Visual Arts

Explorations of genealogy in experimental art in China

'Touching My Father' by Song Dong (Courtesy of Pace Beijing gallery)

(Figure 1) ‘Touching My Father’ by Song Dong (Courtesy of Pace Beijing gallery)

Explorations of genealogy in experimental art in China
By Laia Manonelles Moner
From Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art Volume: 1/ Issue 1

The twentieth century was a particularly eventful period for domestic life in the world’s most populous country.

The conceptual artist, Song Dong (born in 1966), along with other Chinese artists from similar generations, has contributed in creating a new dialogue that examines a nation struggling to deal with a modern and social identity. For each artist explored in the article ‘Explorations of genealogy in experimental art in China’, author Manonelles demonstrates how they

…share a common artistic goal: to shine light on certain problems that linger in the domestic sphere and offer them back to society. (Manonelles 2014)

China has been particularly relevant in the examination of genealogy and how inter-family relationships have been explored through art, as the implementation of strong social-political legislature have affected nearly every family in the country. Both the repressive Maoist regime and the introduction of the one-child policy in the 1970s have been hugely significant in determining how family members interact with one another and how this has shaped the culture around them.

By examining his own personal and intimate relationships with his family, Song Dong has reflected the issues inherent in Chinese culture. His piece Touching My Father (figure 1), illustrates the communicational boundaries between him and his father, which he believes is a direct result of the social and cultural environment he grew up in. Dong projects his own hand onto his father and captures the genuine and impromptu reactions that transpire in front of the lens. As Manonelles explains,

The father is an extension of social conventions and rules of the revolutionary regime led by Mao Zedong. He is a figure of power, is distant and cold. (Manonelles 2014)

The surrounding environment imposed a suppression of emotions and feelings that Dong was unable to convey towards his father. This was further exacerbated by the fact that, when Dong was still a small child, the regime accused his father of counter-revolutionary activities and was subsequently stationed at a rehabilitation camp at a distant province. The distance with his father had become geographical, as well as psychological.

It is not only the recent social-political policies that have resulted in the repression of physical and emotional contact between family members. These restrictions have been long embedded into Chinese culture, with such established dichotomies as ‘the loving mother and the strict father’. This was  expanded further by the suppressive political regimes of the twentieth century, and until recently, the opportunity to break these social conventions has allowed artists the liberty to explore the fundamental aspects of social life and examine the restrictions that had been enforced upon them for much of their lives.

Through contemporary and performance art, a nation’s ethics and politics can be re-considered. Art has shown, in this case, how it can be used as a tool to question and rethink certain realities, and to create a new and, as Manonelles describes, a more ‘affectionate’ and less emotionally vulnerable society.

To read the article in full, click here

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