We caught up with Chinese conceptual artist Song Dong at the opening of his latest exhibition Waste Not at London’s Barbican Art Gallery. His first solo exhibition in a major UK public gallery, this installation comprises over 10,000 household items hoarded by the artist’s mother over a period of five decades. This work acts like a family portrait, a tribute to his mother and their way of living in the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
During the early post-Communist years in China the mantra ‘Waste Not’ was rigorously followed, and families actively saved everything in case it could be reused later. ”My mother always told us to ‘Waste Not’ because she lived in a very hard time. She said that you can use anything again and again,” he tells us. “We even reused dirty paper you would normally just throw away: that’s the principal of ‘Waste Not’.”
After the death of Song Dong’s father, his mother was stricken with grief and, as a way for her to come terms with this loss he helped her find a renewed purpose and proposed that she work with him to turn all these possessions into an artwork. “I hoped my mother would use the art to help her recover, and I hoped to show her life through this collaboration,” Song Dong recounts. “For each object there is a memory of my father, so I was afraid that an empty home would erase these memories. Doing this project with my mother gave her something to do every day and gave her a chance to relive these memories. As we worked together our relationships changed and she became the artist.”
This installation also talks more generally about the economic and social changes occurring in Chinese society. He explains that this work represents not only the life of his own family, but of every family in China: “We have the same stories, the same memories. When I exhibited this work in Beijing so many normal people came to see the exhibition and said, ‘This is my home – this is not only your home’. I think there’s many relationships here, between myself and my mother, and also between families – there’s a dialogue between our private family and the public family. There’s also a relationship between people and the objects, and between the objects themselves! For example, I placed my grandmother’s shoes alongside my niece’s shoes, we see the contrast between generations, between the traditional and the modern fashions. The relationships between objects shows a small history in itself.”
It is this emphasis on family relationships and changing living scenarios that makes this installation entrancing to wander through. It is an accumulation of memories and stories, which might be shared by millions of other families too. Song Dong prefers to call this type of collaborative, cumulative art ‘life art’; it involves participation by all his family members to get reassembled and reconfigured with each consecutive installation. (This is the eighth time Waste Not has been shown around the world.) “This work is not just an installation, it’s more like a family project,” he explains.
Song Dong explains that his favourite piece – out of all 10,000 of them – are the blocks of hard soap, which his mother kept for him during the time of the Cultural Revolution until he was older. “When I got married my mother gave all this saved up soap to me as a gift, but I had a washing machine so didn’t need it, so my mother was really ashamed. When I started to do this work I learned a lot of things about my mother, so now I know that that soap is not just soap, it represents her love.”
Thank you, Song Dong.
Where? Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS
When? 15 February – 12 June 2012. Open daily 11.00 – 20.00 (closes at 22.00 on Thursdays)
How do I get there? Barbican and Moorgate underground stations
How much? Free