Song Dong

A Pot of Boiling Water

1995, printed 2008

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Not on display

Song Dong born 1966
12 photographs, gelatin silver print on paper
Support, each: 318 × 483 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee 2014


A Pot of Boiling Water is a series of twelve black and white photographs that show Song Dong walking along an alleyway in Beijing while pouring boiling water from a pot. The photographs were originally taken as documentation of the performance in 1995 and were printed in 2008 in an edition of twelve, of which this copy is number five. The photographs were shot in succession, showing the alleyway from exactly the same perspective in each photograph. In the first photograph Song is a small figure at the end of the alleyway, coming toward the viewer. It becomes clear in the subsequent photographs that he is carrying something in his right hand that is steaming. In the fifth and sixth photographs it becomes apparent that the object he is carrying is a pot or kettle of very hot water. The viewer subsequently finds that the artist has been pouring the water all the way, as the line of steaming water is visible behind him. Song has disappeared completely in the final photograph while the scene captures the water on the street already starting to evaporate.

Song Dong was born in Beijing in 1966. He studied oil painting at Capital Normal University in Beijing but his practice includes a wide range of media, including performance, video and installation. His subjects have been consistently related to notions of impermanence and transience. Song created a number of performances in the mid-1990s, including Throwing a Stone 1994–present, Writing Diary with Water 1995–present and Breathing 1996. In the ongoing Throwing a Stone, the artist writes the time he finds a stone on the surface of the stone itself before throwing the stone away. He then finds the stone again and repeats the process until he cannot find the stone anymore. Writing Diary with Water is also an ongoing performance, in which Song writes daily diary entries in water on a block of stone with a calligraphy brush.

All that remains from such performances are the photographs that document them, but the documentation is often very limited. For instance, there are only two photographs documenting Song’s performance Breathing, which took place in two different locations for forty minutes each. One photograph shows the artist lying on the ground in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the other shows him lying on his front on the surface of the frozen Black Sea, breathing out onto the ground. In contrast, A Pot of Boiling Water was a relatively short performance in duration, but is documented in twelve photographic images, a number high enough to convey the sequential narrative of the artist’s action. Song’s work captures the impermanent nature of one’s presence and actions while showcasing the seemingly insignificant fragments of everyday life. The ideas of impermanence and insignificance are not projected as negative, however, but as natural and inherent to the kind of quotidian rituals that he captures in his performances.

Further reading
Wu Hung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century, exhibition catalogue, David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Chicago 1999, pp.54–9.
Shen Qibin (ed.), Song Dong, exhibition catalogue, Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai 2008.
Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Su Wei (eds.), The 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World, exhibition catalogue, OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Shenzhen 2012, pp.88–91.

Sook-Kyung Lee
April 2013

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