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Song Dong: Waste Not

Chinese artist Song Dong is internationally known for his personal performances and installations. For his first solo London exhibition, Song Dong presents Waste Not, a monumental body of work that was first exhibited in 2005 and continues to remain poignant to the artist.

The Barbican's Curve gallery has been transformed, filled with over 10,000 items collected by Song Dong's mother over five decades, ranging from clothing, large box packaging, bed linens, newspapers, used toothpaste tubes, bottle caps, kitchenware, crockery, toys and retro flasks. The installation pays tribute to his mother, as well as reflecting on family life during the Cultural Revolution. The activity of saving and reusing objects of all kinds is in keeping with the Communist adage wu jin qu yong - 'waste not' - a way of life during periods of social and political turmoil.

From the start of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution in 1966, being frugal was the only way for a family to survive. Zhao Xiangyuan kept everything, event pieces of used soap and empty toothpaste tubes, for possible future use. When things improved, a fear of shortage was still ever present, leading to a life of thrift. Typically obsessive compulsive hoarders keep items (that have no real use) that hold memories, but Song Dong's mother was saving familiar items from the past in order to cope with the political state China was in.

Following Song Dong's father's death in 2002, Zhao Xiangyuan sank into deep depression, Her desire to fill her life with things regardless of their possible use became more disturbing to witness. She had 'a need to fill the emptiness after my father's death'. In an attempt to help his mother find a new purpose in life and to bring her out of the depths of grief, Song Dong proposed that she work with him to make her possessions the family home, a work of art. In exhibiting her life, Song Dong has said that, 'It gave my mother a space to put her memories and history in order.'

Kate Bush, Head of Art Galleries, Barbican Centre, said: 'I am delighted that Song Dong is installing his most powerful and poignant work, Waste Not, here at the Barbican. As well as being a collaboration between a mother and her son, and a collection of memories, Waste Not, is a portrait of China, and a history of survival through great times of change.'

The exhibition takes roughly 3 weeks to install, in which Song Dong arranges the objects with his sister Song Hui, and his wife Yin Xiuzhen. It is scared moment for the family as the 'travelling' exhibition Waste Not brings them together, each time giving them a chance to rediscover new or forgotten items and the memories that those items hold.

Although we all have a tendency to collect things, the exhibition takes the term 'hoarding' to a whole other level as we can only imagine how distraught and in pain Zhao Xiangyuan must have been as she had no control over the amount of artefacts she accumulated over the years. Waste Not tells a woman's life in stuff, most of which is useless, but leaves you feeling the emptiness that Song Dong's mother felt.

To get a better idea of the sheer volume of Waste Not, you can watch this slideshow of stills taken from the same exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009

Waste Not is open at the Barbican till 12th June at The Curve Gallery
Admission Free.

Louisa Lau
17:21 - 29/02/12