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Doing Something in Vain: Song Dong at PACE

Stepping into PACE gallery for Song Dong’s solo show Doing Nothing, the viewer is immediately confronted with a dizzying amount of wall text. The text, detailing Song Dong’s career to date, spreads across an entire wall, broken only by two small screens depicting hands on bicycle handlebars with a landscape in the background. The tension between the text and the screens is one of past versus future. The text describes Dong’s previous career; the screens hint to a future where landscape blurs beneath the hands of the artist as he rides on.

Dong demonstrated his fascination with undoing the past in his project 36 Calendars, where he invited 400 people to paint on top of 36 calendars, each depicting a past year of his life. Yet in the work presented in Doing Nothing, Dong focuses on the here and the now.

Dong finds himself caught between past and future, as he explores the transience of the human experience. Nothing lasts. Nothing is done, in the sense that everything done is undone. Born in Beijing in 1966, Dong works in a variety of media. From rocks to video to photography, his work ranges from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. His content ranges from himself to his surrounding culture. Dong often works as a performance artist, and his performances have few witnesses. Therefore, much of his show uses photography and video to portray various performances throughout his career.

In one such performance, Throwing a Stone, documented through a line of rocks hanging in glass boxes on the gallery walls, Dong marks rocks with the time he finds them, throws them, finds them, marks them, and continues until he cannot find the rocks.

Another performance, Breathing, is shown in two adjacent large-scale photographs. In the first photograph, Dong lies on the ground at Tianenmen Square, breathing onto it to create a thin sheet of ice. In the second photograph, Dong attempts unsuccessfully to recreate the performance at a lake in Beijing. The photographs document the artist seemingly doing nothing but lying on the ground, when in fact he’s trying to transform the surface he lies on. Much of Dong’s work plays with the disguise of doing nothing: my actions may look pointless, Dong seems to say, but in reality there’s a lot of something behind the normal, everyday activities we treat as mundane.

Three-dimensional works in the middle of the gallery draw the viewer away from the walls and towards the center of the space. A monument is layered with torn books, and a pot has a film image of moving water projected into it. In Waiting, an instillation of five videos that lie flat on the ground, abstractions of images from flames to a toilet bowl change slowly as the viewer watches from above.

Dong is often simplistic, as in Eating Drinking Shitting Pissing Sleeping, in which five circular photographs of Dong performing these daily routines act as windows into the life of the artist. Even these routine acts, Dong states, are performances. And even though they are unconnected except by the fact that humans need to do all of them to survive, they can be part of the same performance of life. On the other hand, A Pot of Boiling Water features multiple photographs portraying a sequence of Dong walking down the street, pouring out a pot of boiling water. In what seems to be a far from ordinary activity to the American eye (that Dong performs every day, as he carries water to his mother’s home for tea), Dong documents performance sequentially, as he and the pot grow larger and larger as he approaches the camera.

The viewer is most confronted with Dong’s “nothing” acts in the videos of his performances. A row of five screens features performances such as Broken Mirror, Crumbling Shanghai or Burning Mirror. In these simplistic, repetitive, yet poignant performances, Dong acquaints his viewer with a scene, and proceeds to destroy it. In Broken Mirror, for example, Dong assembles a mirror, allows it to sit for a significant period of time, in which the viewer familiarizes herself with the scene. People walk by, but the street scene and the setting remain the same. Soon, the viewer cringes as Dong’s image looms in the mirror, hammer in hand. He shatters the mirror, and the scene hiding behind the mirror appears. Dong repeats the actions on different scenes. Burning Mirror operates with a similar concept, except Dong’s image appears in the beginning, as he sets fire to a thin, flimsy mirror. The image the mirror reflects slowly burns, until the image in front of the mirror appears. In Crumbling Shanghai, Dong views a scene through a thin piece of cloth, and then crumbles the cloth, crushing the scene with it into his palm.

Repeatedly, Dong manages to find a perfect present: the moment exactly between the reflection of the past and the post-destruction future. He lives in the moment, simply doing nothing but being human. In Song Dong Facing the Wall, Dong did just that: he faced a wall for ten days, imitating the Zen monk Dharma. By doing nothing, Dong did something: he created a piece of performance art that he documents in the exhibit through a full wall photograph.

Dong’s maxim sheds light on his form of practice: "That left undone goes undone in vain; that which is done is done still in vain; that done in vain must still be done." The undone is no longer about what is not done in the present, but about undoing what was done in the past.

The meditation Dong practices in Song Dong Facing the Wall is contagious. The viewer, watching Dong’s repetitive actions, especially in his video installations, cannot help but meditate. Soon, the fear of Dong’s hammer and matches, arriving to destroy the scene, is eliminated, and the viewer can watch without wondering about the people on the scene, the bikers who pass, the architecture, the landscape, the buses. It’s a carefree existence that Dong conveys, perhaps the best way to live in the present. Often, we emphasize doing something, when sometimes doing nothing is the best way to get something done.