Waste Not is an art-installation which consists of household furniture and over 10,000 individual domestic objects that Song Dong’s mother collected and kept - some of them for 50 years – in her tiny Beijing home. The objects include everything that was brought to her home and eventually saved for future use.
There are tables and chairs, wardrobes and beds, clothes, shoes, and kitchen utensils in their hundreds; bottles, food containers, bottle tops, shopping bags, garden pots, buckets, boxes, bird cages, yarn, electrical wires, telephones, soap bars, empty toothpaste tubes, old magazines, books, medicine and more.
This collecting zeal developed as the result of deprivation and hardship that her family, like many others, suffered under ruthless Chinese policies in the second half of the 20th century. These policies, especially Cultural Revolution, resulted in deaths of millions of people.
What began as a means of surviving the hardship of daily existence eventually became an obsession and Zhao Xiangyuan – the artist’s mother - continued her habitual collecting long after it was necessary. Zhao Xiangyuan’s collection is evidence of her tireless efforts to keep family together and ensure its survival.
After her husband’s death, Zhao Xiangyuan suffered a nervous breakdown and could not face the removal of her overblown collection of ordinary items. It was then when Dong devised a way of systematically looking through his mother’s collection as a means of ‘sorting out memories’.
Zhao was intrinsically involved in developing this installation. It began to convey a story of loss and endurance, frugality and memory. Decades-old shirts and dolls, boots and jackets, cooking pots and fans reveal the family life in times of hardship and scarcity.
The exhibition provokes many thoughts beyond its artistic merit and the survival story that it conveys. It highlights the insanity of our modern life, for example – where people rely so much on industrial products that are meant to be rapidly replaced and disposed off. And many of these products are not locally made but brought from across the oceans to end up in homes as the material support of our daily existence.
In this exhibition, I found many objects which I recognised from my own childhood and life in the past few decades. It is also a scary reflection of how, typically, the large part of plastic bottles, shopping bags, food containers, foam-packaging materials, and toys would make their way to the oceans, contributing to the death of countless animals and pumping toxins into marine food chain.
Beyond a personal story Waste Not is a reminder of how our life depends on physical objects and the absurd comfort they may offer us.