Art / Design

Waste Not, Barbican Curve Gallery

Beijing based Chinese artist Song Dong’s “Waste Not” is currently on display at The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery. The exhibition consists of more than 10,000 objects that were collected by his late mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, over a period of 50 years. Her desire to fill her life with things became stronger after the death of her husband. It was painful for Song Dong to see his mother in a state of depression and they created the first installation of “Waste Not” together in Tokyo Gallery project space in Beijing, which eventually became a part of her healing process. “It gave my mother a space to put her memories and history in order” as Song Dong later noted.

The exhibition is described as “a collection of objects”, however, it is not a typical one. The collection includes literally everything Song Dong’s mother owned – anything she could lay her fingers on were exhibited, including chairs, cabinets, clothes, bags, shoes, children’s toys, half used soap, used plastic bags from super market, empty plastic bottles of soft drinks… the list goes on. Every item was well used and each contained a long personal history. At first I was overwhelmed by the volume of collection as I stepped into the space, but gradually was affected by them. When I stood in front of dozens of empty tubes of toothpaste that were thoroughly used and perfectly placed in line on a wooden board, I had an unexplainable deep feeling growing inside of me. It is impossible to draw the line between collection and obsession when the two belong to each other. And her obsession was probably not about the actual things but about the idea of them – the idea that she could visually see an accumulation of time, the time that she had lost and left her feeling empty after her husband’s death.

In addition to the extremely personal and intimate nature of this collection, it is crucial to mention that Song Dong’s mother started to collect items when Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution started in 1966. The notorious socio-political movement that gave negative influence on the Chinese economy and the whole nation was forced to destroy historical relics and artifacts. A pile of The Little Red Book neatly tied together with a red ribbon showed a different side of the exhibition. In order to survive as a family it was necessary not to waste anything and keep all the items that would possibly be useful someday. It had also a meaning of protecting the past, while the country’s past is being destroyed. I found her act of collecting brave. Probably she did not mean it any way intentional but I felt as if it was her personal resistance against the political homogenisation of Chinese society under Chairman Mao. I believe that the power of individual lives and each history is stronger than one could possibly imagine, and the exhibition did prove this point.

Atsuko Keating

See our previous post for full photographs of the exhibit HERE.


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