Tuesday to Sunday 10:00-17:00 (Last admission: 16:30)
Closed on Mondays
The Train Garden is open to the public every day
This article is adapted with permission from Lu Mingjun’s article “IMBODY: Portrait, Gender and the Animization of a New Race”
Song Kun uses the term “xiezhen”(“true portrayal”) to sum up her practice. This term, often used interchangeably in Chinese with “portrait,” encompasses multiple layers of meaning. We can trace it back to the concept of the “portrait” in ancient Chinese tradition, which was synonymous with such terms as “xiezhao” and“chuanshen.” As Liu Xie of the Southern Dynasties period wrote in The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons in the chapter titled Emotionand Literary Expression, “That which is written for emotion is concise and gives a true portrayal (xiezhen), while that which is written for the sake of writing is vulgarly flamboyant and excessive.” Evidently, Liu Xie’s concept of “true portrayal” refers not only to a faithful depiction, but also the refinement of emotion and fortitude. For Song Kun, this is naturally not a simple retracing of history. What she cares about is the relationship Liu Xie describes between “true portrayal” and “concision.” This is also where she differs from the ordinary realism of the academy: Song Kunhopes to develop a new aesthetic on a foundation of realism. In fact, each painting has an object and an image motif. To this end, Song Kun spends a great deal of time and effort searching for and reconstructing various related objects and image materials, sometimes employing everyday candid photography. The resulting pictures include objects and figures painted from life, as well as translated images, along with no shortage of products of her imagination and fabrication. The key is in how these image elements are synthesized. In this sense, one could say that Song Kun uses her own practice to reappraise the application of iconography in contemporary painting. In any case, when we hear the word “xiezhen” today, the first thing that comes to mind is not the ancient sense of “true portrayal,” or the realism of the academy, but the portrait photography collections popular in Japan. The term, pronounced “shashin” in Japanese, was originally synonymous with photography and photographs, but in our minds, it has always been linked to Japanese pop culture, associated with such things as AV (adult video) and dolls. In this way, the characters for“xiezhen/shashin” have become a recognizable sign and schema in and of themselves. This can also explain why she would choose the visual kei SD and BJD dolls (as well as cyborgs and BDSM figures), equally popular in Japanese culture, as objects of depiction, because they, like AV and dolls, are constructed and shaped by a particular gaze of desire.
Evidently, Song Kun’s corporealized psychological rearrangement, the so-called “Imbody,” is not just the corporealization of the dolls, nor is it just in order to draw attention to humanity’s existing logic of “embodiment” and cyborg aesthetics. Just as the double entendre in the term “Imbody” implies—it is both “embody” (to make physical or corporeal), as well as “I’m body” (flesh in itself)—in a certain sense, the artist’s reappraisal of the body and its subjectivity is in order to liberate these dolls from their state of being controlled, and to bestow them with a new living form that transcends that of people and of dolls. This new living form maintains the existing social (industrial) logic and order between people and dolls, while also infusing it with a layer of transparency and aura that transcends this structure and logic.
Song Kun pays little heed to the art system and holds out no hope for this system, or the world, becoming any better. “Man is everywhere in chains” (Rousseau). This is perhaps why she has grown increasingly interested in the structure of the human body. In 2016, during a forty-day residency at an art institution in a former Berlin women’s prison, she had a much deeper experience and perception of the confinement of the body, of punishment and resistance, of order and dissent, and of the natural properties of gender and social identity. The layout of this latest exhibition (IMBODY – FeelingReal · Nude, 2019) also clearly incorporates various elements of a prison scene. The walls of the exhibition space are painted in a light flesh tone, blending with the female bodies in the paintings, and various industrial chains, chrome control panels and instruments (medical or sexual) are hung around the space, alongside the binding of the body, all coming together to form connotations of bondage porn. In this way, a magical chemical reaction takes place between the two extremes of the desire and confinement of the body. This is the source of inspiration for the concept of “Imbody”. Perhaps, as the artist sees it, there is no essential difference between the contemporary art exhibition space mechanism, which has descended into a commercial production line, and prisons and BDSM spaces: they are all products of human complexity.
It is just like the fascinating relationship between the body structure of ball-jointed dolls and people. Song Kun says, “You can dress them up and pose them however you want, but you can’t change their basic structure or range of motion without completely breaking them.” The human body is actually the same. It is often being controlled or toyed with, but as long as it does not exceed the inherent limited freedom, it can continue to survive. The music video Looping(2019), featured in this exhibition, is undoubtedly the best footnote to this series. In the video, a popping dancer mixes cyborg, shadow boxing, cosplay and other various movement styles and performance forms to the rhythm of the music, accompanied by the minimalist lyrics—“eat me, kid me, imprison me, copy me”—in a mechanical reproduction of the poses the artist creates. Though the body in the music video has not been completely homogenized and transformed by social (consumption) engineering and still retains its physical properties as flesh, it remains in a certain state of confinement. But what Song Kun wishes to convey is that even so, we can still feel the body’s limited freedom. And this has made her increasingly firm in her belief that a person’s vitality is determined by their tenacity and circuitous wisdom. This is not so much the predicament and fate of the body as it is the basic motivation and strategy of survival. As Christoph Wulf said, “Since ancient times, people have always used the body to obtain the human image. This image of the body is the image of humanity, just as human performance is always bodily performance.”
Lu Mingjun, Discussion with Song Kun, September 11, 2019, Song KunStudio, Beijing, unpublished.
Popping is rooted in a mime performance of robot movements known as “robot style” that involves controlling the tension and relaxation of various muscles and joints to produce a “wave” or “pop” effect. Incorporating such street dance styles as the “robot” and “wave,” this is a style of movement that combines freedom and order.
Christoph Wulf, Bilder des Menschen: Imaginäre und performative Gundlagen der Kultur, Chen Hongyan, trans., Peng Zhengmei, proof, Shanghai: East China Normal University Press, 2018, p. 57.