I read an online story of a family in the Philippines whose house was burned down by a fire. When all seemed lost, especially to the head of the family who was in despair, the eldest son devised a way to create art from the debris. This story made me think of Xue Song, one of the most renowned Chinese Contemporary artists working today. He is also the only known artist who uses the medium of collage exclusively. His collage works are burned materials pieced together to create art on subjects we normally see ink on paper or oil on canvases. Anything in the world of contemporary art could be visualised by him and would become a famous ‘Xue Song Collage’. This is possibly his busiest year, with four solo exhibitions around the world, including one in Singapore. Yet this success was something he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams. He started out as an artist who saw no hope for the future.
In the 80s, Xue Song could not find his voice in the art world. “I wanted to break Chinese tradition and surpass western modernism. It was easy to say, but very difficult to realise.” he said. A fire which occurred in the winter of 1990, would change everything and redefine his artistic career. All that remained from the blaze were charred fragments of paintings and piles of ash. To cope with the pain of his loss, Xue Song retrieved these remains and pasted them onto canvases. “The fire destroyed all my belongings and works. But it transformed me as an artist.” The smell of disarray and ashes awakened something in him. And a new artistic vocabulary was born. For him, ash is both a reminder of fate and a symbol of rebirth. Soon he started using print media with symbols, images and text on social and political reform, cultural and historical events. These were burned and recomposed into new images, with renewed meanings.
I have a special connection with Chinese Contemporary Art. Especially with the art produced from the 90s. I feel transported back to recent history which shaped the collective consciousness of the Chinese people today. Chinese history, like the others, have been tampered with. The first Chinese Emperor burned books and artefacts. Later, Mao buried more treasures. Yet Chinese culture would rise from the aches. Like a phoenix. The first time I came face to face with a piece of Xue Song art, I was transfixed. Xue Song was a child of the Cultural Revolution. He is part of a generation that has seen rapid economic changes and political reform. And yet his art is not exactly ‘Political Pop’ as they are not limited to just politics. Through his art, I feel more connected to all things Chinese, that is at once contemporary and classical; and how Chinese are changing the world and being changed by the world.
Xue Song is an artist I collect. I have bided for his work in auctions from as far as Zürich. At one time, I could have the most comprehensive collection of Xue Song in Singapore. He is now a personal friend. I was the guest of honour for his solo exhibition in Singapore this year. An exhibition in which we saw, bigger and bolder pieces of collage. Every time I see his beautiful work, I see hope. From a beautiful person who has known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and has found his way out of the depths. He is an artist with an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills him with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people and beautiful art do not just happen. Every time I see Xue Song the friend, I am happy for him, that his works are collected by all sectors of the art world. And that he remains one of the most humble and unassuming artists I know.
‘Hope rises like a phoenix from the ashes of shattered dreams.’