Understanding the Balance and Competition of Forces in Glass Between “Annealing” and “Stress”

The husband and wife artist duo, Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, have been preparing for their dual exhibition “Annealing or Not Annealing” and “Ripple Stress” since 2018. As part of the Shanghai Glass Museum’s “Annealing” annual project in 2023, the two exhibitions are presented in the museum’s contemporary art galleries on the first and second floors, respectively. The two exhibitions revolve around the characteristics of glass and its production process, creating a space that switches back and forth between spirituality and materiality. In the corridor leading to the second-floor space, the “Chopsticks: Appreciating Light” series of works by Song Dong, Yin Xiuzhen, and their daughter Song Er Rui, presents the trio’s different interpretations of “light,” connecting the exhibition halls of Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen like an invisible thread, seemingly independent but with similar underlying thoughts.


In the glass production process, “annealing” is the key to determining the final shape of glassware. The molten glass is shaped at temperatures of over a thousand degrees, and then undergoes a series of long cooling steps to complete the annealing process, while reducing the permanent stress in the glass. The “annealed” stress refers to the internal forces between different parts of the glass, which directly affect the strength of the glass.

The annealing process and the effects of stress both contain great uncertainty: will the glass break, when will it break, and what form will the broken glass take? For Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, who created their works with glass as the core material, the unpredictability of the results became an opportunity for patient observation, experimentation, and even spiritual practice. The accidental gains during the production process, the sudden inspiration during the exhibition, and the two artists’ consistent exploration of personal emotions, memories, fate, and the relationship between individuals and society, allowed the audience to experience a debate on memory, death, choice, and reality in the transition between different spaces.

Can Unannealed Glass Also Become a Tool?

According to an interview with Art News/Chinese Edition, Song Dong described the preparation time for this exhibition as quite long, spanning five years from 2018 to the present. He likened the process to boiling a pot of soup with glass. When Song Dong began preparing for the “Annealing” project, he took “non-annealing” as his starting point for thinking, which involved reversing established conventions. “The importance of annealing lies in its non-annealing. I want to start thinking from the ‘fruit.’ Cause and effect, cause and effect. My ‘fruit’ is non-annealing, so I derive why I want to do the cause from non-annealing. Can unannealed glass also become a tool?” Song Dong explained.

For Yin Xiuzhen, the starting point of “Ripple Stress” was the profound feeling of stress she experienced during the preparation process. “I like to do things that others haven’t done before, so I keep trying different glass firing temperatures or types of glass,” Yin Xiuzhen said. “The two ‘Ripple Stress’ series in this exhibition were fired with a layer of glass and a layer of fruit. The process is like the ripples of energy released by life, which are left on the glass.”

In addition to the three parts of “Ignorance,” “Infinity,” and “No Need” on the first floor of the exhibition hall, “Traceless” placed on the square of the Glass Museum uses the concept of “shadow wall” in traditional Chinese architecture, inviting visitors to participate by freely writing or drawing with a brush dipped in water on the sandblasted glass or interacting with it physically. At the same time, the outdoor neon installation “Annealing” on the other side of the venue’s exterior wall forms a semantically ambiguous image by flashing the words “annealing” and “non-annealing” at different speeds.
Upon entering the exhibition hall, the first thing you see is a perfectly annealed scene. The clean and bright space is filled with walls that have variously sized “windows” displaying glass books ranging from 256 pages to whole books. The size of each book is specially engraved on the pages, along with the information of “Song Dong Art Publishing House”. Following the concept of “one step, one view” from ancient Chinese gardens, Song Dong adjusts the position of the books in the space according to the changing light. “I want to create a feeling of windows, where the books become glass and allow light to pass through. Additionally, each book has a different color, even if they are both colorless. This is due to the different texture, thickness, and materials used by the manufacturers,” explains Song Dong.

Moving on from here, you come across a sculpture resembling an upright thumb, “Wu Liang” (meaning “immeasurable” in Chinese). This is where the process of “cooking” glass by the artist begins to unfold, as if going back in time from the annealed state to the unannealed state. When Song Dong finished setting up the exhibition, he cut a hole in the wall of this space, leading to a completely different world. “This morning, I was chatting with my daughter, and she told me that it’s like breaking through a dimensional wall,” joked Song Dong. For him, breaking through this hole and crossing over was like overcoming a hurdle in life, suddenly seeing things clearly.
The space where “Wuyao” is located is more like the familiar Song Dong to us: dim lighting, mottled black walls, old tables, chairs, beds, and various old cabinets, as well as many broken glass objects placed on iron racks or chairs. This space, which is actually a warehouse, is also the starting point for Song Dong’s thinking about this exhibition. When he first came to the Glass Museum in 2018, Song Dong happened to enter through the warehouse door and saw workers cooking and working here. This unadorned state excited him, and he hoped to keep the warehouse as original as possible. Therefore, in such a space, the scenes of glass factory masters blowing glass and glass finally bursting without annealing are projected on the scratched walls.

Inside the space, Song Dong uses different methods to show the form of “no annealing”: glass objects placed on multi-layer iron racks have different shapes due to the lack of annealing; ice cubes are placed in a dry pot containing glass material that is over 1000 degrees Celsius, and cracks left by the struggle between cold and hot forces are observed; or the image of glass blown without annealing and then exploded is played forward and backward, forming a cycle without beginning or end.

Using the method of “no annealing” to do the project of “annealing”, in addition to playing with semantics, Song Dong gradually developed more philosophical thoughts about life in the process. First of all, the question of whether “no annealing can also become an object” is a doubt about “standards”. What is an “object”? Is it really necessary to become an object? The glass vessels that are not annealed and are successively broken are a fable that reflects on the impermanence of life. Song Dong said that the glass vessels blown by the masters have all started to break, and only one glass stuck in a structure resembling a three-legged chair has not broken yet. However, interestingly, its breakage is inevitable, and it is full of uncertainty as to when it will happen, which could be a month or a year. When the artist observes and waits for the process of this glass product to break, he thinks of the certainty and impermanence of death. “When we are born, death is a result that we must face, but we don’t know when it will come, and we cannot predict its time,” Song Dong said.

Stress: The Infinite Energy of Life

To Song Dong, “annealing is all about stress. Our lives are also like this, continuously cooling down or reaching a state of equilibrium in a certain state. Both are quite important.” Compared to Song Dong’s enthusiasm for “annealing,” Yin Xiuzhen’s “rippling stress” exhibits an exceptionally powerful and surging energy in a more introverted and flexible way.

In her previous works, she created large sculptures and installations using common and universal daily necessities, keenly touching on soft personal experiences such as emotions and memories. Yin Xiuzhen said, “I particularly like putting two different materials together, such as cement and fruit, ceramics and clothing fragments, and so on. So this time, I put fruit and glass together.” In the first series of “Rippling Stress,” which is laid flat on the ground, a layer of glass dissolves into a layer of fruit. During the firing process, the fruit will carbonize and turn black, and finally be sealed in the glass. The different results produced by each firing process are the most exciting part for Yin Xiuzhen.

On the seemingly gentle and calm surface of “Rippling Stress,” there are small holes formed by cracked glass that resemble volcanic craters, and some are convex shapes like bubbles, as if trying to break free from the constraints and suppression of the glass. “Generally speaking, glass is fired for about a day, and then we will return to Beijing and let it slowly anneal. Then when we come back to Shanghai, we will open it and see what it has become,” Yin Xiuzhen said. “These glasses are under pressure from a force of life and the images produced by the release of this force.” In her view, this also implies many uncertain life processes. The shapes and patterns created by the interaction between inorganic glass and organic fruit are not within a controllable range.
640 copy

“Tear Vessels” by Yin Xiuzhen

Yin Xiuzhen’s delicate interpretation of life in “Tear Vessels” further delves into spiritual understanding. She previously created a set of soul vessels consisting of “ritual vessels,” “wall vessels,” “tear vessels,” and “fusion vessels,” which were places for her to store souls and emotions. The earlier set of vessels had a strong sense of history and ceremony, and the high-temperature firing process (using clay) was like a process of tempering and sublimation, using the constant spiritual power of objects to resist the impermanence of reality.

In the “Ripple Stress” exhibition, “Tear Vessels” consists of 108 transparent glass tear vessels inspired by Klein bottles that can never be filled with water. Each glass vessel is arranged in sequence from 72 to 179 centimeters, with only one centimeter difference between them. They are arranged in a dimly lit space with a powerful impact, as if holding some mysterious and solemn ceremony. Yin Xiuzhen has created a meditation space here, allowing viewers to find a glass vessel that fits their height, then place their eyes on the mouth of the bottle and remain silent for a moment. When the eyes lose focus and thoughts surge in the mind, the full emotions and calm, restrained vessels form a vivid contrast. After the installation was completed, Song Dong stayed here alone for a long time: “What I find particularly amazing is that it makes me think of many things. Especially, I think tears are not just an expression of emotions, but something that only each person knows in their heart.”

Transition: Digging a Hole

For Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, the changes and unexpected results that occurred during the preparation process of the exhibition were far more important than whether the entire exhibition could be realized according to the original plan. Embracing the impermanence of real life is also in line with their belief that “art is life, and life is art.” Therefore, both of their exhibitions present a flow of energy that accumulates while creating, wandering between the virtual and the real, the delicate and the rough, the tangible and the intangible, the deliberate and the accidental.

“Loudspeaker” by Yin Xiuzhen


Yin Xiuzhen’s “Loudspeaker” is another work in her exhibition at the Shanghai Glass Museum from 2021 to 2023.
The large-scale works “Big Horn” and “Deep Throat” by Yin Xiuzhen showcase her bold embrace of uncertainty and her ability to resolve conflicts with a gentle touch. These two cast glass works, which appear pink and resemble the shape of horns and sound channels, require a large hole to be smashed into the exhibition wall of the Glass Museum, creating a passage that connects the inside and outside worlds. Upon closer inspection, both works feature nail-stitched repairs, which were necessary due to the glass cracking from their large size. Yin Xiuzhen took advantage of this and left behind traces of the power that was unleashed.

In the exhibition of Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, the wall has a strong spiritual significance, serving as both a barrier and a means of connection. For Song Dong, the transition of spirituality occurs between “Wu Liang” and “Wu Yao,” where a hole is chiseled into the wall, marking the threshold from a perfect imaginary spiritual world to the real world. In Yin Xiuzhen’s exhibition, this transition occurs in “Tian Yi,” which is the last space she completed and the core of the “Ripple Stress” exhibition. Visitors must bend down and enter a relatively enclosed tall space, where a glass shard with a pointed corner is inserted high up on the wall. Upon closer inspection, a complete mosquito corpse is perched on the tip of the glass. A platform is built between the person and the wall, making it impossible for viewers who cannot approach the wall to do anything but look up at the mosquito and the glass.

For Yin Xiuzhen, the completion of this work was all due to fate. “I didn’t know what I was going to do in the end, so I just took some glass shards from my earliest works. During the process of bringing the glass shards back from the factory, they broke several times. When I opened it, I saw this small piece that was broken off, which looked like an axe.” Yin Xiuzhen recounted the slightly convoluted and dramatic story behind this space. “Suddenly, one day, we found a large mosquito lying intact on the platform. I felt that since this was fate, I would leave the mosquito on the tip of the glass.” When considering the end of the exhibition, there was still one side of “Tian Yi” that was connected to the internal exhibition hall. When Yin Xiuzhen made the decision to seal it off and create a closed environment, the entire space underwent a transformation and became a sacred place. Here, the artist’s seemingly opportunistic choice created a carefully arranged contrast.

Artist Yin Xiuzhen (left) and Song Dong (right) at the exhibition site of the Shanghai Museum of Glass.
Song Dong’s “Traceless” at the exhibition site of the Shanghai Museum of Glass, 2022-2023.

According to Song Dong, Yin Xiuzhen played an important role in making a “choice” in this. However, choice does not necessarily mean certainty or an answer. In his outdoor neon installation “Annealing and Non-Annealing,” Song Dong said: “When the five words ‘annealing and non-annealing’ appear in different orders and rhythms, they will produce different semantics and understandings. I like this kind of expression that can be taken out of context, giving the audience more space for ambiguous understanding and the possibility of re-creation of expression.” This sentence on the outdoor wall can be both the source of all thoughts and a wonderful metaphor for the current unstable situation, which is handled with ease.

Written by Tan Fangying

Edited by Yang Yao

Unless otherwise specified

The pictures in this article are provided by the Shanghai Museum of Glass and the artists.

Currently Exhibiting

Song Dong: Annealing and Non-Annealing

Yin Xiuzhen: Ripple Stress

Song Dong, Yin Xiuzhen, Song Er Rui: The Way of Chopsticks – Tasting Light

Shanghai Museum of Glass H18 Contemporary Art Gallery

April 29, 2023, to October 8, 2023