Song Dong’s Waste Not installation is on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, as part of the “Mom and Dad, don’t worry. We are all well” exhibit.
The exhibit has gone all over the world and San Francisco is actually its last stop, before everything (thousands of artifacts in hundreds of boxes) return to Beijing, its home. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on parts of the installation for Waste Not and interpreted for the artist and his sister Song Hui, who managed Song Dong’s art work.
The amount of “stuff” accumulated for decades by Song Dong’s mother was enormous and overwhelming. I, along with two endearing teammates, spent hours on a Saturday afternoon unpacking containers and boxes. We painstakingly unwrapped dozens of dusty, greasy and pungent styrofoam-covered bottles of decade-old rice liquors and arranged them on the surface of a tiny red cabinet as precisely as we could according to a tiny 4X6 photo on Song Hui’s lap top. Then there was the hours unraveling boxes of various strange shapes and sizes containing rusty screws and bolts and lining them up for photo shoots.
As I walked around the site on opening night, I felt excited and curious. I immediately was able to identify items resembling playthings from my childhood in China. They were so familiar and present. I had the impulse to grab a Chinese person by the arm and asked if he/she remembered those jump ropes we used to love in grade school. Mostly, i just unconsciously took photos without permission…
The most important revelation for me regarding this exhibit, is how much I, my family and Chinese people of and up to our generation, share or used to share Song Dong’s mother’s approach to material things – 物尽其用, Wu Jin Qi Yong – exhaust the use of everything. Song Hui told me, her mom always used to say “you never know when this one thing will become useful one day”. This mantra is mostly lost for the generations of Chinese brought up in China’s export-driven, hyperconsumption-driven new economy.
Waste Not reminds me that China merely needs look at its past to find solutions to its environmental problems – a past when ordinary people made things that were durable, used things until they fell apart and further recycled them in their own ingenious ways. Song Dong’s mother turned wire rollers into stools for the grandchildren and turned old clothes into cushion covers. I too, remember the days when I and my schoolmates built and created everything we played with, until it became “cool” to buy toys and throw away “stuff”. The result is a whole generation of poor children “buried under plastic bags and powerbooks” and all of China’s “rivers running black“.