Seeing the restroom as a work of art

Times Staff Writer

NO, Chinese artists haven't commandeered the restrooms at REDCAT.

But "Restroom M: Song Dong" and "Restroom W: Yin Xiuzhen," the new attraction at CalArts' gallery at Disney Hall, explodes the notion of restrooms as basic utilities. Visitors who push against a door labeled with a male or female symbol enter a two-part visual spectacle conceived as a think piece. Witty, poignant and occasionally shocking, the exhibition is loaded with commentary about wrenching changes in China's social, political and economic life.

The artists, who are married and live in Beijing, have built a big white box of a room inside the gallery and divided it with a wall. Their project, billed as two solo shows, is a his-and-hers kind of thing. But a few days before the opening, they are working as a team to complete the ambitious installation. In Yin's part, the women's room, they are finishing a cement and brick construction resembling a row of Chinese hole-in-the-floor toilets.

"American people might not know what this is," Song says, breaking into a smile. "They might think it's a Minimalist sculpture. For us, it's real life. People go there to do private things, but it's not private."

Western-style toilets and private bathrooms arrived in China many years ago, and they have proliferated as the economy has boomed. But in traditional courtyard neighborhoods, as many as 18 families still share communal toilets, Yin says. Austere and primitive as these facilities may be, they fulfill a social function.

"Every morning, people meet there, read the newspaper and talk about the news," she says. "It's very interesting."

But Yin's gentle nod to a disappearing tradition is overwhelmed by a huge, gaudy chandelier, hanging from the ceiling of her space. Replacing the single, bare bulb that lights most communal toilets, the gilded 110-bulb fixture reflects the decor in dwellings of China's nouveaux riches.

"Everything is going very fast in China," Yin says, "but the taste is very low, like this. People want to get money, and they get things like gold teeth to show everybody that they have money."

The final element in her installation recalls a horrific event in China -- an attempted murder of a newborn boy that occurred in January but was kept quiet until June, when photographs and a news report appeared on the Internet. A life-size wax sculpture of the bloody child, who was stabbed with scissors, lies on the floor near a column in a corner of the room. It isn't easy to look at, but bad things happen in restrooms, the artists point out.

While doctors saved the baby, who was left for dead in a plastic bag, and many Chinese people have given money to support him, the unsolved crime leaves many questions, Yin says. "We can't believe this happened in China." It's particularly hard to understand in a country where male children are much more highly valued than females, she says. "In China, people kill baby girls. This is a boy. I don't know the reason someone tried to kill him or who did it."

Song's space, the relatively flashy men's room, provides an abrupt contrast to Yin's in look and tone, but the content is closely related -- and equally layered. He has transformed the floor into a golf course, with rolling hills made of foam and carpeted with bright green plastic grass. The walls are completely covered with mirrors, creating the illusion of an endless golf course and wildly distorting reflections of people who pass through the space. A continuous slide show of 1,500 restroom images gleaned from the Internet is projected on the ceiling and reflected in the mirrors.

"I edited it from 4,000 images," Song says of the slide show, but his peculiar round-the-world tour includes plenty of restrooms you've never seen, not to mention unconventional behavior.

What's the restroom-golf connection? For Song, both deal with public/private issues and raise questions about China's changing values.

"My idea," he says, "is that golf courses are public spaces, like restrooms, but they are used to do private things. Golf is a craze in China. People who want to show off their wealth play golf. China is big. It has lots of land but not so much useful land. Useful land is used for golf courses now."

Boiling point

THE initial inspiration for the project at REDCAT came from lyrics of a popular Chinese song by He Yong. A press release translates the crux of it as: "What we eat is consciousness and what we [defecate] is intelligence." A different translation -- "We eat conscience. We [defecate] thought" -- is embroidered on a small gray silk flag, attached to a pole and stuck into the green. Across the room, a drain-like hole in the plastic turf reveals a tiny video of boiling water.

"Under the surface, it's really hot, ready to blow up," Yin says of her husband's work -- and their country.

That's part of what intrigues Eungie Joo, director and curator of the Gallery at REDCAT, who keeps a close watch on the international art scene.

"In the midst of a strange frenzy of commercial speculation on all aspects of China -- art, real estate, communications, tourism -- from every direction, there are some remarkable cultural workers, artists and thinkers who are trying to weigh the economic, human and cultural impact of the contemporary moment in China," she says. "I feel Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen are among the most profound of the artists responding to the contemporary situation -- kind of existential questions as responses."

Western critics often categorize Song and Yin, who are highly regarded at home and abroad, as conceptualists. Chinese art historian and curator Wu Hung contends that "vernacular postmodernists" is a better fit because their work is rooted in the daily life of the urban masses of Beijing, where they grew up.

Despite having similar sensibilities and having been married for a decade, working together is a relatively new experience for them. As Chinese contemporary art has emerged in the international scene, they have risen to international acclaim with separate bodies of work.

Song became known for politically charged performances involving considerable physical endurance. In "Breathing," a 1996 performance, he lay face-down on Tiananmen Square on a cold night until he had created a patch of ice on the pavement, a process that took about 40 minutes and was documented in photographs. Police questioned him but left him alone after he said he was a teacher and had to have photographs to show students how to "draw" breath in Tiananmen. The piece also has been interpreted as breathing life into the square. In "Printing on Water," he stood in the Lhasa River in Tibet while engaging in the futile activity of repeatedly stamping the surface with a heavy wood seal bearing the symbol of water.

He also has created labor-intensive installations, such as "Waste Not," a collaboration with his mother last year that reassembled part of her house and many of her carefully saved belongings in a Beijing gallery. Newspapers, magazines, shoes, plastic bottles, kitchen utensils, garden supplies and much more were laid out in neat stacks with pathways for visitors who contemplated the elderly woman's fear of throwing anything away.

Yin's work often involves clothing and the process of making it. In "Woolen Sweaters," she unraveled men's and women's sweaters into piles of crinkly yarn. Using bamboo needles, she then reknit the wool into a single garment. For a self-portrait that tracked her life, she made 10 pairs of Chinese peasant shoes and placed photographic images of herself, taken from infancy to adulthood, in the insoles.

Last spring, in honor of their 10th anniversary, the artists each created a giant chopstick. Made independently of different materials -- Song's was constructed of metal and covered with images of dragons and landscapes; Yin's had a fabric cover that could be unzipped to reveal a cache of small objects -- the sticks were united at Chambers Fine Art in New York. Reviewing the show in Art in America magazine, Eleanor Heartney judged it "a take on love that is touchingly sincere."

For the exhibition at REDCAT, Song and Yin worked out ideas for their spaces individually but then helped each other realize them. The sections are connected by an open door in the dividing wall.

"Both Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen are such intelligent, versatile artists," Joo says. "They are major cornerstones in their generation of artists, and though their primary practices are independent, they have been making some interesting collaborative projects over the past few years, and to be honest, I could not bear to invite one and not the other."

suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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'Restroom M: Song Dong' and 'Restroom W: Yin Xiuzhen'

Where: Gallery at REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays

Ends: Jan. 28

Price: Free

Contact: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org

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