Disclaimer: everything about this post is plagiarised. It’s the work of an artist called Song Dong 宋冬, from his exhibition I Don’t Know the Mandate of Heaven. To be fair, the exhibition is no longer on, so I can only assume that the artefacts it contained are now locked up in some storage unit underneath a motorway, which makes this a way of ensuring Song Dong’s legacy rather than just ripping him off.
The exhibition is a masterpiece, and I saw it twice. I don’t know how its possible to go through life with an almost premeditative sense of hindsight, yet this is clearly Song Dong’s gift. Each decade of his life, or at least his sense of self at the close of each decade, is accutely captured through video, words and sculpture, giving an almost whole sense of what a man is.
Anyway. One piece in the collection sums up perfectly the Chinese language, and how learning it is a journey of wonder (at its limitless possibilities) and frustration (at its limitless possibilities).
The piece comprises a long white wall mounted with repetitive Chinese characters, glowing garish neon. They look like this but there are more of them.
Song Dong asked his friends, who I assume are all creative intellectuals who wear black polonecks, to translate (interpret might be a more accurate term to use) the characters. Mounted on a wall next to them are their replies.
The characters are:
不做白不做, 做了也白做, 白做也得做
And they mean, in the most rudimentary way possible (ie, in my translation), this:
Don’t white don’t, done also white do, white do also to do.
Nonsense, huh?! Google translate takes one step closer to coherence with:
Do not do white, do also to waste, to waste have to do.
I can’t fully credit any of the people who worked on some of the exhibition’s translations, so please nobody sue me. But here they are:
Person 1 chose to turn the worsds into a poem, of sorts. I like to think that they did this in a cavernous white room, empty but for their armchair. I recognise that they’ve put some fancy line breaks in here, but I think that overall this makes a little sense as the work of Steven and Google.
Person 2 uses lined paper BUT WILL NOT WRITE ON THE LINES. This is because they are an artist from the far east, and to recognise such constraints would be to betray their entire essence. What I love about this is that it seems like zero effort went into it; like the person finally responded to Song Dong’s 6 chaser emails on the morning of the deadline, and had to tear a piece of paper out of a notebook they found under the bed. The message is similarly uninspiring. It’s an antidote to the slew of self empowerment songs that came out about three years ago; the ones whose every message was ‘if you believe in yourself and work hard enough, you can achieve anything’. This person, who is slightly more rooted in reality than Katy Perry and Pink, it must be said, realises that existence is an everlasting slog with no rewards.
Person 3 seems to work in a corporate environment, complete with functional letterhead. They are also clearly keen to share this fact, even though they must know that the art crowd isn’t going to respond to such boasts. Their interpretation of the characters is a slightly more positive spin on Person 2. They have a more happy-go-lucky approach to the essential fact of wasting precious seconds of life on pursuits with no gain. It might seem basic – this person probably doesn’t even have Twitter to air their grievances over Trump and Brexit every five minutes – but the world turns because of people like them.
Person 4 has little to say, but show admirable succintness. I think if there were to be a direct translation of Song Dong’s characters, it would probably be this. Therefore Person 4 is undoubtedly a man. Their studio floor is littered with balled up sheets of paper, their more poetic, beautiful interpretations. But in the end, the urge to show that they actually know what the characters mean thankyouverymuch has triumphed, and we have this instead.
Person 5 is my favourite. They smoke 80 cigarettes a day and are pleased that Portugal won Eurovision. They take regular vows of silence, and frequently forget to eat. They only have one outfit, but they have it in many duplicates so it looks like they never wash but actually personal hygiene is very important to them. No matter what characters Song Dong had sent to them, this would have been their interpretation because it is their interpretation of everything.
There were other translations, but these 5 capture the main themes. It’s remarkable to me that just 5 characters, in various configurations, can be used to capture the basic meaning of life. It also highlights to me, with frightening clarity, why the uphill climb of Mandarin learning might never end.