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Song Dong’s epic installation of his late mother’s possessions not only serves to poignantly trace a family’s history through objects, but the archiving of a lifetime of belongings illuminates just how much ‘stuff’ we accumulate, and dispose of.
Song Dong, the Chinese artist whose 2011 Venice Biennale installation so captured my imagination, with its labrynthine patchwork of doors and wardrobes, walls and windows, recreates personal histories through the careful collection and placement of ephemera.
His latest installation at the Barbican Curve gallery offers an insight into Chinese culture and his family history, their tragedies and their eventual triumph. Song Dong's mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, was born into a family whose patriarch worked for the KMT. Wrongly accused of being a spy, he was jailed for 7 years. This was the beginning of their hardship, which only grew through the years with political upheaval, a series of natural disasters and the onset of rationing. Song Dong's mother experienced a life of endurance, where every object that passed through her hands was deemed precious. From bottle tops to plastic bags, pieces of string to gloves and empty toothpaste tubes. After the Cultural Revolution, Song Dong grew up in a very different world, and became one of China's foremost conceptual artists, trading in ideas as well as materials. When his father passed away his mother's hoarding became an obsession that filled the void where her husband once was.
Song Dong decided to try and turn this grief into a positive, he began the project of 'Waste Not', a collaboration with his mother to archive all of her possessions into installation piece. This brought purpose and happiness into her life before she passed away in 2009. An anecdote from Zhao Xiangyuan conveys the frugality which they were accustomed to in Chinese culture. As soap was rationed each wash was a methodical exercise in conservation. When there was a small piece remaining she would keep it and squish them together to create misshapen lumps of soap. Fearing they would one day be plunged into poverty again she kept this soap, and every other possession, to safeguard her children's future.
It's an incredible story, of both family connections and the importance we attach to objects. While not a clear intention, this lifetime's worth of posessions, saved and carefully stored, becomes a powerful reminder of the mountains of stuff we squander. Each time the exhibition is recreated Song Dong, his sister and his wife work together, and in that way their family history and the memory of their mother and father remains potent.