"Projects 90: Song Dong"
Museum of Modern Art
June 24, 2009 - September 7, 2009

Song Dong's Waste Not is an astounding collection of crap: empty yogurt cups, dirty Styrofoam fruit wrappers, plastic bottle caps, Chinese shopping bags lain one after another like fallen dominoes, old water heaters, thermoses, dingy shoes, hats, watches, stuffed animals, bundles of twine and cord, bars of soap. The items, organized by basic taxonomies (tools, fabric, dishware, toys, medicine, etc.) and neatly arranged within taped-off areas of gallery floor, extend well beyond the frame of the mock traditional Chinese house which has been erected at the center of MoMA's large second-floor atrium. Viewers familiar with these dusty, foreign relics may find the installation evocative and disorienting: at times, for instance, when regarding a small, tied-up stack of Little Red Books or a tattered Mao cap, I felt like I was browsing a flea market in Tianjin; at others, when perusing mooncake tins, plastic bowls, or certain traditional cloth shoes, my father's own basement collection of artifacts from the country that he and my mother escaped half a century ago. Like the last artwork installed in this space, Martin Kippenberger's The Happy End of Franz Kafka's "Amerika" (1994), which deployed 50 salvaged tables and chairs on a green soccer field to evoke the metaphysical talent agency / employment office described in Kafka's novel, Waste Not creates a kind of silent theater, with a stage (the mock-house) and an immense cast of ready-mades whose age, wear, and sheer innumerability enact a drama of temporality, futility, death, and excess. It was difficult to get near enough to the exhibition's wall text to read it, since the path between the wall and the edge of the sprawling installation was only a few feet wide—creating a feeling of crowding which no doubt reflects the experience of living by "not wasting" a single thing.

According to the show's didactics, the items on display were the complete possessions of the artist's mother, Zhao Xiaoyuan, amassed over a lifetime. But contrary to its funereal atmosphere, the installation was neither a shrine nor a tribute; rather, Waste Not was made as a collaboration between mother, the owner, and son, the artist, who intended the artwork to serve as a therapeutic measure for his mother's lifelong propensity to hoard. (Zhao, who died in January of 2009, missed the installation of the work at MoMA, but not its initial presentation at Beijing Tokyo Art Projects in September, 2005.)

In this sense, Waste Not is essentially a biographical sculpture. Born in 1938, Zhao was the only child of a Kuomintang military officer secretly sympathetic to the Communist cause. In 1949, when the Communists defeated the KMT and established the People's Republic, Zhao's father was given a seat in Beijing's powerful Bureau of Public Security. The family prospered until 1953, when Zhao's father was wrongly accused of spying during the "Eliminating Counter-Revolutionaries" movement. He was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison, leaving his family without a source of income.

For Zhao, like so many others of her generation, the practices of saving, hoarding, and reusing were borne out of poverty and necessity. She saved bits of cloth to patch up old clothes and to make new ones, steel wire to shape into clothes hangers, fruit wrappers to use as sponges; whatever she could wring use out of, she did. But over a lifetime, as Zhao's quality of life improved and China's economic development accelerated, the habit's pragmatism deteriorated bit by bit into pathology. In a particularly painful account in the exhibition catalogue, Zhao explains the reasoning behind her collection of laundry soap from the 1960s:

"I dried the soap in order to be less wasteful, because soft soap was used up quickly. One bar could only be used for a few washes. Each time I bought soap, I dried the bars under the sun first and then stored them. The male workers in our work unit had a collective household registry, with an "individual purchasing permit." Because they didn't wash a lot of clothes, they couldn't use that much soap. Some people didn't want to waste the provision quota, so they often gave me their permit so I could buy more soap to save. I was afraid when my children grew up, they would have to worry about their soap ration every month. I wanted to save the soap until they got married and pass it on to them. I never thought these bars of soap would become useless, because everyone uses a washing machine now. But I feel reluctant to throw them out, so I have kept them for a few decades now."

For countless other items in the installation, the same fundamental alchemy persists: In poverty, the object is so difficult to obtain that it acquires a value far above and beyond its utility; as utility diminishes, the object retains a powerful but undefined meaning. The term "sentimental value" does not seem adequate here. Even the Chinese phrase shebude—literally, unable to let go—suggests holding onto a possession that is personally valuable because of its association with a loved one. But the things Zhao held onto, and invested with a peculiar brand of value, were bits of twine, plastic food trays, empty tubes of toothpaste, and the like: objects universally agreed upon by an industrial, mass-market culture to be garbage and unlikely to retain the emotional imprint of any of her loved ones. More saddening is that, in many cases, Zhao's possessions moved directly from acquisition to storage, bypassing the station of utility entirely. Looking at Waste Not, the viewer senses that, for Zhao, the past 50 years had not occurred. Her country had sped forward, her children had grown up and had their own children, and her parents had died; she managed to stay exactly where she had always been. Like a starving person at a feast who, instead of gorging herself, stashes the food away until it rots, Zhao had clung to a life of pure subsistence. In the catalog, Song Dong writes that the profusion of hoarded stuff eventually built itself, quite literally, into a cocoon around his mother, isolating her from others and cutting off any hope of enjoyment. But when he or his sister tried to help by discarding some of her things to make room, she would grow angry and despondent. As the viewer wends her way through the installation along narrow paths of gallery floor, it is impossible to escape the fact that object after object, each worthless but painstakingly kept, is a discrete emblem of pain.

Song Dong's sculpture, then, functions like an intervention. By recontextualizing his mother's possessions—transforming private hoarding into public display—Song elevates the timeworn objects to the status of art, rehabilitating a practice that could otherwise be interpreted as shocking or shameful pathology. This transformation is made possible by the mode of display employed by the artist; had Song Dong chosen to, for example, photograph the objects in his mother's home, neither Zhao, who helped to arrange the installation, nor the viewer, would have had the opportunity to experience the materiality of each particular object. This materiality, particularly the inevitable signs of deterioration of even the most scrupulously preserved items in Zhao's collection, underscores the actual subject of the art work: the impossibility of evading the passage of time.

Amazingly, the intervention was successful. Zhao's participation in creating the installation, and later in viewing the installation with others, resulted in an appreciable change; she grew lighter, more at ease, and happier, the artist observed, and "a new start in our lives" became possible.

To install this exhibition in the U.S., for an American audience with neither personal intimacy with its objects nor a cultural history akin to that which Zhao and her generation experienced, gives it an altogether different valence than it had in China. But perhaps, by enacting its demonstration of attachment and detachment at the MoMA, Waste Not can also provide an opportunity for a new start to our own commodity-centered, recession-struck lives.

Paper Monument.com, Nov. 2009