The Eyes of Asura: Song Kun’s “Pure Realm”


— Lu Mingjun


Asura-gati is one of the six realms of Buddhism, a realm that is neither heavenly nor earthly, of beings between gods, demons and humanity. The demigods of this realm have the desires of humans, as well as the power of gods and the evil propensities of demons. They are good in nature, but are also often hateful, and persistently get entangled in struggles. Asuras can be male or female. Unlike the males, who have a distorted, ugly appearance, female Asuras are beautiful and alluring, standing as an impediment to personal cultivation.

In fact, in today’s so called “post-human era” of fusion between natural and artificial, biological and mechanical, a paradigm shift has taken place in the carrier of the image of the Asura. The Internet, cosplay, folk beliefs and many other elements have intertwined, forming an unfathomable new image for the Asura. The artist sees this image as having the weight of truth in the real world. Song Kun attempts to turn these imaginary things into tangible, visible things. She bases her depictions on the various forms of Asuras in Buddhism throughout history and around the world, referencing subcultural motifs such as cosplay and ball-jointed dolls in hopes of finding certain possible connections between religious faith, manipulated dolls and everyday experience.

Boris Groys made the profound observation that in the digital era, the Internet has become a new pathway for the dissemination of religious faith. Meanwhile, the Internet itself has become a form of faith. Faith is invisible, and digital files are invisible as well, hidden in the same way. What Groys did not mention, however, is that the Internet is itself a modern variant of Indra’s net. The endless connections and reactions between all things is a trait of Indra’s net. This is not different, in any essential way, from the Internet. This also tells us that Asura is not just a Buddhist concept. It is also a dimensional category of existence. More importantly, its nature and the role it plays in Buddhist reasoning corresponds to today’s subcultures, naturally taking on a certain role in subculture narratives. On one hand, computer games and the Internet have become messengers for the will of the Asuras, as well as a pathway for penetrating human nature and social reality. On the other hand, the subculture mediums that disseminate this will of the Asuras have themselves permeated our everyday life, becoming hidden controllers, or transforming into a form of faith. Song Kun uses her own artistic methods to extract this will of the Asuras from within in order to look back on the subculture mediums and capitalist industrial system that spread this will.

Song Kun has devised this exhibition as an island. For her, this island is at once a pure land, the mortal coil and the realm of hell. It is the past, present and future. It is the land of the Asuras, as well as the reality in which ball-jointed dolls exist, and the artist’s refuge. In the essay What is the Contemporary, Giorgio Agamben says that this island already surpasses the realm of our experience, but every existence and occurrence upon it seems to be gazing back at the obscure parts of our experience. Song Kun has no intention of speaking of Agamben’s “contemporary,” or of a dematerialized Buddhist pure land. Instead, she aims to create a “pure realm” in the world of the subconscious.

Thus, Asura is only a part of Song Kun’s solo exhibition. The exhibition also includes the “six messengers of Ksitigarbha,” people in the sea of darkness, animals from the beast realm (jellyfish, snakes and octopuses), scenes from the pure land, a fabricated pure land island installation, and videos and music with primal themes such as the starry sky and the sea, for a total of seven different components.

Like the Asura series, Six Messengers of Ksitigarbha is also a series of paintings that employs readymade collage methods. These six messengers lack the fierceness and resplendence of those recorded in traditional murals, and also resemble images of ball-jointed dolls and cosplay. In the process of shaping her figures, Song Kun uses flat brushstrokes that remove color contrasts, reducing them to what appears to be a faintly discernible rainbow shrouded in gray smog, emphasizing the block structures of industrial production and the surface feel of plastic. Without being told, we likely would not imagine that she is depicting a Buddhist image, but this is indeed the real world image of the six messengers of Ksitigarbha in her eyes. At this time, their original world is no longer pure and natural, and the light of the Buddha symbolized by the rainbow has been shrouded in smog, only revealing faint glimpses in some layers. This is reminding us that the mission of the six messengers is to watch over the “six paths.” Here, however, there is no specific narrative relationship between the Asuras and the six messengers. The Asuras, aside from possessing some self-projection, are compositional elements in the “pure realm” as Song Kun imagines it. This is why the exoteric traditions of Mahayana, rather than the esoteric, attract her. The cultivation methods of the former often utilize pure chanting, worship and confession, while the latter utilize certain behaviors or rituals of the body, language and thoughts. As a method and path to cultivation, Song Kun’s creation of a “pure realm” has no requirement of ritual and form, but is instead firmly rooted in everyday experience. In this light, it seems to have some similarities to certain Zen insights. This also explains why so many Buddhist figures in her paintings have been transformed into ball-jointed dolls and self-images. Here, art, life and faith are one.

It is particularly important to mention certain motifs that repeatedly emerge in her paintings, such as the jellyfish, snake and octopus. These three animals are all highly intelligent, and have certain primal instincts and personalities similar to humans. For instance, jellyfish have mysteriously soft exteriors, but they are venomous, and will strike back at attacks from the outside. It is the same with the snake, which is recorded in religious and traditional visual systems as a symbol of avarice and evil. The octopus is not venomous, but it is highly intelligent, and can even change its color like a chameleon, as well as its structure, echoing man’s ability to deceive. In the physical sense, these beings are components of the “pure realm” island, as well as parts of the tainted real world, but I think that more importantly, these beings are subtle references to Song Kun’s own psychological mechanisms. Take the jellyfish, for example, which is beautiful, but also deadly. This calls to mind the film Seven Pounds (2008) by director Gabriele Muccino, in which Tim Thomas, the protagonist, chooses to commit suicide by jellyfish. Thomas says, “In seven days, God created the world, and in seven seconds, I shattered mine.” Perhaps the jellyfish is a metaphor for that “seven pounds of redemption” alluded to in the film. Coincidentally, Song Kun’s overall plan has seven components. Buddhism (especially exoteric Zen Buddhism) and psychoanalysis (like that of Jacques Lacan) share a psychological therapy approach that is a rupture, perhaps a form of “death.” Interestingly, Song Kun’s so called island or “pure realm” is also rooted in such a separation.

We can see that I am seeking out latent threads between these artworks, but Song Kun reminded me that she had no intention to construct a narrative, and even consciously broke off the possible connections between the elements described above. She would prefer to see them as a series of unconnected signs or symbols. It is precisely these signs that compose the “pure realm” in Song Kun’s heart. This “pure realm” is no longer some oriental fairyland, or a poeticized naturalist outlook. It is not “naturalism” or the “pure land” in the traditional sense. It appears chaotic, but it radiates strangeness and vitality. It is just as Ksitigarbha said, that hell is the pure land. The pure land gained from seeing the truth is far away, as well as right in front of your eyes.


Song Kun views the entire exhibition plan as an “island.” Meanwhile, she has created an “island” installation reminiscent of a Tang dynasty territory map in the center of the exhibition space. Though painting has no lack of symbols and allusions to reality, its properties as a medium determine that it will always be limited to a certain pattern logic of viewing. In comparison, installation, video and sound artworks not only present a living theater that transcends time and space, they also bring viewers inside them. Song Kun views this artwork as a scene of an island laid to waste by human decadence and the fall of civilization, presenting the viewer with a naked view of hell. Dissected fragments of human bodies are scattered across it, including a fetus still in the womb, a crystallized skull, brains, scattered bones, limbs and mutated organs, alongside glimmering neon tubes and other materials. The use of modern industrial materials such as silicone and resin, and a design evoking rubble, make this appear to be the ruins of a modern industrial culture. The Tang dynasty territory map shape also has strong connotations here, alluding to the spread and rise of Buddhism in China and standing as a symbol of religious culture, corresponding to today’s age of Dharma-decline.

We are no strangers to similar sights. We often encounter them in disaster films and computer games. Where Song Kun’s creation differs is that, first, the readymade objects and their material nature radiate with the sense of touch, and second, the creation provides us with a bird’s-eye view. At this time, the objects scattered on the ground join together with the paintings and videos around them to create a panoramic view of hell. Meanwhile, the bird’s-eye perspective itself is meaningful. I see it as according with certain behaviors or rituals of the practice of Buddhism or cultivation, bestowed with awe and reverence for life, death and time.

It looks like a future archaeological site, but Song Kun is unwilling to place it within a linear temporal dimension. From the beginning, she scrambles this distinction, her intent being to create a hybrid scene. In this sense, these objects or signs symbolize things that are happening contemporaneously. As she has said, today, smog, the loneliness of the virtual world, the explosion of diverse information, manmade “artificial nature” and “masked performances” are mixing together with the original appearance of primal nature and human nature, creating many hybrid forms. Her true interest lies in these hybrid forms, and these are the source of her imagination. Thus, it is unavoidable that such contrasts would be imbued with social implications. It is apparent, however, that her goal is not to present indicators of reality. What she truly cares about is the emotional impact, insight, wisdom and imagination that such an imagination of time and space can bring us. For the viewer, it is not necessarily alluring, and might even evoke repulsion or indifference. For this reason, we can say that this is entirely a personal world for Song Kun. Bizarrely, this imaginary world or “pure realm” always has a strong feel of realism.


Works Link:





Ten Chapters on the Intersand

Text / Bao Dong



Light, Time


When Liu Zhida reaches the age when he cannot get any older, that is, when all that is left is death, he will no longer see anything clearly. His eyes will be closed, but some particles still lightly penetrate his eyelids to strike his retina. Each time is like a pebble tossed into a pond, the glimmers of light like the ripples on the surface of the water. Subconsciously, he tries to block them with his hands, and yet that shimmer still continues, as if in a dream, yet he quickly awakens. The particles radiated by the G Star are coursing through his body.

He opens his eyes wide to gaze at that white star, but only sees a ring of light, shining bright before dimming, falling silent, and then shining bright once again. He knows it is the G Star falling and rising. It will be gone again in nineteen minutes.




The total disappearance of “decline” begins with generation A13.Actually, it really began with generation A1. Even in the 20th century, mankind had access to cloning and organ transplantation, but it was only with generation A13 that true bio-engineered people began to emerge. For them, decline is a disease that has already been defeated, just as their ancestors once battled against hunger, ignorance and injustice. From that moment on, mankind no longer had to worry about their bodies. Even when injured, repair became something that could be handled in an afternoon.

Certain radical groups were not satisfied with this. They were devoted to altering the body, doing such things as installing wheels or ice skates on their feet, allowing them to skate at any time. One fashion was to install bio-fueled legs and hips, allowing them to dance for twenty-four hours without tiring. I also know a girl who altered her own lenses so that everything she saw in the world radiated with a laser-like halo.

All of this made life seem to stand still. You could do whatever you wanted, so whatever you did had no meaning. Beginning with generation A13, people no longer aged, no longer died, were no longer individuals in the true sense. Their names would not change, but their ears, lungs or gills, scales, hair, stripes, or the color changing cells from squids, may have been changed only last week. If everything in your body, even your memories, was a product that could be updated at any time, then your life has in fact already ended. Even if you are still alive, you are just a thing, an object. You are no longer a person. As a person, you can be without gender, you can grow wings, and change your memories at any time, but you cannot be without death. This observation suddenly emerged in the 37th century, beginning with generation A16. It was like the rise of Christianity in the 1st century, beginning in a small region before suddenly spreading across the intersand, particularly among those people who had virtually forgotten what kind of people they used to be. They joined together to call for change in the concept of humanity: only when a person dies can it be declared that they were once people.

After this concept was encoded into law, an unforeseenconsequence emerged, which was widespread suicide, with collective suicides of various scales taking place everywhere, or falsified deaths. There was an amendment to the law: suicide in any form was unacceptable. In order to gain the identity of “person,” the death had to be from natural causes. In fact, for generation A16, for which sickness was a thing of the past and biotechnology (of which medicine is only a branch) was ubiquitous, the only so called natural death was a slow decline. That is to say, if someone wanted to become a “person,” they had to go through advanced aging and decline, until they finally died of old age.


Monet’s Concern


Like Titian, Monet’s eyesight began to fail as he grew old. He had cataracts in both eyes, making the landscape appear as if through a lens filter. He was unaware of this, however, thinking only that the landscape was growing increasingly muddled, the air increasingly dirty. Sandstorm weather. But then September came around, and it didn’t get better. He started to worry. This was an uncontrollable world. The world was spiraling away from the visual order he had spent his life constructing.

If Monet had transplanted T91X002 eyes, he would not have had so much reason to worry. If he wanted to, he could have painted his life studies in the garden at night, or even dive down into the pond to watch the moonlight through the lotus leaves. If he got the T92X002-1 model eyes, he would have been able to see ultraviolet and infrared light, but I don’t think he would have enjoyed such monochromatic scenes.

Someone told me he once saw a singular blue, only blue, as if all the other colors had been removed. In such laboratory conditions, seeing is no longer how we often describe it. It becomes a purely physical, and thus purely conceptual world. Pure things can only be crazy things. That was a crazy blue.


Eyes and Brain


Liu Zhida is from the second generation to accept this concept of “humanity,” so since his birth, he has always kept his body in its original state. Of course, his lungs, his heart, part of his brain and some of his ribs have been replaced, but that was a traffic accident, so he legally used organ cloning. But his eyes have never had a problem. At this moment, those particles are penetrating eyes that belong entirely to him, even if what he sees has been corrected by his external brain.

After his cataract surgery, Monet regained the ability to see green, purple, light red and dark red, and he was able to paint again as before. He corrected his eyes based on the standards provided by his memory. But what do you do if you have to correct your eyes and your brain?




In the 19th century, physicists began to posit an ultimate theory. They envisioned the world as a massive, complex clock, with every gear in the back connected to another gear. Once one gear moved, the rest of the watch would work as intended. At that time, doctors likewise saw the body as a tiny world, each organ possessing its function, not unlike the gears in the clock of the world, but soon they found the appendix to be useless, sometimes even harmful until it was removed. This inspired physicists to search for the appendix of the universe.




“Intersand” is a term that transcends the “universe” and the “world,” often used to describe the whole. Its basic meaning is thus: when you move from one place to another, pass from one point in time to another point in time, or leap from one thought to another—sometimes, when saying one thing, you suddenly think of something else to say—the connections that serendipitously form between these things are what is grasped by the term “intersand.”

A person’s passage from birth to death is also called “intersand,” though people aren’t yet accustomed to using it as such. “Intersand” is more of a philosophical term, though it is often used among physicists as well, particularly to describe jumps from one galaxy to another. On DA15rt171 Boulevard, there is a bar called the Intersand Club. Physicists often gather here when they aren’t at the quantum transmitter. It seems that they were the ones who invented this term “intersand.” They call the points on the transmitter “grains.”

As to why they use the term “intersand,” no one really knows. It is probably from the “grains of sand in the Ganges”…


Books for Physicists


On his voyages, Liu Zhida often thinks about the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, particularly the ones that are infinitely nested in each other. They are like his intersand leaps. Quantum transmission often has him sliding through the immense gravity of planets. In the interval between one wave of gravity and the next, he penetrates the field at just the right time, slipping through the spatial threshold. Sometimes he feels like he’s a grain of sand slipping through one’s fingers.

Another writer deeply rooted in his psyche is Immanuel Kant, perhaps owing to his mother’s influence. For physicists, Kant’s theories on the unknowable provided a framework for understanding the intersand: “It is like a clump of sand. You clutch it, and it takes on the shape of your palm. You release it, and it takes on the shape of the air. Drop it on the ground, and it becomes part of the soil.” When he finished writing this sentence, he sprinkled the page with sand with great satisfaction to dry out the ink. Interestingly, the people at the Intersand Club think that they mainly drew inspiration from his nebular hypothesis.


Chung Ming


Chung Ming is a Chinese person mentioned by Jorge Luis Borges. At the time, the Great Khan of the Yuan dynasty was searching for a blue swan. The prime minister sent out an edict, and all the heroes, priests, sailors, wanderers and scholars in the land heard the news.

But no one had seen a swan like this. The Khan had heard of its blueness from a wandering poet. “That blue is like the blue seen by a newborn when it first opens its eyes, or the last blue seen by someone about to die in a desert.” Chung Ming writes, “The Khan was infatuated with this linguistic blue, and had the wandering poet describe it to him over and over, day after day,” until the poet suddenly died.

The listless Khan began to grow thin, and his anxious prime minister sent out an edict: the childless Khan will make whoever finds the blue swan his heir. All the heroes, priests, sailors, wanderers and scholars in the land heard the news.

Finally, one day, a guard reported to the prime minister that a young man claimed to have found the blue swan, and was waiting outside the Forbidden City. But once brought into the Forbidden City, the young man was never seen again. In fact, “The Khan was already dead. The generals and ministers planned to install the prime minister, who had wielded the real power for years.” Chung Ming continues, “The swan never existed, nor did that blue.” It was a complete fabrication.


The G Star


No one knows where Liu Zhida went, so they all assumed he was dead. From the data we were able to retrieve, Liu Zhida’s last leap was near the G Star. The G Star is actually a massive galaxy in the process of collapsing. The physicists who have travelled there say the environment is very harsh, with neutron stars and black holes, often swallowing the quantum trajectories whole and breaking their intersand framework, forcing them to completely redraw their “grain” map.

If an intersand stop is broken during the process of quantum transmission, then the person being transmitted, and all of his information, will be erased as if he never existed at all. But Liu Zhida still persists in people’s memories, showing that he did not die in transmission. Yet he has not appeared since. He may be still alive, he may be dead, or, in the terms favored by the physicists: information about his existence is certain.


The Jellyfish People


As for those people who fear death and refuse to age, they are called “jellyfish people.” They restore themselves every thirty years. Some do it in less than twenty, while the most extreme do it every year. When you see someone on their own, skin so white they don’t even look human, they probably just finished restoration. According to the current law, “jellyfish people” do not enjoy certain rights, being that they are not entirely people. For example, they are not allowed to form families, much less have children. That is because when someone chooses not to die, they should lose the right to continue life through reproduction. Perhaps they don’t need it anymore. When the family of a “jellyfish person” dies out, they can only live alone, until gradually, people forget them, and they forget people.

It is difficult to imagine their lives, but it is said that they are humble and have many insights. After all, some of them have lived for centuries. They have witnessed things that others can only know, but never truly grasp, such as some changes over the centuries that they find entirely meaningless, people leaping from one idea to another, completely senseless arguments, banning one thing, only to ban the opposite later. Only when you reach a certain age can you clearly see the meaninglessness at the essence of history, and fall silent.

But there was somethingthat the “jellyfish people” were not expecting: there are limits to memory. Those “jellyfish people” who lived long enough gradually began to forget things from centuries before, even forgetting where they came from. They were just living, but they would forget who was doing the living. Their bodies may have been the same, but the memories stored in these bodies gradually changed. Some would even come to think that they were someone else. Later on, each time they restored, they would be like a different person. Actually, it is only in recent years that people took to calling them the “jellyfish people.” It is said there is a jellyfish called T. dohrnii that can revert to its juvenile stage and grow again. They endlessly repeat this cycle.


Works Link

A Thousand Kisses Deep 2012



Touching the Boundary between the Self and the World


Text / Pili

Translated / Jeff Crosby



If one is to speak of the ways in which Song Kun differs from other artists her age, then the first difference is that she is the carrier of two very disparate oil painting traditions. For various reasons, during the complex period of her studies at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, she first began studying painting at Studio One, which teaches classical realist oil painting, before moving to Studio Three, which teaches expressionist painting, where she remained for the next seven years. Looking back over her college days, Song Kun has said that in terms of the qualities of various techniques, she prefers the tranquil, balanced atmosphere of classical painting, but she cannot accept the pretentious partition that exists between classical techniques and real life. In this regard, she feels that the attitude of concern for real life fostered at Studio Three better fits her method of connecting with the outside world. This little anecdote helps us to understand her artworks, particularly the fact that their charm rests in the subtle discrepancies between language and content. Song Kun is attempting to use something very special to bring together the profuse clutter of this era and to bestow it with a unique aura. This integration is not beautification in the classical sense but a hard-to-describe fusion between wishes and reality. Even when only counting from graduation, Song Kun has been working in the art field for a decade, and it is this hard-to-describe wish that has permeated all of her creations, bestowing her works with a precious quality.


Like most academy students born in the 1970s, there was nothing particularly special about Song Kun’s life at first. She went through the normal progression from primary school to middle school and high school, first studying painting in high school, and then undergoing amateur but unique fundamental training in art. She tested into the art academy, and then pursued a postgraduate degree in foreign languages. Unlike the artists born in the 1950s and 60s, her generation did not go through tough times, and they did not experience the clashes and transformations of ideals and politics. From one school to the next, the only marks of rebellion we see are the freewheeling narratives of anime, and the independence of rock music. The former was alluring because some students couldn’t fit into the rigorous and conservative framework of Chinese art education; the latter is infused with the impulsiveness unique to youth. Many years later, we can still see these two elements from outside orthodox education preserved within Song Kun’s artworks, occasionally brimming to the surface to push her art forward. If their academic progression was steady, artists born in the seventies would finish school in their mid-twenties. Then the question is, “What do I paint?”


The question of what to paint is the concentrated manifestation of this generation’s identity anxiety. On the one hand, after nearly twenty years of student life, the question of how to achieve a connection to society becomes particularly important. On the other hand, within the art world, the competition between form and language, between academia and commerce, become remarkably heated. Song Kun’s early works reflect exactly those identity anxieties. The subjects of these works are pets such as cats and rabbits. At this time, Song Kun was still continuing in the expressionist style of Studio Three. The colors were rather heavy, and in a pursuit of a more powerful visual effect, the color contrasts were enhanced, making the images sharper. These sharp images, when paired with the soft, fragile creatures, created a kind of unsettled, manic atmosphere to Song Kun’s works, like the feelings of fear and insecurity these timid little animals would have when they left their lairs and had to make their way through human crowds and across streets. This atmosphere of fear, however, also presented a corresponding stress-induced excitement and rebellion. For instance, at the 2005 Nanjing Biennial, Song Kun’s works appeared on artificial leather, pictures full of passion, personality and identity analysis. The rebellious qualities of these pictures and the false, uncertain qualities of the artificial leather highlighted each other, permeating the works with the spontaneity of decay and an air of goth music. Looking back now, whether it is in terms of sensitivity towards material or the liberal attitude towards images, the atmosphere found in those leather paintings persists today, sometimes in the form of linguistic experimentation, but often linguistic experimentation that falls beyond oil painting.


The linguistic expressionism phase did not last long in Song Kun’s art. Soon after, she shifted back towards the language of classical painting. It is My Life was the beginning of this period, and defined the visual feel of Song Kun’s art. It is My Life is not so much a series of paintings as a painting project. For this project, Song Kun would produce one painting of the same size every day for a year, documenting 365 days of her life. In transplanting the temporal dimension into painting and emphasizing the behavioral and quotidian aspects of painting, these works reflected Song Kun’s methodological awareness of the limitations of painting today. (In fact, this awareness would also find its way into the later Xijia series.) In terms of specific language, this series was marked by stronger oil painting traits, its color levels and contrasts becoming richer and more refined, particularly in the rendering of grey tones, which embodied perfectly the elegant air of classical painting, leaving a powerful visual impression. In terms of subject matter, though It is My Life continued with the previous sense of unease about the world, its focus shifted from the outside world in general to “the connections between my life and the outside world.” Thus, it possessed a dual significance, in that it was both presenting “my” life to the outside world and using it to obtain a more precise assessment of the connections between her life and the outside world. This series emerged as more confident and stable than the works of her expressionist period. These pictures are packed with information, and the repetition of same-sized paintings as well as the juxtaposition of pictures with no clear connection lent them a strong feeling of the “flashback” in film. Interestingly, this series also contains many blank pictures, which represent the times when the artist was unable to work due to illness, hangovers or other reasons. The flashback effect and the blank images lend this series freshness and more of the texture of life, while also explaining the clarity and confidence in Song Kun’s knowledge of self. After the fear of entering into society, she seems to have realized that for those places that language cannot reach, perhaps silence and documentation are the best approaches to waiting.


It is My Life was an unexpected success, with much of the critics’praise focusing on Song Kun’s integration of classical and expressionist language. Yet this praise often overlooked the new experiments in painting form that Song Kun engaged in this series. No media could cover so many pictures, but from another angle, it demonstrated that Song Kun’s painting project actually enhanced people’s observation of painting itself, and for Chinese contemporary painting with its emphasis on signs, it felt like a long overdue reunion. Through It is My Life, Song Kun attained reconciliation between her identity and the outside world, but this reconciliation was not to last. Just as they firmly presented her inner world to the outside world, they also shaped a change in Song Kun’s life. After this series, she created a short series entitled Travel. In this series, she documented the things she saw in a train carriage at a certain stage of an apparently therapeutic trip. When placed together, these roughly twenty paintings of the same composition presented a series of views of the world from the windows of a train. Unlike It is My Life, which focused on presenting her focus on herself,Travel emphasized a focus on other people, and behind this bystander perspective was a kind of beautiful desolation, loneliness in the crowd. This desolation and loneliness dissolved into the artist’s sense of uncertainty towards her own existence, and this sense of uncertainty would constantly emerge in her painting under the “travel”motif. In the later Seeking the Recluse but not Meeting, she compared her travels to a story in Tang poetry about an unsuccessful quest for a hermit. In this series, she submitted all objects and events to a kind of “cocooning effect,” shrouding everything from garden landscapes, moon reflections, silent returning wanderers and singers on stage in a veil of illusion. Song Kun was not seeking out a particular recluse in these paintings but a method for soothing her soul. It was not found, or perhaps that recluse or method of soothing the soul was merely a luxuriant fantasy all along.


Perhaps it was the painting awareness that was emphasized but not noticed enough in It is My Life, or perhaps it was a revival of the independent rock-and-roll spirit of her youth, but each time a period of concentrated painting drew to an end, Song Kun would engage in other wild experiments, such as the act of painting on artificial leather. In 2008, it was the Xijia series. “Xijia” was a virtual character that projected her own existence. In this project, Song Kun appears to have completely discarded with the language of oil painting, using parchment, sketching, readymades, resin and pulp to complete a linguistic construction. IfIt is My Life constructed a narrative of her own life in reality, then Xijia was an attempt at constructing a narrative and understanding of her spirit and memories. In these works, we can see that Song Kun has taken up a freer, more relaxed attitude towards painting. She subtly fused her own fantasies, memories and found images from the internet into these chaotic pictures. In this free state, they appear more like randomly drawn images, and in terms of linguistic construction, they establish a narrative through a singular method approaching the “sampling” technique found in electronic music, and thus,Xijia takes on enhanced freedom in spiritual qualities and visual constructs. In the end, this freedom comes together to form a special energy that eventually evolved into the latest series, Depth of a Thousand Kisses.


The inspiration for Depth of a Thousand Kisses comes from an old song, but the motif is actually the jellyfish. As Song Kun sees it, the transparency, lightness and powerful defense abilities of the jellyfish are quite in accord with her own existential awareness as a woman. By the time she began the Depth of a Thousand Kisses, Song Kun had experienced many changes in life and society, and was now a mother. In this series, Song Kun explores questions of the soul and the flesh, the spirit and desire. Both parts of the series touch on the artist’s everyday life: beggars in the street, makeup before a social event, tenderness in the bedroom, even certain truly painful things in everyday life. Though the artist is astonished by the “depth of a thousand kisses” that stretches between the inner spirit and everyday desire, there is no moral criticism here. To the contrary, she tries to accept them both at the same time, as if with each stroke of the brush she is attempting to mend the fissures in this world, bringing everything together within a picture that she can grasp. This sober and tender maternal state is connected to the artist’s life experiences. Perhaps she is drawn to the jellyfish motif because of that transparent state of spirit and flesh, a state that she seems to be seeking herself. Though Depth shares many linguistic traits with It is My Life, in terms of visual feel and spiritual atmosphere, this series is closer to the freedom and confidence of Xijia.
When you stop to gaze at these pictures, at a swaying branch or a lace hemline, it is almost like you can feel that very instant that the brush touched the canvas, those “studio moments” that belong to the artist alone. In this chaotic world, they appear all the more precious. We could perhaps view painting as a method that Song Kun uses to touch the world, just as the brush touches the canvas. Today we are able to look back upon Song Kun’s development over a rather long stretch of time. Compared to other artists, Song Kun’s works are tranquil and lacking ambition. What has driven the creation of these works over the years has been a kind of innocent desire, the artist’s desire to find her connections, both real and spiritual, to this world, and she fantasizes that once she finds these connections, she can then go on to exist with tenacity. Every time she finds such a connection, however, she discovers that it is not so stable. The boundary between herself and this world is like the boundary between a ripe fruit and a grained wooden table in one of her paintings—hidden in the shadows, existing only within constant revision and retouching. Whether it is It is My Life, Seeking the Recluse but not Meeting or the more recent Depth of a Thousand Kisses, the anxiety of existence has shaped these artworks and shaped the independent narrative of the individual. For Song Kun, painting is a process of touching the world, and it is a process of constant failed attempts. With this mindset, you can perceive a steady growth in acceptance and confidence. Though it is rooted in classical language, this desire to intervene in reality gives the artist a freer linguistic state. Whether it is the traditional oil painting, the various material experiments or the integration of material and narrative found in Xijia, just as Song Kun tenderly depicts, she is also persistently pushing the boundaries of painting. Her tenacity and confidence allow her to draw from music, sound, cinema and many other areas for linguistic traits, bestowing her paintings with a unique narrative energy. For this reason, the greatest difference between Song Kun’s generation and the Chinese contemporary artists that preceded them is that they are not producing a sign or an image for people to“remember” them by. Instead, Song Kun wishes for people to “know” her, so she has given up on the shortcut of signs and patterns, relying instead on an inner intuition, drawing on a rich, dynamic painting language beyond the image and constructing multiple narratives of the outside world to gain a more solid existence.



– Philip Tinari
(Director, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art)


Song Kun is a painter of surfaces, of mental states, of fleeting feelings, and of lingering symbols. She was born at the front end of a generation that is only now coming into its own–after the death of Mao, just before the rise of Deng, and reared into the rising tide of consumer subjectivity and individual differentiation that marked the 1980s. The defining characterization of this generation is perhaps its schizophrenia–caught forever between systems, between regulations, indeed, between worlds. And faced with what seems to most like a very good thing, societies produce artists who explore alternative propositions, proposing ways of thinking and being that lie beyond widely accepted confines.

A Thousand Kisses Deep, shows how far her explorations have taken her in the intervening years.
The inspiration for the exhibition’s title comes from a 1967 song by Leonard Cohen which triangulates sex, depression, and anomie into a series of abstract situations that form, collectively, a picture of urban angst. The song cycles ambivalently among the second, first, and third persons, never quite sure where its most effective register might lie. As anyone who has both spent time in a corporate setting here over the past few years and dipped into the television series Mad Men can attest, there are shared conditions and obsessions between 1960s New York and 2010s Beijing. Unsettled dichotomies, shifting relations, and inflating fortunes breed specific pathologies. Isolation, one might surmise, becomes more intense against a backdrop of exuberance. The bubbly onset is the loneliest part.

Song Kun and her collaborators are not the first generation of Chinese artists to look at the city as a site for the uncanny. Indeed, the Post-Sense Sensibility formation, in whose footsteps she and her N12 generation follow chronologically if not stylistically, saw the upsetting potential of contemporary city life as a starting point for their often radical explorations. The subtitle of that group’s first exhibition in 1999–“Alien Bodies and Delusion”–could almost function as the name for the present project. But where those artists saw a deeply political, or at least sociological, undercurrent to their every gesture–if only in that they felt the need to justify their work as not being about such larger themes —we instead have here a feast of ambiguity and uncertainty, a paean to the ineffable lightness of a city on the move, and a testament to the acuity of this one observer of contemporary life in China.


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Beyond the Text

-A Short Essay on the Work of the Artist Song Kun


— Paul Gladston


Since its inception during the late 1970s, contemporary Chinese art has been marked by an often conspicuous bringing together of Western and Chinese cultural influences. This has not only involved the persistent assimilation of existing forms of Western modernist and post-modernist art in response to the localized concerns of an autochthonous Chinese art world (most notably, a desire to go beyond the stultifying academicism and ideological conformity of “official” Chinese art), but also, in effect, a re-visiting of vernacular non-rationalist Chinese cultural thought and practice as previously mediated by the Western avant-gardes as part of their attempts to engage critically with the means-end rationality of modern life. Consider here, for example, with regard to the latter Western Dada and Surrealism’s use of chance based techniques similar to those associated with the divinatory practices of the I Ching. As a consequence, contemporary Chinese art can be understood to resist any settled form of interpretation by simultaneously inviting readings from multi-cultural more than one cultural point of view.

In the face of this resistance, there has been a tendency among Western art historians and critics to view contemporary Chinese art as a suitably indeterminate focus for contemporary postmodernist/poststructuralist theory. [i] Indeed, this position has been given further weight by Chinese artists and intellectuals such as Huang Yongping and Hou Hanru who have actively sought to bring Western postmodernist/poststructuralist theory together with aspects of traditional, non-rationalist Chinese thoughts and practice as a combined means of interpreting contemporary Chinese art. [ii] Read in relation to this particular interpretative point of view, contemporary Chinese art can be understood to act as a pervasively deconstructive form of “third-space” whose unsettling uncertainty extends beyond questions of its own identity to encompass the conditions under which art is shown as part of a contemporary globalized art market; conditions which invariably sustain – as a necessary consequence of institutional discourse – unduly narrow, culturally inflected views of the significance of contemporary Chinese art.

Despite this accompanying sense of uncertainty, contemporary Chinese art has nevertheless established a strongly defined profile on the international stage. Principally, this is due to the development of a signature approach towards the making of visual artworks – particularly by the generation of Chinese artists who first came to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s – in which techniques characteristic of the Western avant-gardes and post avant-gardes such as, large-scale painting, video installation, collage-montage and performance habitually serve as a vehicle for the re-presentation of iconic images and objects that have become strongly associated in the collective global imagination with the history of Chinese culture, society and politics – not least, the political imagery of mainland China’s revolutionary past. Notable examples of this approach include the “Political Pop” and “Cynical Realist” paintings of Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiao Gang as well as re-motivations of classical vernacular Chinese imagery by artists such as Xu Bing and Huang Yongping. The established standing of contemporary Chinese art is, therefore, somewhat paradoxical insofar as it can be seen to combine cultural hybridity with an instantly recognizable veneer of “Chineseness”.

This unresolved, and, it has to be said, increasingly formulaic (market-friendly) bringing together of cultural hybridity and iconic Chinese imagery is strongly tied to the particular concerns of the artists who first produced it, all of whom had direct experience of the Cultural Revolution as well as China’s increasing openness to outside influences following the confirmation of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms at the XI Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in December 1988. For this generation two contradictory imperatives can be understood to have driven their work as artists. The first, carried over from the Cultural Revolution, was an abiding sense that all human activity (work), whether cultural or social, should be turned actively towards the collective political interests of the Chinese people. The second was the emergence in the wake of Deng’s reforms of a pressing, officially sanctioned drive to open up cultural, social and economic spaces beyond the pervasively restrictive ideology of China’s revolutionary pastThe work of Chinese artists of the eighties and nineties generation is in many ways an embodiment of this contradictory affairs, combining inconclusively as it so often does a desire both for absolute freedom of artistic self-expression (as exemplified by the work of the Western avant-gardes) and the continuing subordination of cultural production to the material concerns of socio-economic and political life (as inherited from direct experience of life in China under Mao Zedong).

For a younger generation of Chinese artists who have come to prominence during the last decade or so and whose lived experience does not encompass the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath things are, however, somewhat different. Within the historical purview of this new generation the immanence of the political to the everyday has waned significantly in the face of China’s increasingly widespread involvement in market driven economic and social reform. With regard to which, it has become both possible and desirable for artists to engage in forms of cultural production that no longer have any strong or direct relationship to older forms of collective political/social action. Consequently, the distinctively politicised combination of Western avant-garde technique and iconic Chinese imagery that once dominated contemporary Chinese art, has now given way, in part at least, to work which makes little or no use of the iconic imagery of China’s revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary past. In some cases this is because artists have begun to shift their focus away from the significance of that which is represented towards the consequences of representation itself, and in particular the effects of new digital reproductive technologies, many of which can be seen as culturally Asian in origin. In others, it is because the imagery that their work presents relates so closely to the minutiae of everyday day life in China that it no longer carries with it – for an international/non-local audience, at least – immediately recognisable connotations of Chineseness. Furthermore, this same generation is one that would also appear, both through its artistic practice and published statements, to have only scant interest in the Western(ised) forms of postmodernist/poststructuralist theory which once so strongly informed the interpretation of contemporary Chinese art. In place of which is an emphatic sense – often encountered by the present author in interviews with younger Chinese artists – that the production and reception of art cannot and should not be de-limited by pre-established theoretical concepts whether Western or Chinese in origin.

One of the most notable exponents of these shifting attitudes towards artistic production and reception in mainland China is the artist Song Kun. Song Kun was born in Inner Mongolia in 1977,moved to Beijing when she was 14 years old, She has no direct experience of the politically volatile events of the Cultural Revolution and the early years of China’s post Maoist reforms, By contrast, the artist’s life has been dominated by an increasingly precipitous program of industrialization and modernization predicated not on increased rural productivity, as had been the case in relation to China’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, but instead on an ever-widening openness to inward investment and, therefore, outside economic, social and cultural influences. In addition to which, Song Kun was educated in the prestigious oil painting department of the Central Academy of Fine arts in Beijing where she was able to develop a prodigious facility for naturalistic drawing and painting within an environment that still values this particular mode of artistic production Song ‘s response to these prevailing circumstances has seen the production of a body of work that is distinguished by the way in which it focuses closely on the artist’s everyday experience – including memories of the past, projections of the future and in some cases dream-like fantasies – rather than on the wider sweep of socio-economic and political life in contemporary China. Moreover, it is one whose evidently complex and overlapping set of stylistic influences, which range from traditional Chinese Shan-Shui (ink and brush) landscape painting through to European realism and East-Asian animé, effectively blur any sharply contrasting sense of cultural hybridity.

One of the most ambitious examples of Song Kun’s work as an artist is the painting series It’s My Life (2005-06), which consists of 366 paintings – each produced during a single day over the period of a year – hung more or less chronologically in the form of a single installation. In this particular work the artist brings together highly naturalistic representations of a diverse range of subjects including domestic interiors, music concerts and activities such as eating, lying in bed and playing the piano. Added to which are rather more subjective and even quasi-surrealistic images suggestive of the recollection of past events, dreams or reveries. The combined effect of all of this is not simply that of a record of quotidian experience, but instead of a temporally and spatially indeterminate narrative in which the boundary between the ordinary and the imagined world is rendered highly uncertain. Indeed, this blurring takes place to such a degree that the viewer soon relinquishes any attempt to construct an objective, sequentially ordered reading of events – of a sort suggested by the chosen format of It’s My Life – in favour of a far less directed response in which precision of meaning continually gives way to subjective feeling. To offer a definitive reading of It’s My Life is therefore impossible. The work actively points not only towards the fugitive nature of its maker’s interpretative engagement with the world, but also to our own. What is more, the aesthetic response which the work elicits from the viewer is not one that can be simply described according to conventional notions of beauty (or, for that matter, sublimity). Rather, as a number of commentators have indicated, it involves a subtly nuanced range of feelings in which any sense of pleasure (or pain) is always subject to qualification.[iv]

In conversation Song Kun seeks to reinforce the indeterminacy of her work in a number of ways. Tellingly, the artist refuses any notion that her work can be interpreted definitively from a single theoretical perspective. In particular, she is at pains to detach her work from any definitive involvement with current postmodernist/poststructuralist concerns relating to issues such as cultural identity, sexuality or gender, arguing instead that the rigid application of contemporary theory to her work tends to limit rather than open up its possible significance(s). In doing so she also points towards writings such as Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Joyce’s Ulysses as responses to the complexity of modern life that, through their stream of consciousness technique, go beyond the merely conceptual. Moreover, she draws attention to her respect for the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti and in particular their espousing of the traditional Asian philosophical conception of enlightenment as freedom from the known. For the artist, the function of her work is not that of a quasi-theoretical/critical text. Instead it is, she argues, something of an al, exemplar of how life might be lived to the fullest in all its experienti cognitive and emotional richness.

Set against this background it is therefore possible to interpret Song Kun’s work and in particular it’s conceptually elusive character very much from a vernacular Chinese cultural point of view. Conventionally within the Chinese intellectual tradition there is no clearly defined category of thought relating to what is referred to in the West as aesthetics Instead, the production and reception of art are seen first and foremost as concrete actions that engender an uncertain relationship between subjects and objects. In traditional Chinese shan-shui painting, for example, this is something that can be understood to be achieved in formal terms by the use of visual cues that effectively blur the perceived boundary between the viewer and the viewed (most notably, non-geometric perspectives and the compositional flattening of forms). As a result of which, viewers are drawn into what might be described as an immersive bodily relationship with the work of art and that which it represents. From the point of view of the Western philosophical tradition entry into such a relationship – with its seemingly disorientating loss of any cognitive distance – might of course be viewed as a cue for the stabilising intervention of freely chosen human reason and, therefore, of feelings of pain-pleasure associated with the aesthetic category of the sublime. Within the Chinese intellectual tradition this is not at all the case. Instead, the work of art is considered to be an acting out of the fundamental (ineluctable) uncertainty of our interpretative relationship to the world as articulated through the ancient and historically influential Chinese conception of “tracklessness”; that is to say, the notion put forward in the Dao Dejing that our understanding of the world is always(/already) a subjective abstraction rather than a reflection of reality and that knowledge is something that emerges inconclusively over time as the result of unfolding, subjectively interpreted experience.[v] To engage with the world, as well as its surrogate the work of art, in these terms is thus to shuttle persistently and indeterminately between cognition and feeling without the intervention of reason.

To view Song Kun’s work in these highly aestheticized terms may of course be seen by some as a wholly solipsistic or narcissistic retreat from the pressing contradictions of material life in contemporary China. However, such judgements overlook the possibility of a more positive relationship between Song Kun’s work and the radical shifts in sensibility now taking place as a result of mainland China’s current social, economic and cultural transformation. In opening up space beyond the pervasive ideology of its revolutionary past, mainland China has arguably unleashed a range of socio-economic forces – such as entrepreneurialism and individualistic desire – that have not only enabled precipitous economic growth, but that have also raised the continuing spectre of social disharmony and alienation under capitalist modes of production. For the generation of Chinese artists who first came to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s this was seen, as previously indicated, very much as a target for critically deconstructive strategies which attempted – in some sense – to go beyond the historical impasse brought about by the opposition of capitalism and Marxism. In the case of China’s younger generation of artists, the material dialectics of social division and alienation remain a distinct threat. However, the ideological stand-off to which they were formerly tied is now – simply as matter of lived experience – much less in evidence. Consequently, when artists such as Song Kun actively eschew the terminology of postmodernist/poststructuralist theory they do so almost certainly because they have unconsciously assimilated its outcomes as a something of a norm. The world in which Song Kun and other members of the young generation of Chinese artists now live is arguably a profoundly deconstructed one in which – despite continuing attempts on the part of managerialist politicians of all political stripes to assert the possibility of progressive order – there is no longer any widespread belief in the sustainability of either categorical difference or the synthetic combination of opposites. What remains, however, is the need for strategies which allow individuals and groups to negotiate this profound state of uncertainty at a practical everyday level. The work of Song Kun is arguably indicative of such a strategy as seen from the point of view of a Chinese cultural habitus already predisposed to view conceptual uncertainty as something of a sine qua non and to look towards the productive (provisionally harmonizing) as well as the destabilising outcomes of that uncertainty as an abiding condition of human experience.


Paul Gladston is a senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Nottingham. He is currently seconded to the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China as the head of the Division of International Communications Studies and the director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies. His recent publications include Art History after Deconstruction (Magnolia 2005) and ‘Overcoming the Anxiety of Displacement: Song Tao and B6’s Yard’ in Hewitt and Geary (eds.) Diaspora(s) (CCCP Press, 2007). He is a regular contributor to Yishu, the journal of contemporary Chinese art.

[i] See, for example Martina Köppel-Yang, Semiotic Warfare: The Chinese Avant-Garde 1979-1989, a Semiotic Analysis (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2003).
[ii] See Hou Hanru, Yu Hsiao (ed.) On the Mid Ground (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2002). Also see Huang Yongping, ‘Xiamen Dada – A Kind of Postmodernity?’ (‘Xiamen Dada – yizhong hou xiandai?’) in Zhonggou meishubao, no.46, 1986, 1.
[iii] See, for example, Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi (eds.), Fuck Off – Uncooperative Stance (Shanghai: Eastlink Gallery, 2000).
[iv] See, for example, David Spalding, ‘Song Kun: Universal Studios’, Artforum January 1st 2007.
[v] See Herbert Mainusch, ‘The Importance of Chinese Philosophy for Western Aesthetics’ in Mazhar Hussain and Robert Wilkinson (eds.), The Pursuit of Comparative Aesthetics (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 141-142.


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It is my life


—David Spalding



Beijing artist Song Kun’s It’s My Life (2005–2006) is an enormous installation of 365 small canvases, each representing a day in the artist’s year. Exhibited at Universal Studios—Beijing in the fall of 2006, the paintings were grouped more or less in chronological order, often in horizontal bands that stretched across the gallery’s walls; blank canvases were used to represent days of inactivity. Far more than an oil-on-canvas blog, It’s My Life offers viewers a series of elliptical narratives and moody moments rendered with a lush, sometimes despondent beauty.

A melancholic fog clouds many of Song’s paintings, making them feel like slightly out of focus snapshots in which the air hangs thick and heavy, weighed down by a sense of loss. Flashes of light reflect back at the viewer, cutting through the haze and sharply contouring surfaces such as skin, metal, and glass. It’s a technical trick that turns emotionally charged details into symbols in a vivid, fleeting, dream. One particularly poignant painting depicts a young couple riding their bicycles through a moonlit night, enveloped in a mist that renders the image part fading memory, part wistful fantasy. In a rare diptych, a man and a woman face one another in profile, sitting beside the windows of a train or airplane, illuminated by a mottled gray light. Such images capture the simultaneous desire and inability to say goodbye characterizing the artist’s overall relationship to the past, a weary nostalgia that shadows the entire installation.

Even in Song’s most simple works, everyday objects are transformed into portals that open onto the artist’s inner life. An oval wall clock with filigreed silver edges makes one acutely aware of time’s passage, provoking anticipation; the heel and toe of a leather boot, emblazoned with a swooping hawk, suggest a rebellious sense power. Elsewhere, a single event is explored over a series of days, revealing the artist’s gift for storytelling through her selection of details: an evening wedding unfolds in images such as the embroidered hem of a wedding gown, a floral arrangement of stargazer lilies and pink roses, and the dim interior of a hotel room.Throughout the year, Song experiments with a variety of approaches: we see nods to anime, Chinese landscape painting, and the still lives of Chardin, among others. And while Liu Xiaodong, the well-known painter and Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts professor, has certainly assisted in Song’s development.

A founding member of the N12 group—twelve ambitious young graduates of the Central Academy who have been organizing their own annual exhibitions—Song Kun was educated after the Cultural Revolution and raised in an era of accelerated urban and economic development. As a result, she and her compatriots are articulating new visual languages to express concerns that are less overtly political than those of their predecessors. Without lapsing into narcissism, It’s My Life gives viewers a very contemporary glimpse into the lives of Beijing’s youth, but ultimately Song’s finely crafted paintings invite us to meditate on the emotionally charged, fragmentary moments that constitute our own days.


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