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Seeing the restroom as a work of art

A his-and-hers REDCAT installation provides social commentary on a quickly changing China.

December 10, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | 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.

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