Song Dong: Waste Not @ Barbican Curve
I am a girl. As part of my remit as a card-carrying member of the fairer sex, I am hard-wired to gush on command at anything displaying even the faintest hint of sentiment, nostalgia or filial love. It’s the reason why is any clean-shaven young gentleman who has suffered the trauma of witnessing his mother’s second cousin’s dog’s brother go through the trauma of an ingrown toenail is guaranteed to win the X Factor, don’t you know.
With this taken into consideration, Chinese artist Song Dong’s first major UK installation, Waste Not, was the ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
The objects displayed are the product of a lifetime of hoarding by the artist’s mother. I can already hear the terror-stricken cries of ‘But wait! It’s not real art!’, echoing from circa 1999 and Tracy Emin. To add insult to injury, there’s a sob story: the work was created as a form of therapy for her on the sudden death of Song Dong’s father. Working together, mother and son collected and arranged the relics; everything from children’s clothes to electrical fittings, and even a section of their family home; for the work’s first showing in 2005. Song Dong’s mother died in 2009 and since then the installation has been recreated in various locations by the artist along with his wife and sister. You can see photographs here of the installation at the MOMA.
Because they were collected throughout the last 80 years or so in China, the exhibition blurb claims that the objects tell us something about ‘social and political turmoil’. This isn’t really the case, although it does provide an interesting insight into packaging design through the ages. That’s not to say it isn’t fascinating, though. I was compelled by the sheer volume of stuff, not to mention confused at how it would all fit into even a very large house along with the basic prerequisites of people and furniture.
The thing that is touching about this exhibition, though, is that these pieces of apparent junk are actually the sum total of someone’s life. Walking around, I heard someone say that the work reminded them of clearing out their own mother’s house after her death. The art world would obviously say that this is too twee and nostalgic. Ok guys, you can have your moody naked ladies and your renditions in oil of hunks of bloody meat , and I will come and look at them, and I will see that it is good. But sometimes I just like nice things, ok? Blame my uterus.
One of the other things that attracted me to the work is that there is something of the bizarrely mismatched charity shop about it. I have always gone nuts for anything with a past, which has resulted variously in me carrying taped-together stacks of pages, scribbled over in at least two different sets of handwriting, which were at some point a first edition of a novel into literature classes and stealing my Grandmother’s knitwear. Here, umbrellas lie alongside crockery, and toothpaste tubes alongside yellowing newsprint. But everything has been lovingly ordered, and this is what turns junk into a kind of historical artefact; a relic from a bygone era and a bygone life.
But then again, it isn’t just about nostalgia. As I hope my photographs show, it’s actually pretty aesthetically pleasing. Although this is coming from a complete trash culture addict who would probably paper her walls in Big Mac wrappers if only they weren’t so darn greasy. Either way, arranging over 10,000 objects to look like anything other than a landfill site is nothing to be sniffed at.
Waste Not might be art, or it might not. Personally I think it was more of an interesting spectacle. If it is junk, it’s very nicely arranged junk, and I enjoyed looking at it. Sorry, art. I’m going to go and stare out a Caravaggio portrait now.
Waste Not is at the Barbican Curve until June 12
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