The way of chopsticks
Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen visit the Philadelphia Art Alliance to share their world-renowned chopsticks.
Sophisticated artists, decked from head to toe in black, sat postured while a cute, bright, and energetic young Song ErRui ran around the floor blowing and whistling sounds in her mother’s, artist Yin Xiuzhen, microphone. She brought a smile to the faces of the small audience gathered in the University of the Arts’ Terra Hall auditorium, as she skipped up and down a row of stadium seats. Undoubtedly the youngest child in the room, 11 year-old Song ErRui seemed comfortable in an auditorium full of adult art enthusiasts and fans of her parents’, Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, art work.
Despite what the size of the small group of people that gathered at their artist talk in Philadelphia may lead you to believe, Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen are big time artists. The couple are some of China’s most acclaimed contemporary artists; and the staff at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, who are hosting the their current exhibition The Way of Chopsticks, are well aware of this. The two have branched the gap between the east and the west. They have separately shown their work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Recently, Song Dong has exhibited art at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art Beijing, in 2011, and Yin Xiuzhen has represented China at the Venice Biennale in 2007.
Senior curator at the PAA, Sarah Archer, was all smiles at the press preview last Wednesday, the day before The Way of Chopsticks opened to the public, even considering that two stories of their three story instillation were still in progress. Archer explained to me how the Art Alliance and the artists became involved, “I approached Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen back in 2011 with the idea of inviting them to do a site-specific project at PAA because it would be an intriguing "first" for all of us,” Archer says. “The PAA had never shown contemporary Chinese art before, and neither Song Dong nor Yin Xiuzhen, whose work speaks so powerfully to everyday experience and domestic life, had ever shown their work in the context of a former residence like the Wetherill Mansion before.”
The exhibition is expansive. From the first floor the viewer is introduced to the post-revolutionary China that Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen were raised in. On the floor’s second room, mirrored windows cover the walls and split furniture pieces are
placed throughout the room. All of the furniture, a bookshelf, a refrigerator, and other household items, are salvaged from Beijing homes in the 70s-90s.
“Every family had a very similar life, we have the same memory of these things,” Song Dong explained to the room. The wall of mirrored windows, created by Song Dong, and the split furniture, crafted by Yin Xiuzhen, evoke a similar disjointed past and, in a broader sense, a patchy recollection of that past. “Things are fragmented, Song Dong adds, “there is no way to get a full sense of history.”
Visitors walk into what appears to be a public restroom. Cleverly in step with the Wetherill Mansion’s, where the PAA is located in, actual restrooms. The male/female distinction between the two rooms is noted by classic “W” and “M” markings, forcing those who enter to make a decision: Do I enter according to my sex? It’s a question one doesn’t usually have to ask at a functioning restroom.
The interior of the two restrooms switches focus. Luxury becomes the subject and our attention turns towards a crystal chandelier and a golf course. The wall text reads: “The interiors of the restrooms evoke contemporary Chinese desires for luxury, leisure, and individuality… Yet the shared cement facilities in the Ladies’ Room, once a daily routine for Beijing families who lacked individual bathrooms, are a reminder of the communal lifestyle of post-revolutionary China.”
Behind the restrooms you’ll find the exhibition’s centerpiece, the chopsticks. If you’ve seen the couples work in the states, chances are you’ve seen a pair of their chopsticks. Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen have been creating their signature large-scale chopsticks since 2001. The formula is always the same. The two agree on a length and then work on their individual sticks in complete secrecy. “The work that’s shown in the end becomes a complete piece, ” Yin Xiuzhen told the crowd at their artist talk.
In the past two showings of the chopsticks there has been a significant change—a third chopstick. Song ErRui’s chopstick sits in between her parents’ covered in dog hair she collected from the family pet. The piece within itself represents individuality, a product of modernity, which juxtaposes the China that her parents once knew.
“They can be both good and bad,” Song Dong retells Song ErRui’s explanation for her wolf chopstick, “just like people.” Besides the wolf being her favorite animal, Song ErRui’s lone wolf reflects her own experience as an only child in her parents’ world.
The third floor moves away from the pros of contemporary China and echoes a concern for the future as a result of China’s One Child Policy. Future, a film featuring a 10-year old Song ErRui, toys with feelings of isolation and a longing for human interaction and connection.
Despite the artists’ concern for the future, you can sense a reverence they hold for the present. It is a present that has allowed them to express these ideas and concerns through their culture and personal identities as artists. “Over the years, we have seen an emerging autonomy. No longer do we rely on appropriation, an artist has his or her own identity. The idea of an artist from a certain country is becoming more abstract,” says Yin Xiuzhen, “the way to think about contemporary art is similar to how you think about the chopsticks. Now, you see people use chopsticks in the West. As long as it’s a useful tool people are willing to adopt.”
For further information on The Way of Chopsticks, log onto the Philadelphia Art Alliance’s website.