For Chinese artist Song Dong, the transience of life is a notion held dear. Born in 1966 on the eve of the cultural revolution, his childhood was permeated with mu jin qi yong, the Chinese adage meaning “waste not” that was a necessity for survival in times of social and political turmoil. Song Dong’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, became a master hoarder after her family fortune dissipated during the 1950s and 1960s, continuing the practice until her sudden death in 2009. In a heartfelt homage to his mother, the artist created Waste Not, an intricately detailed display of objects his mother amassed over five decades, including toothpaste tubes, bottle caps, plastic bowls, metal pots, blankets, toys, and even part of the family home.
Waste Not is currently on display at The Curve, the Barbican’s free gallery space, marking Song Dong’s first major UK exhibition. We talked to Sunny Cheung, who co-curated the showcase with Jane Alison, about what it was like installing such a multifaceted work and how, despite the exhibition’s world travels, the process of setting it up is still very much a family affair.
What was it like installing a work comprised of so many objects?
The main factors involved a potential logistical nightmare of shipping over ten thousand objects in fifty separate crates. The Curve gallery presents a further challenge, as it is also a very unique curved space with no built-in storage facilities. We therefore had to devise a method of staggering in delivery of objects whilst taking away empty crates and leaving room to move work around!
Perhaps a special mention must go to Song Hui, Song Dong’s sister, who is instrumental to the entire process. She has detailed knowledge of how everything is packed and unpacked in her little notebook! She accompanies the exhibition at each venue. In terms of actual install work, the total install time was two weeks. Beforehand, Song Dong looked around the space and devised an overall plan to display it as a “Chinese garden landscape”-style walk. After some landmarks were created, such as the house structure, bed, and medicine box stack, he would work intuitively by arranging and re-arranging objects as he felt suitable aesthetically. There are groupings of objects, so they can be thought of as being moveable in a kind of modular format.
Was Song Dong’s installation process an emotional process as well?
There’s no doubt the piece is still very personal to the artist and his family. I think it’s fair to say that when Song Dong’s mother was alive, she was essentially working collaboratively with him on the piece as another artist, so those memories still linger. Song Dong plans it so his family is around for each installation process. This includes his wife (the artist Yin Xiuzhen), his daughter Song Errui, his sister Song Hui, and his niece Zhu Mo. A constant cataloging and photographing of objects occurs at every venue they complete an installation, which goes to show how personal the piece is to the entire family.
A lot of artists, like Stuart Haygarth or Tim Noble and Sue Webster, utilize found or discarded objects as their medium and re-present them in a new light. How is Song Dong’s installation different from these?
Yes, this is true and these artists are also very interesting in the sense that they re-allocate or re-attribute new meaning to objects that have somehow lost their meaning in their original state. These artists similarly create new links from old objects. However, the objects in this show were not forgotten objects, and even when they were found objects they were always eventually destined for a practical use.
To his mother Zhao Xiangyuan, they were very real memory signifiers that encapsulated memories of not only her late husband, but also of her children. After her death, these memories have an additional layer of complexity added to them and become a guide to her own life as well as being a beautiful monumental piece. There is a different reconfiguration with each presentation that helps to complement each venue. The objects are also not physically altered in any way and are simply presented for the viewer to contemplate, and will naturally decay over the years they are installed.
How does this piece relate to the underlying ideas that permeate Song Dong’s work?
The idea of family identity runs through much of his oeuvre, including performances such as Touching My Father, Father and Son in the Ancestral Temple, and Listening to my Family Talking About How I Was Born. Other key works that engage with the passage of time include his Water Diary, which came from his practice of calligraphy without waste [of paper] as well as imbuing the stone he writes on daily with a private collection of his thoughts. I think Waste Not is a natural progression to all the ideas presented in these earlier works, especially in dealing with issues of family identity and memory.
How does Song Dong’s work fit into the emerging group of contemporary Chinese artists?
Song Dong emerged from the "apartment art” scene of the early ’90s and mixed life with art. His work can be characterized by a knowing sense of the political coupled with the notion of impermanence, such as Breathing, which took place in Tiananmen Square. Like his contemporaries, he works across a range of different mediums including performance, video, and sculpture that explores the changing cultural landscape of China. But I think what really sets him apart is how he draws so much from his personal and daily life. This is what makes his work so touching for audiences all over the world.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I enjoyed working on this show because I got to really delve into the many little stories that Song Dong had for the different objects and achieved a great insight into the work. I think his favorite item is the soap, as these to him are representations of his mother’s love. I like the two white rice wine bottles and the stories attached to them—but you’ll have to ask him to tell you about this!