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[ART] Song Dong/Yin Xiuzhen's Elegant & Artful Restrooms

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  • madchinaman
    Seeing the restroom as a work of art A his-and-hers REDCAT installation provides social commentary on a quickly changing China. By Suzanne Muchnic, Times Staff
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 13, 2006
      Seeing the restroom as a work of art
      A his-and-hers REDCAT installation provides social commentary on a
      quickly changing China.
      By Suzanne Muchnic, Times Staff Writer

      NO, Chinese artists haven't commandeered the restrooms at REDCAT.

      But "Restroom M: Song Dong" and "Restroom W: Yin Xiuzhen," the new
      attraction at CalArts' gallery at Disney Hall, explodes the notion of
      restrooms as basic utilities. Visitors who push against a door
      labeled with a male or female symbol enter a two-part visual
      spectacle conceived as a think piece. Witty, poignant and
      occasionally shocking, the exhibition is loaded with commentary about
      wrenching changes in China's social, political and economic life.

      The artists, who are married and live in Beijing, have built a big
      white box of a room inside the gallery and divided it with a wall.
      Their project, billed as two solo shows, is a his-and-hers kind of
      thing. But a few days before the opening, they are working as a team
      to complete the ambitious installation. In Yin's part, the women's
      room, they are finishing a cement and brick construction resembling a
      row of Chinese hole-in-the-floor toilets.

      "American people might not know what this is," Song says, breaking
      into a smile. "They might think it's a Minimalist sculpture. For us,
      it's real life. People go there to do private things, but it's not

      Western-style toilets and private bathrooms arrived in China many
      years ago, and they have proliferated as the economy has boomed. But
      in traditional courtyard neighborhoods, as many as 18 families still
      share communal toilets, Yin says. Austere and primitive as these
      facilities may be, they fulfill a social function.

      "Every morning, people meet there, read the newspaper and talk about
      the news," she says. "It's very interesting."

      But Yin's gentle nod to a disappearing tradition is overwhelmed by a
      huge, gaudy chandelier, hanging from the ceiling of her space.
      Replacing the single, bare bulb that lights most communal toilets,
      the gilded 110-bulb fixture reflects the décor in dwellings of
      China's nouveaux riches.

      "Everything is going very fast in China," Yin says, "but the taste is
      very low, like this. People want to get money, and they get things
      like gold teeth to show everybody that they have money."

      The final element in her installation recalls a horrific event in
      China — an attempted murder of a newborn boy that occurred in January
      but was kept quiet until June, when photographs and a news report
      appeared on the Internet. A life-size wax sculpture of the bloody
      child, who was stabbed with scissors, lies on the floor near a column
      in a corner of the room. It isn't easy to look at, but bad things
      happen in restrooms, the artists point out.

      While doctors saved the baby, who was left for dead in a plastic bag,
      and many Chinese people have given money to support him, the unsolved
      crime leaves many questions, Yin says. "We can't believe this
      happened in China." It's particularly hard to understand in a country
      where male children are much more highly valued than females, she
      says. "In China, people kill baby girls. This is a boy. I don't know
      the reason someone tried to kill him or who did it."

      Song's space, the relatively flashy men's room, provides an abrupt
      contrast to Yin's in look and tone, but the content is closely
      related — and equally layered. He has transformed the floor into a
      golf course, with rolling hills made of foam and carpeted with bright
      green plastic grass. The walls are completely covered with mirrors,
      creating the illusion of an endless golf course and wildly distorting
      reflections of people who pass through the space. A continuous slide
      show of 1,500 restroom images gleaned from the Internet is projected
      on the ceiling and reflected in the mirrors.

      "I edited it from 4,000 images," Song says of the slide show, but his
      peculiar round-the-world tour includes plenty of restrooms you've
      never seen, not to mention unconventional behavior.

      What's the restroom-golf connection? For Song, both deal with
      public/private issues and raise questions about China's changing

      "My idea," he says, "is that golf courses are public spaces, like
      restrooms, but they are used to do private things. Golf is a craze in
      China. People who want to show off their wealth play golf. China is
      big. It has lots of land but not so much useful land. Useful land is
      used for golf courses now."

      Boiling point

      THE initial inspiration for the project at REDCAT came from lyrics of
      a popular Chinese song by He Yong. A press release translates the
      crux of it as: "What we eat is consciousness and what we [defecate]
      is intelligence." A different translation — "We eat conscience. We
      [defecate] thought" — is embroidered on a small gray silk flag,
      attached to a pole and stuck into the green. Across the room, a drain-
      like hole in the plastic turf reveals a tiny video of boiling water.

      "Under the surface, it's really hot, ready to blow up," Yin says of
      her husband's work — and their country.

      That's part of what intrigues Eungie Joo, director and curator of the
      Gallery at REDCAT, who keeps a close watch on the international art

      "In the midst of a strange frenzy of commercial speculation on all
      aspects of China — art, real estate, communications, tourism — from
      every direction, there are some remarkable cultural workers, artists
      and thinkers who are trying to weigh the economic, human and cultural
      impact of the contemporary moment in China," she says. "I feel Song
      Dong and Yin Xiuzhen are among the most profound of the artists
      responding to the contemporary situation — kind of existential
      questions as responses."

      Western critics often categorize Song and Yin, who are highly
      regarded at home and abroad, as conceptualists. Chinese art historian
      and curator Wu Hung contends that "vernacular postmodernists" is a
      better fit because their work is rooted in the daily life of the
      urban masses of Beijing, where they grew up.

      Despite having similar sensibilities and having been married for a
      decade, working together is a relatively new experience for them. As
      Chinese contemporary art has emerged in the international scene, they
      have risen to international acclaim with separate bodies of work.

      Song became known for politically charged performances involving
      considerable physical endurance. In "Breathing," a 1996 performance,
      he lay face-down on Tiananmen Square on a cold night until he had
      created a patch of ice on the pavement, a process that took about 40
      minutes and was documented in photographs. Police questioned him but
      left him alone after he said he was a teacher and had to have
      photographs to show students how to "draw" breath in Tiananmen. The
      piece also has been interpreted as breathing life into the square.
      In "Printing on Water," he stood in the Lhasa River in Tibet while
      engaging in the futile activity of repeatedly stamping the surface
      with a heavy wood seal bearing the symbol of water.

      He also has created labor-intensive installations, such as "Waste
      Not," a collaboration with his mother last year that reassembled part
      of her house and many of her carefully saved belongings in a Beijing
      gallery. Newspapers, magazines, shoes, plastic bottles, kitchen
      utensils, garden supplies and much more were laid out in neat stacks
      with pathways for visitors who contemplated the elderly woman's fear
      of throwing anything away.

      Yin's work often involves clothing and the process of making it.
      In "Woolen Sweaters," she unraveled men's and women's sweaters into
      piles of crinkly yarn. Using bamboo needles, she then reknit the wool
      into a single garment. For a self-portrait that tracked her life, she
      made 10 pairs of Chinese peasant shoes and placed photographic images
      of herself, taken from infancy to adulthood, in the insoles.

      Last spring, in honor of their 10th anniversary, the artists each
      created a giant chopstick. Made independently of different materials —
      Song's was constructed of metal and covered with images of dragons
      and landscapes; Yin's had a fabric cover that could be unzipped to
      reveal a cache of small objects — the sticks were united at Chambers
      Fine Art in New York. Reviewing the show in Art in America magazine,
      Eleanor Heartney judged it "a take on love that is touchingly

      For the exhibition at REDCAT, Song and Yin worked out ideas for their
      spaces individually but then helped each other realize them. The
      sections are connected by an open door in the dividing wall.

      "Both Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen are such intelligent, versatile
      artists," Joo says. "They are major cornerstones in their generation
      of artists, and though their primary practices are independent, they
      have been making some interesting collaborative projects over the
      past few years, and to be honest, I could not bear to invite one and
      not the other."
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