Song Dong’s ‘Waste Not’ at The Barbican Curve

I first discovered Song Dong when I stumbled upon the painting of calligraphy on the paths of Beijing’s parks with water. The practice seemed to me like poetic performance art, but is only a means of practicing calligraphy without wasting paper. Song Dong had seen the poetry and the art in the practice as well. In 1995 Dong kept a diary with water and stone, and took photographs as a record.

Such ephemeral poetry seems at odds with the sprawling mantra of Dong’s mother, ‘Waste Not’. Yet, walking my semi-circle around The Curve I found an equal poetry here: “I think in the future everything is nothing. But here you see that memory is real.”

‘Waste Not’ is an installation or piece of ‘life art’, as Dong prefers to call it, made up of 10,000 objects hoarded by his mother during the Cultural Revolution. It is about the bonds of family members and the power of objects to tell stories.

The Barbican’s Curve is a curious space, a tunneling periphery of that huge Brutalist creation, devoted to the work of contemporary artists. Song Dong has transformed The Curve into the largest domestic store cupboard ever seen. Scraps of foam and plastic are arranged totemically in the narrowest places, soft toys lie sleeping on their sides atop cardboard boxes, plastic bottles sheltered beneath the skeleton of a family home.  And yet here, every paint brush, tube of toothpaste, spoon and chopstick; has its appropriate space, a halo of absence to pay it reverence.

It feels like a market place; the wooden chairs facing in to enclose a hoard of broken plant pots, bird cages and magpie’s metal, reminds me of Beijing’s Panjiayuan antiques market. I see the artist himself carefully picking his way between neatly folded clothes to point out some item that might be of particular interest.  That’s his best offer.

But to reduce the place to a collection of objects, defined by their usefulness or objective value, is exactly the opposite of what ‘Waste Not’ intends.  The weight of the objects gathered here is a sentimental pressure on our hearts and our memories, an emotional claustrophobia:

“My mother gave me the pieces of soap as a gift on my wedding day but I said: ‘Oh I wash my clothes in a washing machine now I don’t need soap’. But when I started the project I realised she’d kept the soap pieces anyway. So it wasn’t just soap, it was my mother’s love.”

Soap equates to a mother’s love, folded clothes to the legacy of a lost husband and father. ‘Waste Not’ is a memorial which brings family together.  It evokes presence not absence. Beautiful and obsessive, it has the power of appeal for all of us.

Share your objects with stories here http://www.barbican.org.uk/objectswithstories/ and they might be used by the artist Song Dong in a new work of art.

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