Hoarding As An Art Form: Song Dong's "Waste Not"


Photos: Alex Pasternack

Something worth checking out this holiday weekend if you're in New York: Chinese artist Song Dong's "Waste Not," an installation at the Museum of Modern Art made up of most of the objects obsessively collected by the artist's mother over a half a century in her Beijing apartment.

Hoarding is often considered a compulsive disorder in developed countries Just read about the Collyer Brothers -- E.L. Doctorow has a new fictional treatment of them and I just started Franz Lidz's Ghosty Men -- or search the web for syllogomania or disposophobia. But Song's exhibit reminds us that in places like China, where economic want is either a fresh memory or a current condition for many, conserving objects is still a virtue. Sometimes it can be beautiful.

Hoarders like the Collyer Brothers might have lived in serious squalor, but there was a curatorial nature to their collection too -- something both aesthetic and ethical. As the Wall Street Journal writes of the new book,

In Mr. ­Doctorow's ­telling, Langley's hoarding has a grand design. He wants to stop the mad crush of time--with its endless ­duplications, its welter of fads and killing fields--and create a museum where everything that is extraneous will be locked out and where he can capture "the vast emptiness of this strange world." Langley has also accumulated ­mountains of clippings and periodicals with the aim of creating the ultimate newspaper, which will "fix ­American life finally in one edition."

A kind of cityscape of "junk," Song's and his mother's collection -- which includes everything from bottlecaps to take-out boxes to tables -- isn't just a testament to her struggle with the loss of her husband. It's also an artful, temporary museum for all those little things that we tend to take for granted and so often abandon, whether we want to or not. That's an especially poignant message in Beijing and other Chinese cities, where a furious progress is likely to sweep entire neighborhoods under the carpet of development.

In the immaculate 2nd floor of the museum, situated amidst the rush of midtown Manhattan, the exhibit is fascinating as a portrait of an average Chinese lifestyle, but its message is moving in another way: as a reminder of the role art and museums play in glorifying the everyday, of the tortured Western relationship to cheap objects made in China, and of the speed of change in a place lie New York City too.

Despite China's furious transition to a consumer culture of cars and clothing, collecting remains a common phenomenon among older generations in China, a remnant of a time when resources were scarcer and frugality was a political dictum. The motto "waste not," or wu jin qi yong, led Ms. Song to great lengths in her conservation, which only grew more intense following the death of her husband. Song hangs a neon sign in Chinese above the installation that reads "Dad, don't worry. Mum and we are fine."

But lingering over all of it is another loss: after getting rid of her things and moving out of her home, the Times reports, his mother died last winter after falling from a step ladder during one last act of conservation: trying to rescue a wounded bird in a tree.

When we last ran into Song, and his cityscape of cookies in 2006, he was also exploring "questions of transience, perception and the ephemeral nature of existence." Those questions are also at the heart of Song's famous, haunting New Year's Eve performance piece, and of much of Chinese contemporary art.

It's an apt time to think about those questions -- and what's redeeming, positive and beautiful about conserving things, and what's so important about all those things anyway. In an economy that has hit our incomes as hard as it's shaken our confidence, the impulse to save things (and repair rather than replace) isn't just a cost-saving measure, or an environmentally correct thing to do.

It could also be a way of recognizing the transience and disposablity of all those things we accumulate in the world, the impact their creation and disposal has, and what's most valuable to us.

One lesson perhaps (hoarders take note!): fighting waste is one thing, but also, at a certain point, less is more.

Be quick though. Perhaps appropriately, Song's monument to the impermanence of objects disappears on Monday.

Projects 90: Song Dong ends its run at MoMA on Monday, September 7. View a stop-motion video of the installation, and watch an interview with the artist.
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Tags: Artists | Beijing | China | Conservation