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Airing the Spirits: Song Dong and Zhao Xiang Yuan’s Material World

The current Projects series at the Museum of Modern Art features the work of Beijing-based artist Song Dong in collaboration with his recently deceased mother, Zhao Xiang Yuan. Titled “wu jin qi yong,” or “Waste Not” (2005), a popular adage during the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the work is a sprawling, though densely compacted array of household objects placed on the second floor atrium. Central to the installation is a wood-framed section of the courtyard house where the artist grew up. Originally shown at the Gwangju Biennial in 2006, within a year after the work’s completion, “Waste Not” shares both personal and political significance, carefully explained in the extensive wall text that accompanies the exhibition. Through the use of language and objects, Song Dong reveals how the power of conceptual art might compare with other, more conventional forms in the history of art, such as painting and sculpture, whether from cultures in the East or the West.

Song Dong, “Waste Not,” 2005. Courtesy of Tokyo Gallery + BTAP.
Song Dong, “Waste Not,” 2005. Courtesy of Tokyo Gallery + BTAP.

For more than four decades, conceptual artists have been working with the premise that ideas have replaced material form in art. Once described as “the dematerialization of art” by critic Lucy Lippard and artist John Chandler (1968), it now appears that objects have returned to the foreground of critical attention. While seemingly ironic or backward to some Western critics, the subtle point in Song Dong’s work is less about the objects as material form than the spirits contained within the objects, as related specifically to Taoism. To cite a verse from the philosopher Lao-Tzu, who lived in southern China at the end of the Zhou Dynasty in the sixth century B.C.E.: “We shape clay into a pot / but it is the emptiness inside / that holds whatever we want … We work with being / but non-being is what we use.”

In 2002, the sudden death of the artist’s father left the family in total shock. The artist’s mother, Zhao Xiang Yuan, was devastated to the point where she could not function. In that Song Dong’s practice as a conceptual artist often incorporates the concerns and problems of his neighbors, he persuaded his mother to take an inventory of everything in the household and reorganize these objects outside the house. In doing so, the artist hoped to generate a productive activity related to their former everyday family life as a means of dealing positively with her overwhelming grief. Personal objects of all kinds would be salvaged, cleaned, wrapped, bound, stacked, packed, and saved, and then be reorganized in another space—a flat space—on the ground itself. Zhao agreed to participate and the two artists—mother and son—proceeded to commence the project.

The intensity of working together with these bundles of objects began to augment over time. Both mother and son—eventually joined by the artist’s sister and her husband—became completely absorbed in the project, beyond the artist’s expectations. They were functioning as a family unit, living and working happily together. Zhao was grieving at the outset, but slowly over time began to heal, to take pride in her family, to restore her dignity, and sublimate her grief. The objects in the house ranged from buttons to books, from plastic wrappers to mango pits, from steel rusted pipes to fixtures and tools, from clothing and textiles to Styrofoam packing molds, from endless clay pots of varying sizes to Tupperware and plastic bowls, from dining chairs to stacks of cut lumber, from medicine wrappers to children’s toys, from old turntables repaired with Band-Aids to old TV sets, from ball-point pens and markers to machine parts of all kinds.

From the perspective of political history, there is also an important message. Why the title “Waste Not”? Song Dong was born in 1966, the year that marked the beginning of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The changing times became increasingly difficult. Chaos reigned throughout the countryside. There were food shortages, and household supplies were scarce. People who were neighbors, even friends, often turned against one another. Paranoia and violence erupted unexpectedly. In such a tenuous environment, people were told not to waste anything, and not to splurge. There would be no excess. Those families that survived were those who knew how to save and make use of everything. Zhao Xiang Yuan was one of those women who quickly took control. Nothing would be thrown out. Therefore, the memory of these objects—whether handcrafted or mass-produced—carried a highly pitched emotional residue. All that she had saved was now being restructured and given a new context, thrown into a semiotic whirlwind, filled with hidden conflicts, emotions, and meanings that gradually had to be sorted out.

Walking through this installation is a moving experience. It is one of the few conceptual art works where the emotions seem not to be in conflict with the ideas. It is like walking through a garden of personal memories, learning from the past, or the gathering together of something lost from consciousness, and suddenly regained. The experience of participating—not as a distant viewer—but within the structure of meaning, expressed through this complex arrangement of objects from another time and place, only strengthens the possibility that retaining cultural diversity is essential to the the global persistence of art. “Waste Not” offers a regeneration of the values human beings need in order to regain the spirit of survival. It is possible that Song Dong may have given us the first real masterpiece in the history of conceptual art, or certainly one of the most coherent and resonant.


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a non-objective painter who lectures on art and writes art criticism. In 2017, he was given an overview of his career as an artist at Proyectos Monclova in Mexico City. Known primarily for his writing and curatorial projects, Morgan has published numerous books and catalogues internationally, now translated into 20 languages. His anthologies of criticism on Gary Hill and Bruce Nauman were published in 2000 and 2002 respectively through Johns Hopkins Press.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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