Song Dong at Barbican Centre, London

by Echo Hopkins

June 2012

Before entering Song Dong’s Waste Not exhibition, I was greeted by a neon sign hung above one of the side entrances to the Barbican. The electric blue Chinese characters facing out towards the street translate to: “Dad don’t worry about us, Mom and our family are doing well.” This poignant quotation reveals the deeper reasoning behind this exhibition, hidden in plain sight.

Waste Not, created solely by the contents of Dong’s mother’s home, was a last attempt by a son to help his mother try to come to terms with the passing of her husband. As a tribute to his mother, he has made this installation using over ten thousand household items and possessions, as well as part of the family home itself, arranged neatly in one large room on the ground floor of the Barbican centre. Following the death of her husband, Dong’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, fell into a state of deep depression, which led to her holding onto every item she could regardless of whether it could ever be of use to her again. As this hoarding progressed, Dong attempted to help her find a new purpose in life by giving her the chance to help him organize all of the things she had accumulated into an exhibition, providing “a space to put her memories and history in order.”

The Chinese phrase “wu jin qi yong” directly translates to: “anything that can be somehow of use, should be used as much as possible.” Zhao Xiangyuan took this advice to the extreme by saving everything including bottle caps, empty toothpaste tubes, lighters, dozens of watches, fabric scraps and old shopping bags. As Song Dong explains in the exhibition text,  “For the Chinese, frugality is a virtue. But, at that time it was also the only way for a family to survive.” To see so many items that one woman thought might somehow be of use in the future demonstrates a mentality that prevailed in Maoist China. Everything must be saved, and nothing, not even the tiniest scrap of soap could be wasted.

With thousands of items ranging greatly in size, it would be possible for the work to feel scattered and lacking order. However the mass takes on a votive quality with items arranged on the ground and stacked neatly alongside walls. What is perplexing in this exhibit is not so much the quantity of what was kept, but what was chosen. How could one possibly use an excess number of plastic bottle caps, why might one need two-dozen watches? The items snake around the space and lead you around a corner and into a larger space that holds one part of Zhao Xiangyuan’s house. To put the physical walls of the house that held all of these items in the midst of them makes the mass seem even more enormous and unbelievable. A humble structure made of roughly hewn wood, its collection barely fits within the walls that are erected. I was not only struck by the sheer amount of items packed into a space, but also led to contemplate the materiality of my own existence. With all of the contents of one woman’s life laid out in a room, I began pondering how many items I own, as well as my own possible lack of frugality. The display of thousands of the items in this room had a profound significance in Song Dong’s mother’s life as they symbolized a past time and also a refusal to relinquish the memory of a lost loved one. It is a universal sentiment, and a woman’s life, shown through objects, makes this tangible.

Before entering Song Dong’s Waste Not exhibition, I was greeted by a neon sign hung above one of the side entrances to the Barbican. The electric blue Chinese characters facing out towards the street translate to: “Dad don’t worry about us, Mom and our family are doing well.” This poignant quotation reveals the deeper reasoning behind this exhibition, hidden in plain sight.

Waste Not, created solely by the contents of Dong’s mother’s home, was a last attempt by a son to help his mother try to come to terms with the passing of her husband. As a tribute to his mother, he has made this installation using over ten thousand household items and possessions, as well as part of the family home itself, arranged neatly in one large room on the ground floor of the Barbican centre. Following the death of her husband, Dong’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, fell into a state of deep depression, which led to her holding onto every item she could regardless of whether it could ever be of use to her again. As this hoarding progressed, Dong attempted to help her find a new purpose in life by giving her the chance to help him organize all of the things she had accumulated into an exhibition, providing “a space to put her memories and history in order.”

The Chinese phrase “wu jin qi yong” directly translates to: “anything that can be somehow of use, should be used as much as possible.” Zhao Xiangyuan took this advice to the extreme by saving everything including bottle caps, empty toothpaste tubes, lighters, dozens of watches, fabric scraps and old shopping bags. As Song Dong explains in the exhibition text,  “For the Chinese, frugality is a virtue. But, at that time it was also the only way for a family to survive.” To see so many items that one woman thought might somehow be of use in the future demonstrates a mentality that prevailed in Maoist China. Everything must be saved, and nothing, not even the tiniest scrap of soap could be wasted.

With thousands of items ranging greatly in size, it would be possible for the work to feel scattered and lacking order. However the mass takes on a votive quality with items arranged on the ground and stacked neatly alongside walls. What is perplexing in this exhibit is not so much the quantity of what was kept, but what was chosen. How could one possibly use an excess number of plastic bottle caps, why might one need two-dozen watches? The items snake around the space and lead you around a corner and into a larger space that holds one part of Zhao Xiangyuan’s house. To put the physical walls of the house that held all of these items in the midst of them makes the mass seem even more enormous and unbelievable. A humble structure made of roughly hewn wood, its collection barely fits within the walls that are erected. I was not only struck by the sheer amount of items packed into a space, but also led to contemplate the materiality of my own existence. With all of the contents of one woman’s life laid out in a room, I began pondering how many items I own, as well as my own possible lack of frugality. The display of thousands of the items in this room had a profound significance in Song Dong’s mother’s life as they symbolized a past time and also a refusal to relinquish the memory of a lost loved one. It is a universal sentiment, and a woman’s life, shown through objects, that makes this tangible.

Song Dong: Waste Not
15 February–12 June, 2012
Barbican
London