Song Dong: Waste Not

‘Waste Not’ is a confronting, and emotional, display of the obsessive accumulation of everyday objects. At first glance, the installation artwork appears to be nothing more than a room full of rubbish but Beijing-based artist Song Dong is a master of undertone whose work contains a social message. His work reveals the societal implications of modern China, expressing personal experience with the effects of radical change and social transformation.

‘Waste Not’ is a thought-provoking journey of discovery, exploring elements of Chinese culture, family and memory. Presented at Carriageworks, as part of the Sydney Festival, the exhibition consists of over 10,000 items collected from Dong’s mother’s house over five decades. This represents a unique point in China’s social history as well as a fast changing mentality – a vast ideological split between older and younger generations. Whereas the young live in a world of disposable consumerism, the older generation grew up in hard socio-political times of the Cultural Revolution, abiding by the phrase “wu jin qi yong”, which roughly translates to “waste not” – a prerequisite to survival in times of such social turmoil.

When Dong’s father died, the adage “waste not” became an obsession for his mother, whose compulsion to hoard household items – crockery, basins, empty drink containers, bottle caps, lighters, fast food containers, biscuit tins – took over. These objects each represented a memory through which Dong’s mother could hold onto the past and was able to live in the present.

For his mother, exhibiting the family home enabled her to overcome the grief of losing her husband through organising and cataloguing these hoarded objects. Through the work, Dong sought to give his mother‚ ”space to put her memories and history in order”. By doing this and developing dialogues with family members and sharing memories of the Cultural Revolution with the public, she was able to overcome her pain. ‘Waste Not’ reflects a journey of hardship and grief, resulting in a display of personal resilience and primarily a celebration of life.

These objects also act as an anthropological study of human life. Rows and rows of detritus line the floor of the gallery: empty toothpaste tubes, plastic bottles, old shoes, metal pots, and pans record players, blankets, and childhood toys. The exhibition reflects on the power of daily objects – the ordinary – to encapsulate memory, but it also raises questions about the boundaries of preservation and the absurd character of political influence and control over the private aspect of people’s lives. The viewer passes through and experiences a kind of visual summary of someone’s life and their traumatic use of objects to enhance a sense of security over one’s future. The viewer is taken on a journey through the layers of a stranger – witnessing and observing the entire contents of their existence. The viewer feels an empathetic connection to Dong’s mother; she no longer is a stranger yet strangely familiar.

This work is a complex portrait of despair; a psychological analysis of hoarding, a study of control over the private aspect of people’s daily life and an era of time. Song Dong hopes this installation will inspire visitors to rethink what truly matters in life and to rekindle a human connection. The work encourages reminiscence – not only for the artist and his family but also for visitors encountering the collection. Visitors share memories and draw parallels with their own lives and home contents and begin to question the importance of stuff.

January 5 to March 17, 2013

Waste Not, installation view

Waste Not, installation view

Photography by Jane Hobson

Courtesy the artist and Barbican Art Gallery, London