The Artful Traveler: Waste Not
Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh
Imagine that everything you might ordinarily throw away was kept in your house for a year. Then think 50 years. Unimaginable, except in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966/67) where some householders squirreled away everything from
buttons to bottle caps, just in case they might be put to good use at a later date. In that frugal time, underconsumption was the rule. Waste Not, a large scale work on MoMA's second floor atrium, organized by artist Song Dong and his mother Zhao Xiangyuan, is what curtator Barbara London calls "a landscape or garden," of wildly diversified materials that are the conceptual heart of this intriguing installation. It's part of an exhibition called Projects 90: Song Dong.
A wood framed section of Ms. Zhao's Beijing courtyard house dominates the installation. Some might call it a case of Yankee thrift where nothing was thrown out, not empty tooth paste tubes, thread, kitchen utensils, toys, bowls, books, basins, buttons — even broken ball point pens. Song Dong, best known for his writing, videos, and photography, assembled the installation with his mother as a way of helping her recover from the death of his father in 2002. Together they painstakingly sorted the entire contents of their Beijing house, a collection of stuff amassed over 50 years. In the process, Ms. Zhao's intention of nothing going to waste even slivers of soap and stuffed animals, now has a new life.
"The way the materials are assembled — the beds where the mother and father slept, the father's garden planters that he so carefully tended and gave joy to the neighborhood – can almost be read as portraits," says curator London.
At MoMA, everything is laid out in neat piles, fastidiously assembled pots with pots, shirts with shirts, and tiny scraps of fabric, bound with string. At first glance, a visitor might imagine this was the house of a master seamstress who saved every scrap of material to assemble a patchwork quilt. But that was not the intent. Song's mother was cautious, thrifty, obsessive about saving ordinary materials. More important, she was deeply concerned about the welfare of her neighborhood. A sofa has a prominent place in the installation because it functioned as a social space where Song Dong's mother sat, talked, and greeted old friends.
The artist's mother also hoarded Styrofoam boxes and food containers to use as small trays to feed stray neighborhood dogs who had nothing to eat in winter. She transformed the large ones into dog houses so that the animals would have some protection from Beijing's harsh winters. Tragically, Ms. Zhao died earlier this year from a fall from a ladder as she was trying to rescue a wounded bird in a tree.
The public for the most part has been fascinated by this portrait of a life in a culture so distinct from our own. This is a run-don't walk museum show, emblematic of a family and the time in which they lived.
Projects 90: Song Dong is on view through September 21 at the Museum of Modern Art.