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I Am Nobody

Song Dong: Surplus Value

· 亞洲藝術 Asian art

By Laura Shen

This article was first published on a.m.post, Hong Kong, March 2016 issue

“Remember, we are just nobody, but should do something. Who am I? I am nobody.” In the film Mr. Six, the hero told his son. Although living in the same city with the most powerful and richest people of the country, commoners of this Empire Capital are vulnerable, weak, powerless, ignorable, while struggle for dignity and glory. If Mr. Six is a retired Big Brother, then Song Dong’s art is on the perspective of the silent Mass, the vague, countless faces living in the city, the spectators, motley crowds who are astute, sophisticated, squeezing sweets from bitterness.

Surplus Value is a familiar while strange word for everyone educated in China mainland. Teacher always emphasizes how Proletarian labourers are exploited by capitalists according to Marxism political economy theory in the course of Ethics and Political Thoughts. The exploitation derives from surplus value, “the proletariat’s unpaid labour occupied by capitalists”. Students and teacher would burst into anger in the terms of “Unpaid” and “Exploitation”. However, there is doubt on credibility of the theory, how can capitalists make a living without surplus value? They have also paid labour including undertaking risks and cost, they deserve the pay. Teacher usually avoids answering it by stating that students only need to recite it for preparing exams.

Song Dong is tricky in applying linguistics. He overlaps the artwork’s straightforward meaning with the social implication of Surplus Value in Chinese context, to embody code beneath exterior. His art is associated with philosophies of both Deconstructionism and Reconstructionism, hinting the recycle and reuse of trash. Raw materials come from the dirty windows or doors dismantled from old houses, the deserted ceramic tiles on floors. To middle class favouring condos nowadays, stuff from worn residence houses reminds them of the random and dirty environment the poor are living in. Song Dong collected plentiful trash of such kind, dismantled and restructured them to form the flat graphs hung on walls, or three-dimensional installations. Even rubbish has ignored surplus value, which could continue to create new value in a certain sense. On the other hand, the rubbish exhibited in the whole gallery space looks like the grass-rooted people in real world, the underclass suffering from unjust treatment and misfortune, elbowed from mainstream society and left behind.

It is complicated to see the personated trash. They are miniature of the commoners’ wisdom, their bitterness and happiness. Regardless of their embarrassing financial and social status, they have accomplished the unique scenery and ecology we live in, enriching the vivid world. On the other hand, sorrow irresistibly arises from the audience. This scenery is accomplished for whom? Who would care for these poor surplus values? Who will get warmed by this wasted heat? The scenery is such maudlin self-pity, a cold joke provoking reluctant laughter and deliberate blindness towards its awkward status-quo. Isn’t this the reflection of our real life, that pretending to live in a kind lie, confirming ourselves that we are truly happy?

The exhibition reminds the audience of a dazzling status quo: If surplus value is immorally against the socialism ethics system, then it is a contradiction that it widely exists in the country nowadays. Critic on surplus value is limited on books. Social fortune still relies largely on the exploitation of surplus value at the stage of primitive capital accumulation for this rapid increasing economy. It is a satire that surplus value exploitation is widespread in a society treating it as ideological taboo.

Continuing the previous works of Intelligence of the Poor and Waste Not, Song Dong has fulfilled his trilogy. He would rather pay attention to the destiny of real individuals than the grand while fake concepts of state or ideology. He not only reassesses the value of ordinary daily stuff, but also re-confirms the value of human beings, the concrete, genuine humanitarian care, and reflects humanitarian glory from cold installation. His art defends humanity, it is sober, self-conscious, while never gives up the ideal of flying up, the faith for freedom. It corresponds to Mr. Six’s motto: Remember, we are just nobody, but shall do something.

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