Tong Kunniao: Art Trash at Platform China, dRoom Project Space, Beijing

By Tom Mouna

Art Trash, 2017, mixed media, 400 × 400 × 500 cm. Courtesy the artist

Artists often find themselves having to weather the disparaging judgment that their work is ‘trash’. With this in mind, Tong Kunniao has installed a 3.5m-high silver metal dustbin overflowing with stuff outside Platform China, in the middle of Beijing’s 798 Art District. The piece serves not as a vehicle for tired comments on contemporary art writ large, the artist states, but rather as a projection of his anxieties about the quality, validity and raison d’être of his own work. An insecurity surely not uncommon in young artists looking for a foothold in the Colosseum of the artworld.

On entering the trashcan (simply titled Art Trash, 2017) through a small door, visitors are confronted by an overwhelming volume of objects, noises, colours and movement. Most of the haphazardly arranged stuff – from miniature cardboard sculptures and reams of shan shui-style painted toilet paper, to tubes of fluorescent lighting and noisy mechanised harmonica constructions – was salvaged by Tong from dumps and secondhand markets or, more recently, with the wholesale government-led sprucing-up of Beijing, ordered from the depths of the Internet. Space on the walls and other partitions was left free for visitors to graffiti: unsurprisingly, rude and raunchy messages were most common, a fitting partner to the animated video projections showing poo falling as if chucked into the bin. Both serve to remind us that this container might be added to at any moment.

The work is constantly supplemented by new objects, meaning that it is always unfinished. Not just the cardboard coffee cups and bicycle frame that the artist told me had been mysteriously affixed to the outside of the bin in the dead of night, but also objects created in an adjacent workshop. In that room a series of yellow surgical waste bins are filled with bits and pieces arranged in ascending order of price from RMB5 to RMB50. The artist invites visitors to purchase items, a glue gun and whatever else you can find lying around to create a miniature work of your own, which they can then install anywhere in Tong’s existential-art-crisis bin.

And yet despite this, the work is fun, refusing to take itself seriously, a characteristic of the waste-object creations Tong has been making since his student days. It’s also not the first time that Tong has temporarily associated himself with a dustbin: in an earlier show, he climbed into a can and had himself wheeled around the exhibition opening, culminating with him delivering a speech from inside it. It’s an entertaining way to actualise his self-doubt as an artist, and for the viewer it’s a refreshing reminder of how anxiety-laden the self-presentation and self-exploration of artmaking can be.

There’s not much new or original in all of this: artists were recycling rubbish long before Tong. The best thing about Art Trash is the sense of exuberant excitement that it transmits, the feeling of the artist presiding over the creation of a kind of trashy wunderkammer. And just as Renaissance collectors were exploring their roles in the world through cabinets of curiosities, so is it exciting to watch a young artist like Tong consider his own role as an artist and the functions and sources of his art. 

Tong Kunniao: Art Trash at Platform China, dRoom Project Space, Beijing, 24 December – 31 March 

From the Spring 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia