Later this year, Chinese mixed media artist Xue Song celebrates 20 years working in studios at Shanghai’s M50, the contemporary art hub located at 50 Moganshan Road, a few kilometres west of central Shanghai. Built in the 1930s, the buildings today still possess their raw steel structures and exposed brick walls that have given the complex a shabby-chic character. But in 2001, Song was the first artist to move into the semi-derelict complex that had once been productive textile factories that had seen better days. Production had ceased and an air of desolation hung in the air. M50 attracted artists looking for cheap studio space and they were quickly followed by galleries and boutique-art businesses, never slow to miss a trick. ShanghArt were the first gallery on site and chi-chi design studios and cafes soon followed all happy to exploit the site’s La Bohème atmosphere. Today, M50 has become the go-to venue in Shanghai for cultural tourists and locals alike.
‘When I was looking for a studio space in 2001, the site was more or less derelict, the rent was cheap, the space was good, and the ceilings were high. I thought, I can work really efficiently here,’ Song said recently by telephone from Shanghai. But the influx of boutique art businesses that followed on from the artists themselves, by default, helped push up rents and many artists have since left, no longer able to afford the escalating rents. ‘Many have gone,’ Song commented. But many, perhaps over 100, Song thought, have managed to hang-on, even during such a year as 2020 when Covid 19 has paralysed the city – and the world – for months. A commitment from local government, however, that the whole site should survive as an arts centre, has helped, as had a three-month Covid 19 moratorium on rents.
M50 studios in Shanghai
Since Song moved into M50, he has had two on-site studios and the contrast between the two could not be more dramatic. The original studio (that I was fortunate enough to visit in 2019) was a 250-square-metre, second-floor space reached by an external concrete staircase over which a massive cast-iron water storage tank loomed. Located at the end of a secluded alley at the back of the site, the studio was not easy to find and few tourists penetrated that far. The ostensibly gloomy exterior opened onto a light filled space with cathedral ceilings held in place by huge oak beams that Song had installed himself. There were several small rooms off the main studio housing antique furniture and office equipment and in the main space dozens of canvases were stacked against walls. In various corners was the accumulated detritus of 19 years working with collage – Song’s preferred medium – with myriad clippings from newspapers and magazines, candle wax, tubs of varnish and various glues, all of which had coagulated into concrete-hard bizarre shapes, a sort of Arte Povera assemblage. Books and newspapers were stacked, or randomly strewn across rubbish fill tables that Song would plunder, scissors in hand, for his collages. The studio seemed dizzyingly Dickensian and attractively chaotic.
Song clung to this original studio for 19 years, a period that saw his collages become increasingly popular, until a sprawling development of high-rise apartments at the back of the studio marched close to his building. The vibrations caused by the excavations digging a subterranean carpark eventually cracked the walls and rattled the cathedral ceiling timbers. ‘They were digging down three levels,’ Song confided. Eventually the site’s landlords deemed his studio to have become uninhabitable – if not dangerous – and insisted he move to a newly renovated space, just a few minutes’ walk away, which he did 18 months ago.
Xue Song’s Early Career
Born in 1965 in Anhui, west of Shanghai, Song arrived in the city in 1985 where he studied stage art at the Shanghai Drama Academy, from where he graduated in 1988. As a boy, he had always been interested in art, but his father, a music teacher, had hoped his son would go on to play a musical instrument. ‘But I loved painting and drawing too much,’ Song explained. After graduation, he landed a job at the Shanghai Opera and for 10 years worked as a stage designer, while he searched for his own artistic language. He started experimenting with collage in his graduation year, inspired by the early collage work of Pop Art by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). ‘In the early days, I did not make much money. My palette was dark. No one bought anything. At that time I could not find how to express myself in art. I had no language,’ he said. He left the opera in 1998 to become a fulltime artist and to give himself time to wrestle with how he could bring together Western Pop Art and collage with an East-Asian visual aesthetic. The bright colours, which are now such a feature of Song’s contemporary work, came later.
How a Fire Changed his Life
By the late 1990s, he was flirting with collage even using candles to singe the edges of images cut from various publications. But it was all somewhat ad hoc. This change of direction came through an extraordinary event when, in the winter of 1991, a fire swept through his studio destroying everything in its path. All that was left were charred scraps of paper, the remains of books and picture albums, fragments of calligraphy and bits of canvases. Everything was reduced to ashes. But a period of reflection made Song realise that he could use these burnt fragments and ashes to evoke themes of remembrance, mourning, and rebirth. ‘I lost everything in the fire: canvases, calligraphy, fabric, everything,’ he remembered. What would have proved a devastating experience for many artists, proved to be an epiphany for Song, even though he expressed some culpability in starting the fire with a neglected candle.
As he poked among the ashes and the singed and charred collage fragments he realised that he could use the burnt remnants as a medium. His future art trajectory had taken shape and the ash soon morphed into what was to become his signature black-lined calligraphy, another major trope in his work and something that has fascinated since a young boy. ‘I decided to collect the ashes and use them in my art work,’ he said. Once all the ashes from the fire were gone, he reverted to candles singeing cuttings from newspapers, books, and old photographs that he would them apply painstakingly to canvases which he then overlaid with translucent varnishes.
His art edged toward a synthesis that echoed the vivid colouration of Pop Art, but merged with classical Chinese landscapes; distant mountains, sparkling rivers, promontories with bridges, often populated by literati-type staffage, were created from tiny fragments of collage that, when viewed close up, presented an imagery that overwhelmed with waves of nostalgia.
Xue Song’s Collages
The process of making collage and gathering the imagery from various sources was, and is, time-consuming. Song’s appetite for books and old newspapers, vintage photographs, became prodigious. ‘Every year, I cut images from maybe a thousand books and from piles of old newspapers and photographs searching for the right images. Maybe it could be an image of Chairman Mao or Shanghai beauties, women playing mah-jong, scenes from the Cultural Revolution, or it could be of contemporary events,’ he said. All of which have made an appearance in his art.
While the old studio was ostensibly packed with such detritus the new studio appears, in its infancy at least, to be surprisingly devoid of clutter. Slightly larger than the earlier studio at 350 square metres, the new space has the feel of a New-York loft, with atrium, mezzanine floor and acres of open-plan, white walls that ooze artistic success. It is also tastefully furnished. In fact, the perfect venue for an artist who has seen his work increase in value and popularity over the previous two decades.
Gene Genealogy series at Powerlong Art Museum
Back in 2019, when I visited, Song was physically exhausted. The exhaustion had set in after 18 months of late nights preparing a survey show for Shanghai’s Long Museum located at the West Bund arts precinct on the banks of the Huangpu River. Xue Song: Phoenix Art from the Ashes showed 30 years of Song’s oeuvre, including his most recent large-scale series Gene Geneaology 2019, where 100 smaller paintings, each bearing a calligraphic Chinese surname that spell out the map of China. ‘The ceilings at the Long Museum are very high. I had to work hard every night to make enough work to fill the space,’ he explained with humour. The Long Museum show proved immensely popular with a large crowd at the opening, as well as attracting 34,000 internet hits over five days. Song was astonished.
The monumentality of Gene Geneaology would be repeated in Song’s 2020 solo show DNA at the relatively new private Powerlong Art Museum, bank rolled by the Powerlong Property Group, where crowds also flocked for opening night. ‘Some 500 people turned up on opening night, but we had only catered for 300. There seemed to be a need for people to go out and visit an art opening,’ Song remembered. A phenomena attributable no doubt, to the global onslaught of Covid 19 that had kept people confined in their apartments. Last year had seen – in Shanghai at least – a growing hunger for art with people visiting museums in large numbers.
The stand out work at Powerlong was the enormous Dragon Totem 2020, 100 smaller paintings arranged over several metres in the shape of a dragon, the propitious symbol in China of good luck and power. Each individual painting represented one of the top 100 surnames in China – 89 percent of the population of China’s 1.39 billion people share one of these 100 surnames.
Confinement, albeit voluntary, has also affected Song over the last year.
‘I used to go out a lot to openings but not now. The worry surrounding Covid has kept me home. Now I just concentrate on my art,’ he said. As a result, he has adopted a disciplined working day: An 8 am start and a 6 pm finish; and then a stroll back to his apartment close by.
As for the future of M50 and Song’s new studio, who in China really knows what might happen? Artists lose their spaces without notice and move on. ‘Twenty years ago, no one thought the future at M50 would be secure. There was always the threat of having to move out. Now the Shanghai government has already said that the complex is a cultural site,’ Song commented. Conferring on the complex an official imprimatur and a permanence of sorts. ‘Maybe no problem for at least the next few years,’ Song added with a touch of irony.
Next Show Planned for 2021
Later this year, yet another solo show is planned this time at the Ho Art Museum in Wuhan in Hubei province, a city on everyone’s lips as the seeding site of Covid 19, although that view is hotly disputed by Chinese authorities. ‘I am thinking that I will construct some sort of archive. However, in the main space there will be a new large art work composed of at least 20 pieces,’ he said with some nonchalance.
Song’s art is predicated on debris and rescuing images from newspapers, books, and magazines. The debris left by fire he has turned into an artistic medium where dazzling colour and nostalgia achieve a synthesis of western sensibility and eastern aesthetic. The collages are easy on the eye and alluring and outrageously beautiful, attributes that have been lost in so much contemporary art. He unites a pastiche of the past with a thoroughly contemporary present. His work exudes a visual exuberance with an easy to comprehend symbolism that is tempered by allusions to simple traditional Chinese landscapes. Works that are part of loss and renewal – mirroring life itself.
BY MICHAEL YOUNG
Watch Xue Song in his studio in the video below