Entertainment & Arts

Chinese artist Song Dong turns clutter into an artwork

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Media captionSong Dong picks out a few favourites from the 10,000 objects on display

The current fashion for decluttering would have held little appeal for the mother of Chinese artist Song Dong. She accumulated domestic objects on a fantastic scale. Song Dong has used 10,000 of his mother's personal belongings in a big art installation called Waste Not at the Barbican Centre in London.

If you wandered by accident into the Curve - the Barbican's free exhibition space - you might think you'd trespassed into a storage area off-limits to the public.

Even by the standards of contemporary art installations the scores of neatly arrayed washing up bowls, discarded toys and carefully arranged plastic bottle tops make an odd sight.

The lines of empty toothpaste tubes remain a particular puzzle, as they've been ever since the installation first appeared in 2005.

In fact the Chinese artist Song Dong dislikes the word installation, preferring to label Waste Not "life art". Now in his mid-40s, he was born in Beijing and has exhibited around the world, his work ranging from video art to paintings and sculpture. This is his first big show in the UK.

Song Dong's mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, was born into a prosperous family in 1937 but the huge political changes of the 1950s and 1960s meant family fortunes waned. Dong's father was branded a counter-revolutionary.

Image caption Song Dong's mother amassed a lot of things that she considered to be a bargain

"In that time my mother's life was very hard. So she started to keep everything, even the smallest things seemed quite valuable. Then later China opened up and my family started to become wealthier again. But my mother still refused to throw anything away. Her motto was always 'waste not'."

Dong's mother died in 2009 but he had started work on his project four years earlier. In part he was documenting what had happened to his family, looking back at China's years of change.

But Dong had also seen his mother slip into depression after the death of his father; he thought the work might reconnect her with her life.

No knowledge of recent Chinese history is needed to understand the show.

It wasn't only in China that generations grew up reluctant to throw away so much as a paper bag or an old sock.

Stray cats

Dong says his favourite items are some very unimpressive bits of old soap in a washing bowl. "They look like stones now but to me they're very special. Some of the bits are probably older than I am.

"My mother gave them to me 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."

Image caption Many of the objects will be familiar to people outside China

Many of the 10,000 or so objects on display are small, the kind of things which clutter up most homes: long-dry ballpoint pens, cracked crockery no one can recall buying and old food containers for which a new use may or may not ever be found.

Dong explains that the collection of foam packaging was used so stray cats could avoid the freezing ground in winter.

Some objects such as old-style metallic tubes for toothpaste could have been sent to a local rubbish station to make a little money, but Dong's mother wouldn't do it.

"She liked the new plastic tubes too. She'd run the side of a pen over them to make sure every bit of toothpaste was out," he says.

The fact that the collection comes from China doesn't mean all the objects will be unfamiliar in Britain. I point out a set of soup bowls which I recall from childhood.

Dong smiles: "Probably they were made in China for export to Europe but my mother would have picked them up cheap as imperfect stock: she always liked a bargain. I think she used them for tea."

Mother's presence

Most of Dong's art focuses on the transience of life. One of his performance pieces is Water Diary, in which he writes on a pavement or road in water. "I think in the future everything is nothing. But here you see that memory is real."

Zhao Xiangyuan never came to London so can Dong really feel her presence in Waste Not, wherever it's put on?

Image caption Waste Not tells a very personal story but one that is also universal

"Oh yes. I think my mother lives in this work because each time we do Waste Not I have to discuss it with my sister and my family - and my mother becomes part of the discussion".

That Song Dong grew up in Beijing and that his mother's attitudes were shaped by Mao's cultural revolution are ultimately only details.

Most of us could walk around Waste Not and find echoes of our own lives. It's the most personal of exhibitions and yet the most universal.

Song Dong: Waste Not is on at the Barbican until 12 June.

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