Song Dong: Waste Not
Song Dong’s monumental installation Waste Not is on view at the Barbican in London for another week and if you’re able, it’s absolutely worth a visit. We had the privilege of seeing this installation when it was presented at the Vancouver Art Gallery on a world tour that has included prestigious venues in Asia and North America, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, since the work was first created in 2005. Song Dong was born in Beijing in 1966 where he continues to live and make work that combines a range of forms from performance to photography, video to sculpture. He has been an influential figure in the development of Chinese contemporary art since the 1990s with evocative works that explore the fleeting nature of existence, the deep impact of the Cultural Revolution, especially on his own family, and the changing cultural and political climate of his country.
Although Waste Not is technically one work, it consists of approximately 10,000 belongings of every imaginable domestic kind – pots and pans, umbrellas, clothes, bedframes, chairs, old tea canisters and even the frame of the house where the artist was born – brought together in a bewildering maze of objects that surround you at every turn. While the work was being installed at the Vancouver Art Gallery, we were privy to the artist’s quiet installation process which took place over several days. Aided by his sister, what started as an overwhelming mass of disparate objects was eventually transformed into a meticulously ordered presentation in which items were carefully grouped by kind – stuffed animals with stuffed animals, plastic bags with plastic bags, bits of soap with bits of soap – creating a stunning classification of types.
Waste Not is actually a collaboration with the artist’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, who collected this array of objects over 50 years until her death in 2009. It is a striking illustration of the psychological impact of the Cultural Revolution on those who lived through it – a period during which the Chinese concept of wu jin qi yong, or “waste not” was drummed into the population – and was necessary for survival. During this period of displacement, persecution, imprisonment and poverty, nothing was discarded in case it could somehow be repurposed at a later date. This philosophy is perhaps never more poignant than in our current state of ecological and financial uncertainty with the scarcity experienced by the artist’s mother certainly resonating in these times of looming environmental and economic difficulty. But the work is also a powerfully personal one. After Song Dong’s father passed away in 2002, his mother’s prudent saving turned into hoarding, which filled her house to the brim with things her son considered rubbish. When questioned, she replied: “If I fill the room, the things remind me of your father.”
The installation is visually astonishing. Since most people would throw away the great majority of the items the artist’s mother carefully collated, seeing them amassed in this fashion is a visceral shock. Each object carries with it its own story, its own provenance, and brought together, they are the exponentially powerful physical remnants of a life lived. Her collection of items that are both intensely individual and universally resonant, tells the tale of her life in a deeply personal and poetic manner. Song Dong says the most emotional objects in the installation are the brick-like bars of soap his mother saved and gifted to him upon the occasion of his marriage. When he reminded her that he doesn’t need them since he uses a washing machine, she rescinded her offer, saying she would keep them on his behalf – he realized then that these soaps were not just soaps: they were a symbol of her love for him. For him, each object is emotionally laden and carries with it his mother’s worry and love. Waste Not is a profound illustration of what the artist believes: “life is art, art is life.”