Song Dong at the Curve gallery, Barbican
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The NS Interview: Song Dong, artist

“For me, to have nothing and something are the same thing”
Your new show, "Waste Not", comprises 10,000 objects your mother accumulated over five decades. What's your favourite?
The soap that looks like a stone is very old and hard. I didn't like the soaps, but my mother kept them all. On my wedding day she gave them all to me as a gift. I don't need them - I use a washing machine! But the soap is my favourite object. At that time I just knew it as soap; now I think of it as love. My mother gave me the love.
 

Your mother passed away in 2009. Do you feel her presence in the exhibition?
Yes. She had an accident trying to save the life of a bird in a very tall tree and fell. That was really sad for me. But before she died we worked together on this project. She told me stories and we published a book. Our whole family works on this installation each time [it's going on display], and we feel my mother is still there. Sometimes we find an object we don't recognise, so my sister and I try to remember: what was that time?

You've shown "Waste Not" in eight galleries around the world. Do you plan where the objects will fit each time?
Yes because the location, the space, the size is always different. And this work, I think, is not only an installation, but a family event. So we [me, my sister and wife and daughter] still organise the things each time.

You mainly create installations now. Do you still think of yourself as a painter?
I didn't really stop but in the early 1990s I had new thoughts about painting - not as copying real things but as a conceptual art. I want to make paintings that invite the audience to have a dialogue with them.

Are you making a statement on consumerism by bringing "Waste Not" to the west?
In any country we have the same things. Western people understand "Made in China" as meaning very cheap and bad quality, but here are some things - a pan, for example - that are older than me, great quality and made in China.

Your mother's neighbourhood was demolished for the Beijing Olympics. You must be cynical about the Games.
I call it "Olympic tyrannism". Daily life in Beijing wasn't easy during the Olympics. I lived in the countryside in my studio for that month.

Why were your "Eating the City" sculptures made of biscuits?
Food is essential for humans, but biscuits - though they smell good and are sweet and cheap - are not helpful for the body. Biscuits are simple, like building materials, but they're bad things. Like these big, rapidly built cities.

In London you constructed the city inside Selfridges. Were you being ironic?
No. Before, I had only shown this in museums and I wanted to let people know that art is beside your body. It's just beside you - it's not only in the special "art" space for the "cultured" people. That's really important for me.

So why did your earlier work "Eating Landscape" use sophisticated food?
I called it Edible Penjing. Penjing is the Chinese art of growing a whole landscape in a small pot [similar to bonsai]. I made the installation in London in 2000. At that time my English was zero, so I thought: "Well, I can cook; my cooking is much better than my art!" And people here say Chinese food is brilliant. So I made a painting they could eat: they could eat my culture.

Would you say your art is more about the process than about the outcome?
My art is my life; they are the same things. In [my wife's and my] studio we're living with the artwork. Also our living room has an artwork my wife made, an installation of a luggage conveyor belt. That has become the sofa - people can sit on the belt to talk - and we have a shipping box as a table. Against the wall is a security desk my wife and I work at.

Was there a plan?
No plan. [Laughs] When I was very young I wanted to be a very famous artist [but now] my daughter and my family - that is my life.
Tomorrow I may die but I just worry about my daughter because she's very little. But there's no plan.

What does God mean to you?
I think my God is me. I can count on myself. I can decide myself. Other people cannot decide for me.

Is there anything you regret?
I'm fine. I don't want to change the past.

Are we all doomed?
I think in the future everything is nothing. But, for me, to have nothing is to have something; they're the same thing. In Chinese we have two words. Here you have air; you cannot see it, you cannot touch it or feel it. But you think: "Here is air" - so you know here we have something. Seeing nothing and having something are the same thing. So I can say, in the future, the whole world is nothing.

Defining Moments

1966 Born in Beijing
1989 Graduates in fine arts from his home town's Capital Normal University
1992 Marries the artist Yin Xiuzhen
2003 Exhibits work in "Alors, la Chine?" at Centre Pompidou, Paris
2005 Founds Polit-Sheer-Form collective
2009 First US solo show, "Projects 90", at Museum of Modern Art, New York
2012 "Waste Not" at the Curve gallery, Barbican Centre, London

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.