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