What Our Things Say About Us

Like many conceptual art installations, the Chinese artist Song Dong’s exhibition on the mezzanine floor of the Museum of Modern Art (through Sept 7) has to be experienced in order to be appreciated. Entitled “Waste not”, the exhibit offers literally the entire contents of the artist’s Beijing hutong (courtyard) house, everything that the artist’s mother, driven by the watchword of her generation in China, wu qi jing yong -- “waste nothing which might have some use” – used, recycled and hoarded over the years. Meticulously gathered, categorized and displayed in MOMA’s pristine space, are (just to name a few) stacks of wood scraps, row upon row of rolled fabric scraps, used plastic soda bottles, almost-empty toothpaste tubes, paper bags, soap scraps, Styrofoam packing material, bits of string and yarn, and plastic bags carefully folded into triangular dumplings. Song Dong was born in 1966, just at the outbreak of China’s Cultural Revolution; his mother, Zhao Xiang Yuan, in 1938, during the tumultuous years when China was at war with Japan and changed hands from the Nationalist to the Communist government. Holding onto everything you could was a type of amulet against political uncertainty and shortages of goods. In the text accompanying the exhibit, Zhao Xiang Yuan tells about obtaining soap through ration coupons during China’s bleak years, and drying her soap after each use because wet soap melted away faster than dry. Placed in historical context, it’s easy to see how even an empty soda bottle can have myriad uses, or be traded for something else useful.

We New Englanders are certainly familiar with the concept of waste not want not, traditionally wearing clothes until holes show through, driving cars till their final sputter. I’ve always imagined Eli Whitney as a hoarder and tinkerer – how else could he come up with the idea of interchangeable parts? For me, walking through the exhibition felt eerily familiar, as if I was in my own parents’ basement or some of their friends’ homes. I was reminded of my college roommate who told me that when her Maine grandmother died, they found a box in the attic labeled “Bits of String Too Small to Use.” In the pre-Costco oil crisis seventies, goods were expensive, and we never knew what a winter would bring.