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Fiery talent burned by experience rises from the ashes

A dormitory fire 17 years ago seared itself into Xue Song's imagination and his art, and today fire and charred remains dominate his work. Wang Jie catches a spark.

If his dormitory hadn't caught fire in 1992, Xue Song might still be an anonymous toiler in Chinese contemporary art scene, instead of a big name.

Instead, he was fixated by the flames that fired imagination and creative energies. In the molten glass and charred remains he discovered a new language for his art.

Today, Xue's solo exhibition of burned papers is running at ShanghART 796 in 796 Huai Hai Lu, a high-end complex. He looks back looks back on career and the role that fire played in his success.

"I felt quite innocent at the police station at that time, as I didn't purposely set the fire," says Xue, 44 who was born in Anhui Province and is now based in Shanghai. "I am still curious to this day about how my dorm caught on fire.

"At that time, I thought that the fire had consumed my joy and suffering as well as my dreams and my depressions - the only thing left was the burned traces and a charred smell," he says.

Born in 1965, Xue graduated from the Shanghai Theater Academy in 1988. He then was assigned to stage design for the Shanghai Singing and Dancing Ensemble where he worked for 10 years. Xue's dorm was adjacent to the academy.

"With my own eyes, I saw the fire melt the glass," he recalls. "I thought all the spectators were ordinary locals, but were they watching a piece of art or merely watching the burning fire? Afterward, I wondered whether everything I felt and saw could enter my painting."

He pored over the charred remains, retrieving burned books, bed linens, painting catalogues and other items.

"I pondered them and made them into a collage," he says.

Since then, Xue has used collaged burned paper of all kinds, singed, yellowed and curled, some images and lettering still visible. He collects and burns his own.

Several months ago he held a solo exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum.

The works in the current show, "To Review Is To Learn Something New," are his latest works.

The carefully assembled collages are bright and colorful, including bits and pieces of portraits of famous actresses and prints of famous Chinese landscapes. They involve a great deal of printed materials that Xue has collected and carefully burned in his self-designed eco-incinerator.

When viewed at a distance, the tableau appears to be an ordinary picture or landscape. "All the burned paper that I use is not ordinary and has content and symbols," he says.

Xue also uses old photographs, fragments of manuscripts, traditional paintings, calligraphy and paper featuring religious icons and legendary figures.

"I knew nearly every street peddler who was selling old materials in the 1990s, and sometimes I bought albums and copybooks from book stores," he says.

Because he collected so much, Xue found himself in possession of many collectibles and became quite well known.

Last month, a New York museum asked Xue for two original posters from the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976). They could not be found elsewhere, he says.

In the past, Xue used original materials, some valuable, which made his works more expensive than an oil painting.

"Sometimes the printed materials used in one work can cost more than 1,000 yuan (US$1,465)," he says.

But now he uses copies, as some originals are too precious to be destroyed.

"In fact, everyone has a desire for destruction, the problem is to create something that is both enjoyable and renewed after destruction," he says.

Another famous alumnus at the Shanghai Theater Academy is Cai Guoqiang who directed the pyrotechnics and special effects for the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

"Everyone knows Cai is an expert with fireworks, but I began to use fire much earlier. It seems that some graduates from our academy have a certain preference," Xue says.

Once a fortune teller told Xue that fire was crucial in his life, but at the time he didn't believe it.

Now looking back on the flames that really kindled his career, Xue observes, "I'm no longer afraid of fire."

Date: through June 16, 10am-7pm

Address: 796 Huaihai Rd


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