The Beijing-based artist Song Dong has been at the forefront of Conceptual art in China since the 1990s. Song grew up in a tight-knit, traditional community, and his work often examines the everyday realities and issues of his neighborhood. His performance, video, sculpture, painting, and installations are often ephemeral and made of modest materials. They offer multivalent perspectives that draw in equal measure on the past and the present, the personal and the universal, the poetic and the political.
Presented here for the first time in the United States, Waste Not is an installation of the full complement of worldly goods belonging to the artist’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan (1938–2009)—including the wood frame of her house. Song’s mother was typical of the generation of Chinese who lived through the hardships of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s abiding by the dictum wu jin qi yong (waste not). This guiding tenet deemed that resources be squeezed for all their value and nothing be wasted. For the subsequent generation—Song Dong and his sister, Song Hui, among them—the result was a childhood surrounded by partially used bars of soap, loose buttons, assorted buckets, and scraps of fabric, stockpiled and preserved as protection against future hardship, even in the face of improving economic conditions.
Waste Not is a collaboration with the artist’s mother, initiated in an attempt to wrest her from grief following the death of his father in 2002. In the process of organizing and arranging the goods, the baggage of the past was, quite literally, unpacked and given a new life. Zhao’s unexpected death last year adds a special poignancy to the neon sign high on the wall that reads, “Dad, don’t worry, mum and we are fine.”