ART | Artistic Hoarding: The Case of Song Dong's WASTE NOT


I love the concept of Song Dong's WASTE NOT exhibition, which I have seen twice now--once in New York and the second in London earlier last year. As much as I loved it, my fiance found it to be his worst nightmare. The clutter and hoarder-esque tendencies of the exhibit overwhelmed his senses and drove him into a slight hysteria (sorry honey). However, whilst he saw junk, I saw a cultural paradigm that caused many Chinese to see the almost never-ending potential in items. It also made me think of how we engage with items, and how we are sometimes too eager to discard them. Now it is also part of my Series on Waste.

The exhibition is based on the art of saving and re-using things, which is in line with the Chinese principle of wu jin qi yong – 'waste not'. However, the exhibition is not merely a reflection of this principle, but it is also used as a mechanism for encouraging a familial bond for the artist. After his father died in 2002, Dong collaborated with his mother, who had been collecting items for five decades, to create this installation which comprises of over 10,000 items. These items range from buttons, tubes of toothpaste, plastic bottles, and her husbands old clothes (to name a few). So what does this artistic form of hoarding teach us?...

Photograph- Oli Scarff/Getty Images
"Why the hell does anyone need to keep 2,000 plastic bottles?" was my fiance's cry before he abandoned me to get some fresh air. I had to agree that this was a bit excessive, and might have been either a repercussion from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where everyone had very little and had to save and reuse items in order to survive, or a mental illness based on some sort of trauma (I've seen Hoarders the TV Show, I know the deal). However, as this was a prerequisite for surviving during the social and political upheaval in China, perhaps this was a way to continue his mother's survival after the loss of her husband, not to mention her father's execution and her own mother's death whilst she was a child. And although she first refused for fear that people might think her messy, Dong convinced her that this would make him famous, so she agreed.

What this has taught me is that when we are forced to engage with materials on multiple levels we can then see the bigger picture of consumption. This exhibition alone tells you something about the materials we go through, and how easily we disregard things. I mean, what can I use all those bottle tops for? What about the empty toothpaste tubes? For most of these, the recycling bin is good enough, but for others these can be reused in so many ways. Whether by myself in the form of left over fabrics or the faces of watches with newly added embroidered bands or by someone else by simply donating to charity or selling to a consignment store, there are many other ways that we can turn our hoarded junk into less wasteful possessions. In a way, such an exhibition forces you to ask key questions about these potentially wasteful items: Where does this come from? What is it used for? Why do I have in? What else can I do with it? How can I sustainably get rid of it? A few questions that I encourage you all to ask sometimes.

When Dong's mother, died in an accident in 2009 Song Dong continued to remake the exhibit, which first showed in 2005, with his sister and wife. Now, everytime he reinstalls it all of the family is brought together. The exhibition is meant to evoke personal histories, and rekindle memories and powerful emotions we sometimes forget or take for granted. It is overwhelming, but it does force you to ask certain questions and to think of those closer to your personhood. 

This post is part of the Waste Not Series

Images from iPhone

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