The last time I came across a work by Chinese artist Song Dong in London, almost exactly six years ago, I wanted to eat it.
We were underneath an escalator in the basement of Selfridges, Song and I, and the artist was putting the finishing touches to his installation, a giant city of biscuits. He placed his wafers next to his shortbreads with scrupulous attention to detail. It was lip-smacking to watch. The higher his skyscrapers went, the hungrier I got. But I wasn’t allowed a surreptitious sample. Not until the work was finished, and all 72,000 biscuits were in place. Then, he explained, I could help myself. That was the point of the work.
Song’s work came with a message: “Visitors will enjoy my city but, if it is eaten, it will be destroyed. And, of course, eating too many sweets is bad for your health.” Western onlookers were less impressed with the health warning than with the political subtext. China was in the middle of a controversial building boom that was making many of its citizens anxious. Was this all it amounted to? A sugary conceit that would eventually rot the body politic?
Song was in London again this week, bringing a whole new batch of gnomic observations with him. His new installation is “Waste Not”, a pile of apparent junk that has been neatly assembled in the Barbican Centre’s Curve space. When I say junk, I mean it. Paper bags, piles of cloth, discarded toothpaste tubes, plastic toys. Empty Coca-Cola cans. Four lifeless televisions, and six remote controls. A splash of extravagance amid the rubble: a bottle of 1998 “Great Wall” Cabernet Sauvignon, the only wine you can see from space.
There are some 10,000 items assembled in “Waste Not”, few of which would attract a second glance under normal circumstances. Yet this is a special collection. It has been gathered together with love. It is Song’s tribute to his mother Zhao Xiangyuan, who collected all these household items over a period of five decades.
Many of them hail back to the years of the Cultural Revolution, when it was prudent to hang on to even the most dispensable possessions, for fear of what the future would decline to bring. When easier times arrived, Song’s mother could not shake the habit. A life of thrift slowly turned into a museum of uselessness. When Zhao lost her husband, she felt a renewed need to “fill the emptiness”, as Song puts it, with things.
The artist first installed the work in Tokyo, with his mother’s help. The two of them sent a cosmic message out into space with a neon sign: “Dad don’t worry about us, Mom and our family are all doing well.” Mom returned to the gallery every day, eager to commentate to her new-found audiences. She died in 2009, but Song keeps her memory alive by touring the installation. “With this work, it is as if she never passed away. She is in this work. It is the love she felt for me,” he told me.
But, I put it to him, this was surely the story of a country, as well as a family. There is social history here, in the pots and pans, in the tiny bundles of books containing the thoughts of Chairman Mao, tucked discreetly in one of the gallery’s corners. Song says his message is broad and ecological, rather than sharply political. “If we want to have a future, we will have to waste nothing.”
“Waste Not” uses the language of the scrapyard to convey profound emotions. People pour their lives into common objects and those objects can speak back to us. They don’t have to be beautiful or important. We live in times of material excess, which has sensitive types running for cover towards the abstractions, the non-materiality, of art, religion and literature. Yet nothing is more powerful than a thing.
This was also the theme of the British Museum’s masterful exhibition A History of the World in 100 Objects. Like the British Museum, the Barbican has also asked visitors to contribute online with descriptions of their own treasured objects, items infused with memories and emotion. Perhaps they really do tell the history of the world better than songs, or prayers, or ideas.
I asked Song what the most precious object in the collection was, and he pointed to a neat pile of about 100 bars of soap. It was the rarest of commodities, he explained, and collected with fanaticism by dutiful housewives, including his mother. “Some of it is older than me. It was what she gave me as a wedding present.”
I was reminded of the first work by Song that I ever saw, a photograph of a 1996 performance in which the artist lay face down on Tiananmen Square and breathed on to the ground for 40 minutes. A thin layer of ice formed. And then it melted. Biscuits get eaten. Even soap wears away, eventually. The evanescence and futility of lives are rarely conveyed with such sureness of touch. “I learned a lot from my mother’s generation,” Song told me. “We waste so much today.”
‘Song Dong: Waste Not’, The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, until June 12,