In 1992 Chinese conceptual artist Song Dong married a fellow artist, Yin Xiuzhen. As a wedding gift his mother gave him several cakes of soap that he had used as a child to wash the family’s clothes. Bewildered by the gesture, Song declined the gift. “I don’t need them, I use a washing machine now,” Song told his mother. Nevertheless, his mother kept the cakes of soap for him.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution into which Song Dong was born, soap was strictly rationed and could only be acquired with a coupon. What should have been a mundane domestic object became a coveted and valuable commodity under Mao's regime. It wasn’t until after the wedding that he realised what the gift really meant. “The soap symbolises love,” Song explains. “My mother was giving me love.” The cakes of soap are now his most treasured possessions.
A cake of soap just like the one his mother gave him is just one of the 10,000 items that form Song’s most famous work of art, “Waste Not”. Currently on display at Sydney’s contemporary art centre Carriageworks as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival, “Waste Not” is an emotional memorial to the courage, strength, and spirit of those who survived China’s Cultural Revolution.
It was the uncertainty and instability of the Cultural Revolution that caused Song’s mother, who died in 2009, to obsessively hoard almost every object she acquired. Over a period of 50 years she anxiously collected more than 10,000 items from shopping bags to pill boxes to toothpaste tubes – nothing was wasted.
Although most of the items have no monetary value, Song neatly arranges them in carefully considered themed displays as though they were priceless artefacts. There is one space for pots, another for books. “Curatorially, Song Dong is very sure about how he wants people to move through the space,” says Director of Carriageworks Lisa Havillah. “He spends time in the space designing the layout and planning how people will move through the work,” Lisa explains.
Song has exhibited “Waste Not” nine times at venues all over the world including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Barbican Museum. However, this is the first time that the work has not been exhibited in a typical “white cube” museum space. This version of the installation is particularly special because the remnants of his parents’ house, which are part of the display, are the same age as the Carriageworks space in which they are exhibited.
The ritualistic packing and unpacking of his mother’s possessions is a family event attended by his wife and sister. Just like many families visit the grave sites of deceased loved ones, the installation of “Waste Not” commemorates the lives of the artist’s mother and father. Each time the installation is unpacked, Song comes across different objects that he hasn’t seen since his mother passed away. The installation is not only a journey of discovery for the viewer, but for the artist as well.
One of the most pertinent questions raised by the installation is whether the objects now exist solely as independent works of art or whether they remain the personal possessions of Song’s mother, albeit displayed in a different context. It is a question I am sure Song asks himself. One thing is for sure, however: the moment Song’s mother agreed to relinquish her possessions so that they could be exhibited, something happened to those objects – a transformation took place that gave her possessions a new identity. Having been placed in the public sphere, the viewing public now play a role in the identity of the objects on display. This is what makes “Waste Not” such an amazing work of art. On the one hand it raises so many questions; on the other it answers so many questions.
“Waste Not” is on at Carriageworks in Eveleigh until the 17th of March.