‘Waste not’ is the first major exhibition in the United Kingdom of Chinese artist Song Dong, and it brings together over ten thousand objects collected by his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan ove
‘Waste not’ is the first major exhibition in the United Kingdom of Chinese artist Song Dong, and it brings together over ten thousand objects collected by his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan over fifty years.
Zhao saved and reused objects as a way to survive during hard times, living in unison with the Chinese motto ‘wu jin qi yong’, meaning waste not.
The exhibition includes items ranging from kitchenware and toys, to bottles, empty tubes of toothpaste and bottlecaps. Visitors find out from the leaflet than many people in China, including Song Dong’s mother, felt the need to keep everything stored even after their economical situation improved and thrift was not longer needed for survival.
The collection was the artist’s idea to help his mother cope with the death of her husband, an event which made her hoarding habit worsen. Song Dong recounts: ‘As time passed, our idea of attempting to change her mentality became the source of her unhappiness. I came to understand that my mother’s need to fill space with daily-life objects resulted from a need to fill the emptiness after my father’s death’.
The story is the first item of the exhibition, and it begs attention from the visitors. Without the background information hanging on the wall, it would just be a collection of objects. Even the artist has explained that what we can see in the gallery is only one part of the project. The rest of it had a sole beneficiary: his mother, who got the chance to ‘put her memories and history in order’. She is the real artist, and Song Dong the assistant.
An art teacher I encountered at the gallery told me the exhibition is ‘visually surprising, yet monotonous’. She brought her students there for an assignment, saying it’s not just an art lesson to be learned, but also history and politics.
She’s not the only one to bring young people there for a teaching experience, as one of the gallery assistants told me they get quite a lot of primary school children visiting. They are amazed by the collection, as it seems at the first glance like an impressive number of objects to own. But as they go through the exhibition, they start to realise that it was a poor family.
Another interesting aspect of the gallery is that some of the items on display carry logos and brand names that are easily recognisable in twenty-first century London. Tubes of Colgate toothpaste and even a bag adorned with a Playboy bunny show visitors that globalisation is an unstoppable phenomenon.
At the same time, we’re left wondering about the three TV sets, identical aside from their colour. What use could one possibly have for them and why would they feel the need to keep them? But as we walk through, we learn that this exhibition and maybe even life in general is not about use. It’s about stories. ‘All artists are hoarders’, the art teacher told me. And perhaps she’s right, as all objects carry something of importance: the meaning they have for their owners.
Song Dong concludes on one of the panels: ‘The exhibition is for my father too. From up there in the sky, he can see the neon characters we made in 2005, facing the stars, glowing day and night: ‘Dad, don’t worry, mum and all the family are well.’’
‘Song Dong: Waste Not’ is at the Barbican in London until the 12th of June. Entry is free.