Saturday, 3 March 2012


                                                          The Barbican, the Curve
                  Photographs by Jane Hobson (c)            

 There was a time when digital cameras were new, and so was longhaul travel. Many a friendship was put to the test by invitations to come and view not a handful of jolly holiday snaps, but tens, even hundreds, of images of near-anonymous mountains and lakes and trees from foreign parts.

Seared by this experience, I did not expect to find Song Dong's exhibition  of over than 10,000 used household objects more than mildly interesting. It was a comfort to know that I was not a guest and could leave when I pleased. I need not have worried. Waste Not Want Not is poetic and powerful. As you reflect on it, several layers of appreciation emerge.

First there is the aesthetic experience of meandering along paths which thread their way through 'garden beds' of neatly arranged blankets and bottle tops (seen here), toothpaste tubes and toys, kitchen ladles and plastic bowls... The objects are  battered, yet exotic. They remind us of familiar shapes and usages but they do not belong to Western culture, and the script on the packaging or the objects themselves baffles most of us. 

Secondly the exhibition is a snapshot of Chinese history. The artist's mother used and then saved her household objects over a period of five decades. During times of economic and political turmoil saving and re-using - wu jin qu yang (waste not) - was a strategy for survival. Matters were not helped when, labelled a counter revolutionary, Song Dong's father was sent to a re-eduction camp.

Thirdly, it is a collection of physical 'memories' which  spell out family patterns of loyalty which are almost unimagineable to the outsider. The artist's mother fell into a deep depression on the death of her husband. Song Dong talks of 'her need to fill the space with those daily life objects more as a need to fill the emptiness after my father's death.'  By making a work expressing her life and philosophy, he provided her with a new purpose in life. 'It gave my mother a space to put her memories and her history in order'.When Waste Not Want Not was first shown it was a collaborative effort between the artist, his mother and his wife but his mother died in 2009. In 1997 the artist expressed his filial piety by making a film of his own hand over a film of his father, creating an intimacy which had not been possible in real time.

 It is  true to say that in our culture we have many elderly people who hoard valueless possessions, even to the point of making their homes unsafe or difficult to move around in. When things get to a crisis some talk of their affliction as Diogenes Syndrome. Opinion is divided as to whether they should be removed for safety's sake, or seen as people of right mind and independent spirit who must be allowed to choose where they die.  Waste Not Want Not makes us take a refeshing new look at our taken-for-granted-assumptions about old age. Jenny Gilbert's thoughtful review in The Independent is linked below.


  1. Thanks for your fascinating review - I'm going to try and see it when next in London

    1. Thanks. It sound unpromising, but I found it absorbing and challenging in ways I didn't expect.
      It's fascinataing that we have shows involving two old women at the moment - Yayoi Kusama across the river at Tate Modern is 83 this month. Don't miss her Infinifity Room if you can make it!