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Waste Not

Rosie Lavan

ShameSong Dong
Waste Not
15 February — 12 June 2012
The Barbican Centre


The Curve Gallery at the Barbican is filled with 10,000 things belonging to a single family. Waste Not, the first major London exhibition by the Chinese artist Song Dong, is a very personal installation – but in remembering his own family’s story, his assemblage also helps to piece together parts of the twentieth century.

The meticulously arranged objects in Waste Not¬≠, including shopping bags, cardboard boxes, flower pots, toys, clothes, and even the wooden frame of the old family house, are the opposite of grave goods. Instead of things buried and relinquished with the dead, these are objects carried and held on to by the living. They were collected over the course of fifty years by Song Dong’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan; when her husband died in 2002 she could not bear to throw anything away and began to amass more and more.

The surfeit of objects in this large white space is overwhelming, but walking among them provokes a repeated shock of recognition. These things mark stages in a family’s life: the faded brittle plastic of children’s toys; the rows of shoes that get bigger in size. They also reveal quiet, domestic acts of resistance to totalitarianism, and illustrate the frugality which was a means of survival in Mao’s China: as in the stockpiled blocks of laundry soap, for example, which was hard to obtain. They show, too, globalisation’s creep, in the brand-names on the bottle-tops and empty packaging, and the cartoon characters on t-shirts and backpacks.

Waste Not was first presented in Beijing in 2005, but it is a quintessentially twentieth-century work. Its genesis begins with the Cultural Revolution in 1966 – also the year of Song Dong’s birth – but it suggests, at the same time, older photographs from other places: the piled-up shoes, spectacles, and wristwatches which served as visual witnesses of genocide to an aghast, post-Holocaust world in the 1940s. Leeds-based artist Antonia Stowe built on this idea in her installation reflecting on the Holocaust, 6 Million +, which has travelled around public spaces in the UK since 2006 and is made up of some six million buttons, one for every life.

Waste Not is inescapably poignant, but it is also endearingly absurd. It grew as much from the artist’s gently mocking exasperation with his mother’s eccentric habit, and his desire to help her out of it, as it did from an impulse to reify the larger political ideas with which it engages. Until her own death in 2009, Zhao Xiangyuan helped her son assemble the installation in the places it has visited, which include galleries in Berlin, New York, and San Francisco.

Waste Not is something of a departure for a conceptual artist who has elsewhere sought the most transient media for expression in performance art, video and photography. In Writing Time with Water (2005), he spent an hour in Times Square painting each minute on the pavement with a calligraphy brush dipped in water. But in Waste Not he is – to borrow Seamus Heaney’s words from ‘The Harvest Bow’ – “gleaning the unsaid off the palpable”, and allowing the onlooker to do the same. Although the old Please Do Not Touch rule applies in the Barbican, every palpable thing is eloquent.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford.