There are many ways to make a portrait of one’s mother. Probably the most famous example is James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s painting of his old mum sitting in a chair, looking a stiff as an Egyptian statue. He titled the picture: Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1875).
In Waste Not, one of the major visual art events of this year’s Sydney Festival, Song Dong has given us a picture of his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan (1938-2009), through the thousands of things she collected during a lifetime that encompasses the entire Maoist era. It was a period of extreme hardship and peril.
Perhaps the most original part of this installation is that Song Dong actually turned his mother into the artist, allowing her to arrange the items within the gallery when the piece was first exhibited in Beijing in 2005. Zhao Xiangyuan was in residence throughout the show, talking with visitors and telling stories about the objects on display. Her presence gave a personality to things that would normally be regarded as rubbish.
Before arriving in Sydney, Waste Not has been shown in South Korea, Germany, Great Britain, and in 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The British showing, in Walsall, was the first time that Song Dong had to reconstruct the piece without his mother. He and his sister, Song Hui, felt that “if they immersed themselves in the objects, their mother would still be there with them.”
“In fact,” writes the curator, Wu Hung, “they tried to convince themselves that her spirit was actually there, among the things she had gathered around herself for so many years.”
Whether or not Zhao Xiangyuan’s spirit has made the journey to Australia, to see her treasures installed at Carriageworks, this is an unusually intimate and touching event. At first glance Waste Not resembles the ‘accumulations’ of artists such as Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, or the late Jason Rhoades, but we quickly realise it is a completely different proposition. We may still be looking at a lot of junk, but it is meaningful junk, collected piece-by-piece by a single person because she thought it might come in handy one day.
Zhao Xiangyuan was not only the creator of this stockpile, she was the victim of it. Song Dong initially conceived of the installation as a kind of therapy to cure his mother of her compulsive hoarding, which had taken on a pathological dimension since the death of his father in 2002. Her apartment was completely crammed. She grew angry and anxious at the thought of throwing anything out.
It doesn’t require Sigmund Freud to work out the reasons for this behaviour. Zhao Xiangyuan’s thriftiness was inscribed onto her soul during childhood, when her father was sent to a labour camp, and she and her mother endured the most crushing poverty. When one is living hand-to-mouth, the smallest items might be recycled and turned into something useful.
In later years the habit persisted, even though she and her extended family lived in cramped quarters. During the Cultural Revolution history repeated itself, as her husband, Song Shiping, was sent away for re-education. It was only after Shiping was rehabilitated that the pressures of life began to ease, but by this stage hoarding had become second nature.
Song Dong could see the reason his mother’s collecting activities escalated in her old age. He wrote at the beginning of this project: “I understand her need to fill the space with those objects of daily life rather as a need to fill the emptiness left after my father’s death.”
Zhao Xiangyuan’s story is not exceptional. She is in many ways a typical product of that sad and difficult era, when Chairman Mao launch a ‘Great Leap Forward’ that plunged the nation into chaos and poverty, and contributed to the deaths of 40 million people. While the quality of life continued to shrivel, the revolutionary songs and slogans grew ever more strident. With such a recipe for madness, she did well to only become a compulsive collector.
In Waste Not we not only see the material traces of one woman’s psychopathology, we see the manias and obsessions of a nation living in an extended state of insecurity. It is not merely a portrait of Song Dong’s mother, but a portrait of recent Chinese history constructed from many diverse objects, like a painting by Arcimboldo.
If you are wondering exactly what Zhao Xiangyuan collected, Wu Hung has complied a list of 53 separate categories of object, before giving up and writing “and so on.” It begins with wooden boards, chairs, blocks of polystyrene, flower pots, pottery jars, bars of soap; and goes on to include plastic bottle caps, fast food containers, telephones, bottles, bags, shoes, toys, old clothes, bird cages, an old gramophone and television set. And so on! Seeing this show may galvanise some viewers into cleaning out their own cupboards and sheds.
Many of these items are worn and dirty, imbued with a sense of tawdry pathos. In Beijing, the display held a special nostalgia for people who came up to exchange stories with Zhao Xiangyuan. Seven or eight years later, this remarkable hoard acts as a memorial to its producer, and continues to strike an emotional chord with audiences.
There is nothing exotic about the kind of things Zhao Xiangyuan collected. Every piece has its counterpart in Australia, or almost any other country. By focusing so intently on these things Song Dong has created – or facilitated – a work of universal relevance.
Waste Not is the supreme example of that tendency in contemporary Chinese art Wu Hung calls “the domestic turn”. I’m not sure about this label, as it conjures up thoughts of kitchens and lounge rooms, but he is referring to a newfound concentration on the rapidly changing circumstances of life in China. It is a third phase, after the breakthroughs of the ’85 New Wave, when artists were able to engage for the first time with modern western art; and the plunge into commercialism and kitsch of the 1990s, as Chinese artists began to create products for an international market.
Song Dong was born in 1966, but he is very much at home with a younger generation of Chinese artists who are less concerned with grand political statements than with the minutiae of their own lives. This is a tendency one sees in many of the works shown at the White Rabbit Gallery. The paradox is that a close examination of private life leads inevitably to some form of political understanding.
When Waste Not was shown in Beijing, Song Dong included a sentence, spelled out in neon, and located in a skylight: “Dad, don’t worry! Mom and us are fine.” This was meant to be a message to his late father and a consolation to his mother, who was still grieving.
In Sydney, a variant on this sentence is installed in a skylight at Gallery 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, in Haymarket, as part of a complementary exhibition.
This time the message reads: “Dad and Mum, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well.”
If the Carriageworks show is all about Song Dong’s mother, the works at Gallery 4a are focused on his father, Song Shiping. In a series of video projections and installations, Song Dong examines his relationship with a father from whom he always felt slightly distant. This was not because there was any lack of love on either part, but because Song Dong, who was born in the same year the Cultural Revolution was unleashed, hardly saw his father during his childhood.
When Song Dong was seven, Shiping made a rare visit home from the camp where he was interned. The boy turned and ran when he saw this strange man coming – another common occurrence during those days. In fact I’ve seen that exact scene played out in a Chinese movie.
In a video piece called Touching Father (1997) Song Dong projects his own hand onto his father’s body as a substitute for the physical contact that never seemed possible. In other pieces he projects his face over that of his father or other family members, emphasising the deep connections that override any sense of estrangement.
It is an odd sensation to watch a father and son who obviously have a great love for each other, struggling to overcome the invisible barriers that have grown up between them. Song Dong stares at his father and his father stares at him. The son’s phantom hand touches the father on his chest, and Shiping removes his shirt to improve the quality of the contact. It is not simply a generation gap that has to be bridged, it is the legacy of a revolutionary ethos that made adversaries out of children and their parents. One realises there is still a lot of work to be done in healing the wounds that a poisonous ideology inflicted on Chinese family life.
Song Dong: Waste Not, Carriage Works, January 5 – March 17, 2013
Dad and Mum, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well, 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, January 5 – March 30, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 9, 2013