Continuing with the theme of trash in art, this time we have Chinese artist Song Dong’s mother’s trash, 40 years worth of it, collected through the years of hardship, turmoil and fortunes lost during the cultural revolution which started in the 1960s. Coming from a relatively well-off family, to have it all being taken away and Song’s father being sent to a labour camp for re-education must have been hard enough for Song’s mother, but when Song senior died in 2002, she went on over-drive; forbidding Song Dong and his sister from throwing anything away and filling every square inch of the house with every consumed household item imaginable, most of which would be considered trash.
Something had to give, as the house became unlivable under these circumstances, and in 2005 Song Dong convinced his mother to allow him to use this stuff in an art exhibition, entitled Waste Not (2005) which is derived from the Chinese thrift mentality, that everything has multiple uses beyond its intended use, and that one should capitalize on this, otherwise ‘one would be considered wasteful’.
But are these spent toothpaste tubes, old shoes and clothes really trash? To some they might be, but to others there is an inherent meaning to them; they bring back memories of a past, a time when politics caused upheaval, personal memories of times spent with someone in the presence of some of these objects. I think the ‘Waste Not’ ideology is just an excuse to keep something for its supposed ‘untapped value’; the real value is in its ability to mysteriously bring back memories of past times spent with a loved one lost.
For the Venice Biennale 2011, Song got 100 old dressing cabinets from China, using just the facades, he arranged them in a maze for visitors to walk around, as well as the wooden skeleton of a traditional Beijing courtyard house and metal cages enclosed with pigeon wire on top to symbolize the metal cages people enclose their windows in to prevent thieves from entering that has become so ubiquitous in certain parts of China.
These mundane dressers, homogeneous in size and layout, yet individual at the same time, reflecting something about their previous owners’ lives. In fact none of these items, except for the metal cages, are in existence anymore in Chinese society; eradicated from existence from more modern designs and economic progress, yet their meaning lies in their ‘collectiveness’.
Together these dressers symbolize the delicate balance in inter-personal power structures of communal living, a daily negotiation to achieve ‘harmony’ which used to go on for the inhabitants of every quad-partitite courtyard house in Beijing. While their eradication by economic progress suggests ‘progress’, the relationships of ‘community’ have also been lost, so the end result is isolation in a metal cage, presumably, in a high-rise.
Song seems to have found himself a niche, a recurring theme that we see over and over again, which is to salvage discarded parts of old Beijing architecture, old doors, windows or roofs and reuse them in a new configuration, cut to fit, with the new structure. It demonstrates the irony of finding usefulness in ‘useless’ items.
In both Living With The Pigeons (2005) and My City (2014), the old doors and windows I believe, represent people, who have been forced to conform to fit into a new collective whole, the changing city, represented by the arbitrary 3-dimensional overrall shape.
For the Bruges Triennale last year, Song created Wu Wei Er Wei (2015) (Doing Nothing Doing) a complex trapezoidal shape of old doors and windows, inspired by bonsai tree arrangements. While ‘wu wei er wei’ literally means doing for the sake of attaining the Buddhist transcendental state of doing nothing, Song describes this trapezoidal bonsai as ‘a mountain’, a microcosm of Bruges itself in which visitors can walk into and look back out at the city.
Strangely, he describes this piece as “looks like I’m doing a lot but actually I’m doing nothing” which I take to mean, that he’s not adding anything but reinterpreting whats already there, which is ‘the mountain of Bruges’ surrounded by water.
And in some ways looks like a Richard Diebenkorn.
“Surplus value” is value that people recognize beyond existing value. It is overlooked value. It is not about exploitation, but about discovery and creation. It is the “usefulness of uselessness.”-Song Dong
A World In A Well (2015) is another piece that uses old discarded doors and windows arranged in an arbitary octagonal cylinder shape, but this time the interior is filled with a constellation of ceiling hung pendant lights, which I presume have also been discarded to depict the concept of ‘surplus value’; the value of an object beyond its intended use.
Hidden and often overlooked, surplus value cannot easily be found and requires quite a lot of creative thinking and care. It is not just about frugality. Perhaps these lights depict the spark that occurs when one finds it.
But perhaps there is a deeper meaning than that. That these lights and the whole interior space represents a kind of utopian ideal, a lighter more sustainable, sharing, existence. An economy that benefits more for the whole, than just for the few.