Memories are made of this

Swimming, a goat, Coca-Cola…these and other recollections make up Beijing-born artist Song Dong's 'for Hong Kong only' exhibition, as Kevin Kwong discovers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 4:58pm

So the world didn't end on December 21, as doomsayers predicted it would, based on the end of the Mayan calendar cycle. Which is good in many ways, not least because it allows artist Song Dong to honour his winter solstice promise to invite the Hong Kong public to an exhibition he has created especially and exclusively for them.

Co-presented by the Asia Art Archive and Mobile M+ of the West Kowloon Cultural District, 36 Calendar is a collection of 432 colour book-like sketches and essays (comprising 59,000 Chinese characters in total) based on the Beijing-born contemporary artist's own "memories of encounters with different people, objects and events".

The exhibition, at ArtisTree in Taikoo Place, is the result of the Archive's 2011 artist-in-residence programme with Song, and marks his first solo outing in this city.

They [swimmers] told me that life [in Hong Kong] was really good, that many people had swum there already
Song Dong, getting some facts of life

Also on show are "responses" to Song's works from more than 400 members of the public (aged between six and 86) recruited by the Archive. These volunteers were asked to do whatever they wanted with the sketches based on the text Song wrote for each entry. So some coloured them while others erased the original work with their own drawings or paintings.

Hong Kong - its history and, in particular, its pop culture - holds a special place in Song's memories. There are numerous references to this city throughout the exhibition, including one piece that recalls his first visit here in April 1996 when he took part in a group exhibition at the Arts Centre curated by Oscar Ho Hing-kay. But his first impression of this city dates back long before that.

In the summer of 1978, Song, then 11 years old, met two youngsters from Guangzhou who were keen swimmers. The pair said they had to train hard so they could, one day, swim to Hong Kong. "They told me that life there was really good, that many people had swum there already," the artist recalls.

That same year, Song also saw a Hong Kong movie that "informed us about trends like bell-bottomed pants, huge sunglasses and long hair". Until then, he had not realised that "there was another way of life" other than the one he was living on the mainland.

Song still holds Hong Kong in high regard. In a recent interview he said: "[It] is still a free city. Freedom is one of the greatest values here." And it's this freedom that allows the artist's 36 Calendar project to be, as M+ executive director Lars Nittve describes it, "totally uncompromising".

The project includes Song's take on events such as the crackdown on the student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in June 1989; the deaths of thousands of children when shoddily constructed school buildings collapsed in May 2008 during the Wenchuan earthquake; the disappearance of artist/activist Ai Weiwei in April 2011; as well as a reference to the beginning of the fall of disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai last April.

Wit and humour run through his works. For December 1979, Song wrote: "Finally, Coca-Cola became available in China. My mother bought me one. It cost 2.4 cents, which was very expensive. I took one sip and spat it out. I thought my mother had deceived me by adding a lot of sugar to herbal medicine to fulfil my … curiosity.

"Later on, I got used to the flavour and did not need to worry about the price anymore. But I have stopped drinking it now and I forbid my daughter [from] drinking it. I heard that if you put an old coin in it for a while, it will make the coin shiny. It's perhaps better used as a coin cleaner."

The more emotional and powerful entries are related to his family and friends. His recollection of an artist friend, Da Zhang, is poignant. In August 1996, Song met the Lhasa artist who was preparing an art performance called To Cross. The work involved sacrificing a goat, a reference to the sacrifices made during June 4, 1989. However, Song would not let Da Zhang kill the animal and after a long altercation, the Tibetan gave up and declared his art performance a failure. "I later wrote Da Zhang a long letter explaining my … regret. I felt I did the right thing to the goat, but I failed Da Zhang. I did not mean to be an obstruction to his art; I just wanted to free the animal. We became good friends and called each other regularly … He would later say that it was right to liberate the goat," Song says.

"I just never thought that he would not liberate himself."

In January 2000, "on the first day of a new century, Da Zhang ended his life at the age of 45 in his little room in Da Tung. He made his last artwork by abandoning his life. I wish that he is now blessed in heaven by the [goat]-god that we saved. He used his own life to interpret the meaning of and confusion of existence".

Song - whose "para-pavilion" installation was the first piece to greet visitors at the Arsenale, the main venue of the Venice Biennale, in 2011 - is also showing in Sydney with an acclaimed earlier work called Waste Not, but he has saved this special new work especially for Hong Kong.

ArtisTree, 1/F Cornwall House, Taikoo Place, Island East, daily, 11am to 7pm, free admission. Inquiries: There are guided tours in English at 11am and 4.30pm, and in Cantonese at 2pm and 5pm, today. Ends Feb 8