Exhibition: Song Dong: Waste Not, Barbican Curve, London, until June 12 2012
Broken umbrellas, birdcages, used toothbrushes, innumerable medicine bottles and an out-of-date calendar are just a small selection of the 10,000 household objects currently on display at Song Dong’s Waste Not exhibition at the Barbican Curve gallery in London.
These 10,000 objects were accumulated over five decades by Zhao Xiangyuan, the mother of conceptual artist Song Dong. It took nearly a fortnight for Song and his family to arrange them in the Barbican – creating this latest iteration of Waste Not.
The exhibition first appears as an amassed collection from half a decade’s worth of clutter, which has been compiled by a compulsive hoarder. However, this exhibition reveals itself to be a thought provoking journey of discovery, exploring facets of Chinese culture, family life and memory.
The corridor-like space at the Curve gallery is filled with rows and rows of what is essentially a life time’s worth of waste. The effect is an overwhelmingly powerful one as we are faced with an accumulation of almost everything imaginable from used toothpaste containers and old televisions to empty water bottles and even the frame of the family house.
The exhibition reveals an endearing glimpse into Chinese family life from the past 50 years, implicitly exploring the impact of the Cultural Revolution. The activity of saving and reusing objects is in keeping with the Chinese adage “wu jin qi yang” – “Waste Not”.
This slogan was drummed into the Chinese population during the Cultural Revolution, when being frugal was the only way for a family to survive. Song Dong and his sister grew up in an impoverished household during a period of social and political unrest and Zhao Xiangyuan, like most Chinese families, kept everything in preparation for future use. This thriftiness stayed with her for the rest of her life, even after resources were no longer scarce.
When Song Dong’s father died in 2002, Zhao Xiangyuan became deeply depressed and her frugality developed into hoarding. Zhao was unable to face an empty house, so in attempt to persevere her husband’s memory she began compulsive hoarding. Her house in Beijing was filled with clutter.
Zhao’s overpowering desire to fill her life with objects and items without any redeemable or useful purpose became increasingly disturbing for her son to witness. It became clear to Song Dong that his mother craved a “need to fill her emptiness after my father’s death”.
He suggested that she collaborate with him by arranging the family possessions into an artwork. Zhao agreed, and Waste Not was first exhibited at the Tokyo gallery in Beijing in 2005.
In effect, exhibiting the family home enabled Zhao to come to terms with her grief by organising and cataloguing these objects. According to Song Dong, the initial exhibition “gave my mother a space to put her memories and history in order”. By developing dialogues with family members and sharing memories of the Cultural Revolution with the public, she was able to overcome her sadness.
In 2009, Zhao Xiangyuan died in an accident. Each time Song Dong remakes the exhibition, assisted by his wife and sister, the family is brought together again. Memories are shared and personal familial objects are rediscovered.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Song Dong divulged: “I think my mother lives in this work because each time we do Waste Not I have to discuss it with my sister and my family – and my mother becomes part of the discussion”.
This exhibition is not arranged with any emphasis on aesthetic appearance – instead, the objects are meticulously arranged and grouped together by use. Rows of decrepit shoes of all sizes are immaculately paired side by side, creating the effect of a shoe graveyard.
Song Dong also commented that he believes “art is life and life is art”. This theme is central throughout the exhibition. On one level it is an immensely private and individual narrative documenting of the life of Zhao Xiangyan and her family during China’s modern history. Yet the everyday nature of these objects will undoubtedly create a universal echo or shared memory for those visiting the gallery.
Waste Not will encourage a plethora of reactions, from environmental despair and nostalgia to sadness and awe. For me, the exhibition represents a celebration of life, and the enduring power of family. It encourages visitors to rethink what is truly important to them.
- Open 11am-8pm (6pm Wednesday, 10pm Thursday). Admission free.
Follow Duncan Andrews on Twitter and visit his Flickr.