Projects 90: Song Dong at The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019-5497
June 24, 2009 through September 7, 2009
Everything is Useful
Right now the atrium of the MOMA is meticulously filled with oodles of a single person’s belongings, situated around and within the roughly hewn frame of the diminutive house that the objects once filled. It could be the most incredible yard sale you’ve ever laid your eyes upon, one for the Smithsonian, until you notice the blue neon sign hung overhead that reads, ‘Dad, don’t worry, Mum and We are fine’, and learn that the whole layout - indeed the essential function of the work itself - was intended to help the artist’s late mother cope with the death of her husband. It’s a dose of art medicine, you might say.
The installation is titled, Waste Not, and the artist, Song Dong, a paladin of cool conceptual art that can stimulate your mind while warming the cockles of your heart, has written that “art isn’t important here. The most important thing is to pull my mother out of her isolated and grief stricken world.” As Song Dong tells the story, after his father’s sudden death his mother was utterly beside herself. She withdrew, and her propensity to accumulate objects intensified. Three decades of collecting things that might one day come in handy was crosschecked by a total unwillingness to throw anything away, resulting in a suffocating clutter of stuff that was basically useless but couldn’t be trashed as a matter of principle. Any attempts Song Dong or his sister made to clean up her growing hodgepodge only resulted in conflict, as she feared they’d throw away something that could have been useful. This mentality was the driving force of her generation - Wu jin qi yong, (Waste nothing that could potentially be useful in the future) - but new wealth in China effectively nullified that value. With Waste Not, Song Dong gave his mother’s possessions a new use-value, and in the process rekindled happiness in her life.
All of the objects in the exhibition belong to Song Dong’s late mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, and some of them are actually older than the artist himself. In the first incarnations of Waste Not, (this is the fifth construction of the work) Zhao Xiangyuan organized the piles herself, and sat amongst them while the exhibition was open talking with gallery visitors or writing her memoir. Song Dong likes to say he was no more than her assistant. At the Sixth Guangju Biennale in 2006, Song Dong and his mother were honored with The Grand Award for Waste Not.
Unexpectedly, this past January, Zhao Xiangyuan passed away. Instead of closing the door on a piece that had served its original purpose, Song Dong invited his sister, Song Hui, to help him with the installation process, altering the emotional aspect of the work from restoration to reflection. The piece is no longer a vehicle through which Zhao Xiangyuan manifests the mentality of her generation; rather, it becomes more of a commemoration of a generation, and a contemplative exercise for Song Dong and his sister.
This is the first time Waste Not has been shown on American soil and it’s refreshing to see something not obsessed by youth culture, but rather quietly meditating on what preceded it. For our culture of quick gratification, hyper consumption, and ridiculous trash production, Waste Not, is an example of a life lived in reverse circumstances. It shows us who we are by presenting us with what we are not.
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Charlie Schultz was born in 1982 and raised on an equestrian farm in
central Pennsylvania. He graduated from Bard College in 2005 and
currently lives and works in New York City.