MY FIRST GLIMPSE of Tang Song was through the windshield of a car. He was perched on a rooftop high above the bamboo-covered mountains as I drove up to his lair. With his newly-shaved brown head shining in the sun and his pointed ears cutting the sky behind him, he looked like Lucifer, the fallen angel, peering down over his subjects as they finished their long journey. First impressions go a long way and Tang’s. . .well, his keeps on going. The scene seemed straight out of a James Bond film: a secret, remote headquarters where a mad villain paced the rooftop conspiring to decimate the world. Inside, his sprawling complex revealed another intense reality. Apart from a small untidy room that held a cot and hotplate, the entire raw concrete shell—room after room, floor after floor—was filled with Tang’s bold installations and paintings standing resolute to the bare elements, productions of sheer madness.
I was up on this mountainside to interview Tang for the Asian Art Archive’s 1980’s project, which aimed to collect first-hand information from those who helped shape that tumultuous era in China. There was a certain serendipity in coming here for answers. In some ways, Tang’s hand was complicit in that decade’s violent crescendo. His collaboration with artist Xiao Lu in the seminal 1989 exhibition “China Avante-Garde” unleashed a shot of defiance that rang out around the world and anticipated the tragedy in Beijing just a few months later. This legendary episode is considered a milestone in Chinese contemporary art, yet Tang never fully recuperated from its calamitous reverberations.
Our interview wasn’t easy. Tang was never one to just give you what you wanted. He had a way of rhetorically mirroring any question you posed so that it appeared irrelevant, insignificant, and sometimes downright foolish, especially regarding sensitive topics. Tang was himself a sensitive subject and, in a way, his own nemesis. He continued to speak in koans right up to the end, yet his ambiguity didn’t inhibit his tremendous heart, which seemed to be in a state of constant reconciliation. Writing to the critic Li Xianting in June of 1989, he pronounced: “I regard a person’s life, or my personal life, as an experiment, an experiment with an artistic attribute.” Tang was intimate with the absurdities and the futility of life, probing his existence and the calamities that plagued it through his work.
Tang’s childhood during the Cultural Revolution was marred by his mother’s suicide when he was just seven years old. After a stint in the military, of which he fondly remembered the course of grueling exercise, he enrolled in the Ink Painting department at what is now the China Academy of Art at a time of fervent experimentation. He remembered that “there was no such thing as contemporary,” and no words to adequately describe what was happening: “Where does the new start?” His early works were a far departure from the prescribed ink on xuan paper, tending towards multi-media installation and performance. In fact, action became the mandate for his life and work, with all his creativity stemming from performance. Robert Rauschenberg’s trip to Beijing in 1985 left a profound impression on Tang. The American artist warned the young Chinese student not to “always think about what to do in New York, or what to do in Paris, but to build something new that belongs to China, in your own country . . . Don’t eat other people’s leftovers.”
Shortly after that famous shot marked the end of the ’80s, Tang stowed away on a cargo ship from Hong Kong to Australia. He was discovered by the ship’s captain as they crossed the equator. When Tang finally emerged into the sunlight, the first he’d seen in weeks, a rainbow stretched across the sky to greet him. He recalled that “the ship steered towards the rainbow but could never reach it and the rainbow would never fade away.” The rainbow became the symbol of hope and eternity that appears throughout Tang’s later paintings, and was a driving force in his life. However, this hope was momentarily crushed when, upon arriving in Australia, he was detained in a refugee internment camp for six months. Tang’s time there wasn’t easy, but he continued to make his Action works and found ways to survive. He exhibited an installation of five thousand matches all standing with their tips facing up, creating a beautiful sea of red. It was a minimal sculpture with many implications that had to be vigilantly watched over by a security guard so that no fire would erupt. The work, like Tang’s character, was a dare, a threat, and an invitation at the same time. He later said of his paintings: “I want them to make people feel uncomfortable, give them nightmares. And when they wake up, they feel gratified.”
Tang returned to China in 2007 and began working fervently and nomadically, keeping studios in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, but seldomly exhibiting. His return was not so much a reunion with a lost land and people but a catalyst for inward exploration. The canvases he produced over those years are the result of a series of desperate, determined actions. He forcefully worked his surfaces with dense coats of paint, sometimes applied with mops, over a grid or other patterns made of strings. Sometimes he used a power saw to reveal the painting’s self-referent archeology—years of labor, anguish, indecision, disgust, jubilation, transcendence. The sheer thickness and scale of the paintings, up to thirty meters long, reveal the energy and physical endurance Tang employed to execute them. Painting is no easy task, capable of exhausting one’s vital essence, yet with each canvas there are no signs of Tang retreating. Each is presented like a mere occasion in a long history of turmoil rather than a finished work of art.
I didn’t see Tang for a long time after that interview on the roof until a chance encounter reunited us. It was probably his first social occasion in years and he believed it was fate that brought us together, just like fate brought him Lao Wang, his new partner who, like an angel on his shoulder, guided him towards the light. “My painting is a way of courtship and this love is about liberty,” Tang said of his works but he could have easily been talking about his life with Wang. My return to Tang and his art literally left me shaking in my shoes. His canvases, scarred like the man himself, reached simultaneously toward the inner self of Ātman and outward to our universal, unknown eternity. It’s not often in the jaded art business that we experience true existential awe during a studio visit. We’re all too clever to be emotional or philosophical. Then Tang invited me to arm wrestle him, drink with him, smoke with him. That’s the way he was. He’d threaten you with a knife and then dance with you.
There was still much to do. He had only begun his new course of action, but it goes without saying that no matter how you move towards the rainbow, you’ll never reach it. It is no coincidence that on the morning he passed, Shanghai’s skies were lit up with rainbows.
Farewell you bastard!
Mathieu Borysevicz is the founder of BANK/MABSOCIETY in Shanghai.