Song Dong’s Waste Not is an installation with a story behind it. A testament born of the artist’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan’s hoardings, the installation consists of tools, plant pots, chairs, empty squeezed out tubes of toothpaste, television sets, all collected over a span of five decades. This obsessive hoarding of items resulted in an accumulation of everyday objects. At first glance, Waste Not seems like a messy room full of used up items and rubbish. However, it has a powerful message that speaks volumes of the Chinese culture, memory and how social and political changes wrought changes in people.
A message about consumerism
It is a showcase of past times when there was no cavalier attitude towards disposable consumerism, and instead, there was a ‘waste not’ approach towards life. For Song Dong’s mother, everything could be hoarded and she did. From biscuit tins to empty fast food and drink containers, crockery, blankets, record players, shoes, plastic bottles and childhood toys all of which hold memories.
Video: Song Dong explains Waste Not
The story behind it
‘Waste Not’ is a culmination of Xiangyuan’s hoarded items. She took to the extreme the Chinese ‘Wù jìn qí yòng’ (物尽其用) waste not philosophy as a survival tactic in a period when the country was experiencing shortage and fear due to the political and social turmoil, the Cultural Revolution1 as well as the natural disasters experienced during her childhood. Another contributing factor to Xiangyuan’s hoarding was her husband’s unexpected death, which resulted in a state of grief and depression and a void created by the immense loss.
The meaning of the exhibition
While the installation was initially a collaboration between Song Dong and his mother, after her death in 2009, he remakes the exhibition as a process of grieving to commemorate his mother and bring together the entire family again. He remakes this exhibition with his sister’s and wife’s help. In doing so, it is a rekindling of memories and evoking powerful emotions through rediscovering personal family objects and objects his mother liked, used and kept. In the 2005 exhibition, Song and Xiangyuan created a neon sign facing the stars with a message to his father, “Dad, don’t worry, mum and all the family are well.”
Therefore, his installation acts as a way of memorializing and reminiscing. It is a bittersweet journey of loss, hardship, and resilience. Through the installation in cataloging the objects she had accumulated through the years, Song Dong’s mother was able to share her childhood memory and overcome her pain.
About the artist
Song Dong is a Chinese conceptual artist born in 1966. He is renowned for his artwork combining different styles and aspects such as performance, photography, sculpture, video and installation. He is particularly enticed by notions of transience and impermanence and this is evident in his work even as he elates everyday realities and concerns. He is widely exhibited and graduated from Normal University in 1989.
Song Dong explains ‘Waste Not’ at Barbican Centre, London, 2012
Installation of ‘Waste Not’ at MoMA, 2009
Installation at Carriageworks, Sydney, 2013