven" Song Dong Solo Exhibition
From January 21st to March 26th, Rockbund Art Museum will host a monographic exhibition by leading Chinese artist Song Dong. The exhibition, entitled “I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven”, will be the first major survey of Song’s work in mainland China in 8 years. The exhibition will include some of the artist’s best-known works that have been fundamental in establishing his career, as well as several rarely exhibited works. Amongst the works on display, some pieces have been specially commissioned for this exhibition by RAM such as At Fifty, I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven and Back Image, manifesting the museum’s long-term commitment to support the creativity and production of contemporary art through exhibition projects.
RAM’s entire building will be transformed both inside and out for the exhibition, boldly conveying an expression of both Song’s artistic creation to date, as well as taking a fresh look at his current state of creative exploration. The comprehensive exhibition constitutes a reflection on his life and career, which subsumes his past work into a coherent unity, infusing it with a regained sense of vitality, while imbuing his new creations with the richer context of his development.
The title of the exhibition is a fitting reference to Confucius’ famous aphorism in the Analects, ‘At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. 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. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.’ Song’s own take on the progress of the sage is playfully contradictory. ‘At 10 I was not worried. At 20, I was not restrained. At 30, I wasn’t established. At 40, I was perplexed.’ and, ‘at 50, I don’t know the mandate of heaven.’
The reference to Confucius accentuates Song’s preoccupations with Chinese tradition and the inherited wisdom of the common people, while the playfulness owes more to the predominance of Zen and Taoist themes in his work. Throughout his career, humble objects from everyday life have formed the core material of his often transformative and elaborate creations. Though the present production is no exception, there is a decidedly classical flavor to the way of its organization.
Following the Chinese literary tradition, the exhibition is divided into seven ‘chapters,’ each represented by a Chinese character, which together form a line of verse: Jing (镜 mirror), Ying (影 shadow), Yan (言 word), Jue (觉 revelation), Li (历 experience), Wo (我 self), Ming (明 illumination). Each floor of the museum will be dedicated to a chapter of the exhibition, with the seventh chapter (明 illumination) reserved for the exterior of the building itself, where Sketch (RAS Exterior) will see LED lights trace the contours of the building’s facade. The measurements in the original plans for the architecture will also be marked out on the building’s exterior in LED lights, emphasizing a sense of expectation from the past architect into the current days. It is no coincidence that what greets the visitor at the beginning of the exhibition is also its final chapter. One could say that this paradox adroitly encapsulates the spirit of the exhibition as a self-reflective totality.
Upon entering the building the visitor will find one of Song’s more recent works, Mirror Hall, a dazzling mirror series installation composed of recycled window frames and numerous mirrors, amongst which stagged another artwork of his: The Use of Uselessness: Bottle Rack Big Brother, a chandelier constituting of an array of household liquid containers reminding of surveillance cameras, turning the hall of mirrors into an oddly homey panopticon. In the next room there is Eating the City, a meticulously arranged biscuit metropolis free for the public to consume.
The second floor showcases selected video works from 1992 along the walls. The imposing centerpiece, Back Image, is a physical representation of travelling lights projected on a large canvas screen, instead of actual light, the artist employed strings of yarn to mimic the effect of light projection. The work is reminiscent of Song’s childhood experiences viewing open-air screenings of revolutionary films. Other highlights include Wisdom of the Poor: Song Dong Para-Pavilion (displayed on the 4th floor). Originally produced by Song for the 2011 Venice Biennale, the work has been adapted to specific context of its new place at the Rockbund Art Museum. Through an intricate maze-like structure comprised of recycled architectural fragments, Song Dong’s old work will be recreated and functions as a personal pavilion in which a number of his sculptures, videos and paintings are showcased.
Song’s ambitious new work and the anchor of the exhibition, At Fifty, I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven, will be found on the 6th floor. The work features 50 clay dolls representing the artist during previous performances of his career, spread across the atrium’s floor. Lining the walls of the gallery are photos of Song with his favorite childhood doll, documenting a personal story of identification and self-exploration. As visitors complete their journey down the length of the gallery, a final installation piece can be discovered on RAM’s outdoor terrace. A large neon sign faces the view out onto the Huangpu river, writing in light the artist’s personal take on Confucius’ model life story: ‘At 10 I was not worried. At 20, I was not restrained. At 30, I wasn’t established. At 40, I was perplexed.’ and, ‘at 50, I don’t know the mandate of heaven.’
“Song Dong: I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven” is not a retrospective, neither a static show. Experience is the essence and soul of it. The exhibition promises to delight both those familiar with Song Dong’s work and those seeking to become acquainted. The breadth of its scope is unparalleled, and the artist does not fail to match it with characteristic depth and charm.