Song Dong’s installation Waste Not is a poignant glimpse into both his own past and the collective past of a generation.
After gracing the halls of exhibition sites like MoMA in New York and London’s Barbican Centre, Chinese contemporary artist Song Dong’s monumental artwork, Waste Not, has arrived in Australia, and opened at Sydney’s Carriageworks art centre on 5 January as part of the 2013 Sydney Art Festival.
Pots and pans, toothbrushes and bars of soap, string and packaging foam, broken wires and light bulbs and numerous plastic bags folded neatly into triangles. Daily household items, used, old and obscure, all grouped together according to their former functions, are lined up on the floor of Carriagework’s warehouse-sized exhibition hall.
This is the ninth time that Waste Not has been exhibited since its first appearance in Beijing in 2005. The collection sprawls across the floor, in between the legs of the timber skeleton of the Song family’s home, which has travelled thousands of kilometres from its original site in Beijing. “This house [Carriageworks] is over a hundred years old and my old house was also over a hundred years [old]”, Song says.
As Song told Art Radar, his original motivation for creating Waste Not was simple and very personal. According to the artist, the work “is about the relationships between people and people, people and things and [finally] things and things… It talks about love, family and how art could play a role in solving the real problems in our lives.”
Waste Not was first conceived to comfort the artist’s mother, who was mourning the passing of her husband, Song Dong’s father, after his death from a heart attack in 2002. His mother, unable to cope with the blow, started to fill her space with used household items. Her decades-old habit of preserving everything for possible future use developed into an obsession.
Instead of fighting with his mother and trying to get her to throw things out, Song decided to work with her to turn the collection into an artwork. In doing so, he wanted to provide a “space to put her memory and history in order” so that she could reconnect with people and have “a new start in life”.
Song recalls that when they first exhibited the work in Beijing in 2005, the audience, who were not from the art world, would come and talk to his mother, saying things like “Gee! This is not your home, it’s my home!” or “Oh, look! My home had this this and that, [but we] threw them away!”. “In this way, they were truly communicating with my mother,” Song says. The artist’s mother died in 2009.
The title of the installation, Waste Not, was translated from the classic Chinese verse Wu Jin Qi Yong, which implies that nothing should be wasted. The work seems to resonate particularly with older generations of Chinese, probably because of the periods of extreme shortage that they experienced, especially before and during the Cultural Revolution.
Although living standards in China have increased dramatically in recent decades, the habit of keeping almost everything in case it might be of use in the future has continued. As Song says,
I think it doesn’t matter which culture you come from, as long as you have experienced times of material shortage, you would act in the same way. For example, the previous generation of Chinese liked to keep things, because at that time there was no food [and] no drink. They would preserve even a piece of paper because [they believed] it would be of some kind of use in the future or even just around the corner.
Hesitant to label the work an installation, Song Dong prefers to look at the process of organising and displaying the items in the show as a “family event”, because every time he has been invited to display Waste Not, it has become an opportunity for his family to get together.
Every day, we came to [the exhibition space] to work together. We continued to organise these things. So actually, this exhibition is not about displaying, but about organising. Because, this time, the space is bigger [at Carriageworks], so we opened two more boxes. But there are more boxes that have never been opened, so no one knows what is in there. … Every time we did the organising, we always found something new, thus a new memory was awakened.
Song Dong arrived in Sydney early in December 2012 and started on the installation. There is no set way to organise the materials and every time Song exhibits Waste Not, a huge amount of effort is spent unpacking items and putting them in order. Song’s mother’s collection is so enormous that it would be nearly impossible to unpack and sort everything, and for the Sydney exhibition he instead focused on unpacking and organising enough items to fill the exhibition space.
Song was excited to share a new discovery, found during the preparations of this ninth exhibition of Waste Not: a claw-like tool used for shaping instant noodles that was handmade by Song’s father when the artist was about ten years old.
Instant noodles are generally regarded as junk food nowadays, but when they first came out in China, they were fashionable, but too expensive for common Chinese households to afford. I remember that once when I fell ill, my father tried to make instant noodles for me because I liked them so much. The only difficulty was that when he fried the noodles, they became loose and lost their shape. He invented a claw-like metal tool to shape the noodles while frying them, so that when cooked, the noodles would look similar to the bought ones.
“Song Dong: Waste Not” will show at Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia until 17 March 2013. Another locally-held exhibition, titled “Dad and Mum, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well“, which provides some context to Song Dong’s three-decade-long art practice, is also on show at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, finishing 30 March 2012.
- Want to be part of a Song Dong artwork? Here is how – December 2012 – Read this quick: the event will be held in late January 2013!
- What is the future of contemporary ink painting? Asia Society panel discussion – July 2011 – Song Dong named as one of the artists who have taken ink in new directions
- Asian pavilions at the 54th Venice Biennale – first critic response – June 2011 – Song Dong features among the “notable artists” at the event
- Video artists raise awareness about water conservation in China – January 2011 – work by Song Dong, called Touched 100 years, was included
- Top 6 research sources for contemporary Chinese art by Asian art history major – January 2010 – this young art scholar favours a book that explains the reconstruction of Song Dong’s installation Father and Son in the Ancestral Temple
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