Song Dong opens a window to a past time of a China that was riddled with turmoil, social angst and political stalemate. He achieves this through the taxonomy of quotidian objects from 1960’s China which are presented to a 21st century audience in the form of installation art. ‘Waste Not’ is a retrospective tableau assembled from ten thousand objects which Zhao Xiangyuan, Song Dong’s mother collected over her lifetime. Zhao’s thriftiness and tendency to hoard was encouraged by the privation and insecurity of the Cultural Revolution. Through the process of “wu jin qi yong” meaning “waste not” Zhao saved everything in case of future shortages. ‘Waste Not’ is an installation that silently shares the concerns and struggles of Zhao and her generation through neat rows and piles of daily objects ranging from shoes, toothpaste tubes, clocks, TV sets, bird cages, linen, clothing, plastic bags, half used bars of soap and so on.
Through literally unpacking the contents of his mother’s house, Song Dong has reincarnated the past. Utilising large rooms in art galleries Song Dong neatly places his mother’s life and his own childhood out for display. At the centre of the vast space is a reconstruction of his mother’s traditional Chinese home. His material practice includes the construction of this timber structure and then the organisation and categorisation of all the objects that were stored in this house into a surrounding grid formation. It is a time consuming process and takes about two weeks to set up in a gallery.
Typical of his work, Song Dong has created a network of pathways between the objects so people can walk through and interact with the art. Art critic John McDonald says,’ In Waste Not we not only see the material traces of one woman’s psychopathology, we see the manias and obsessions of a nation living in an extended state of insecurity.’ Song Dong establishes layers of meaning like this through symbols such as the traditional timber family house. This not only has a personal meaning, it also has a broader significance in representing the destruction of art and architecture during the Cultural Revolution. For many Chinese, this installation rekindles memories of their struggles as they recognise the underlying connotations of the work.
As a contemporary artist Song Dong works in a postmodern context. His art practice challenges conventions of the traditional artist as he uses non art materials that hold many layers of symbolic and conceptual meanings. When “Waste Not’’ was displayed at the Barbican Art Gallery in England Dong incorporated the curved walls of the room into his work. The installation appeared like the landscape of a Chinese garden with curved pathways and the stacked objects alluded to plants suggesting the loss of chinese culture.
Dong’s work typically reflects the dynamics of his family and serves a personal purpose. “Waste Not’ was originally a way to help his mother with the grieving period of his father’s death in 2002 by keeping his memory alive through the possessions and objects he left behind. Song dong developed an artistic collaboration with his mother and together they produced ‘Waste not’. The installation took on a performative dimension when Zhao became part of the artwork, sitting in an old couch and talking to people, sharing her stories and experiences. Dong stated, “I understand her need to fill the space with those objects of daily life rather as a need to fill the emptiness left after my father’s death.” In turn “Waste Not’ became a memorial to his mother after her death in 2009.
The importance of family relationships is a motif of Song Dong’s career. In his ‘Writing Diary with Water’ created in 2002 Dong draws from the cultural ideas of his youth in China, with special reference to his father. The ephemeral quality of this performance art stems from the tradition of water calligraphy practiced by people in China. Water calligraphy involves dipping a giant brush into water and drawing with it onto stone. ‘Writing Diary with Water’ is a way for Dong to pay respect to the memory of his father, who introduced him to it, and to rediscover his culture. Due to the temporary nature of this artwork Song Dong uses videos and still images to document it.
“Writing Diary with Water’ resonates with ‘Waste Not’ as it forms a commentary on Song Dong’s knowledge of a past era and his respect for family. In each case his art practice offers him a form of catharsis and closure as he delves into the layers and obligations of family. ‘Waste Not’ has connotations of Confucian tradition which is very paternal as each work is his response to ideas of family. His work suggests the unreliability of material objects as they are a fragile foundation for stability. This notion is evident in ‘Waste Not’ as Zhao’s paranoia of future shortages provoked anxiety for many years. Similarly the impermanency of “Writing Diary with Water’ pertains to the unreliability of objects and instead the security of family especially in context of adversity.
Song Dong’s practice embraces the past and discusses its influence and relevance in the present. He invites the public to both physically and conceptually interact with his work and interpret its own meaning. His unique ability to create an emotionally charged work through the most ordinary and unassuming objects of daily life is clever and intriguing. He embodies the definition of contemporary art.
the work “is about the relationships between people and people, people and things and [finally] things and things… It talks about love, family and how art could play a role in solving the real problems in our lives.” Song dong