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Song Dong "Waste Not", The Curve, 15 Feb – 12 June
Song Dong "Waste Not", The Curve, 15 Feb – 12 June 2012 Photograph by: Jane Hobson Courtesy Barbican Art Gallery

Song Dong: Waste Not

How pieces of soap, bottle caps, folded shirts, stuffed animals and old shoes build up the Chinese artist's latest expo

Born in Beijing in 1966, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Song Dong is today one of China’s most celebrated conceptual artists, incorporating his extremely personal, poetic and meditative vocabulary into mediums ranging from performance to video and installation. Bridging art and life, modernity and tradition, his vision has often transmitted the idea of the ephemeral – after all, he has superimposed a film of his own hand over a film of his father, forging an otherwise absent intimacy ('Touching My Father'), written an unseen diary with water on a block of stone ('Writing With Water') and, for 40 minutes, breathed over the cold pavement of Tiananmen Square and the icy surface of the Back Sea lake in Beijing ('Breathing').

My favourite object is the soap, which you can see near the beginning of the exhibition. My mother collected the soap during the time of the Cultural Revolution and some pieces are older than me

This question of change is also discussed in 'Waste Not': consisting of over 10,000 items used, recycled, preserved and collected by the artist’s mother over five decades, (from a dismantled section of their original wooden house frame, a chapped fridge, plastic bowls, blankets, bottle caps, toothpaste tubes and toys), the monumental expo that now opens at The Curve is a tribute, a collection of memories, a portrait of China and a history of survival through times of hardship and great change. Here, we speak to the artist about his work, his life and his family. 

Dazed Digital: You grew up in China in a time when being an artist wasn't considered an honorable profession or one that a person should strive for. When did you start painting and how did you know you wanted to become an artist?
Song Dong:
I started painting when I was three years old. When I was very young I didn’t want to go to kindergarten as I thought I wouldn’t be free so I let my mother keep me at home. I felt free at home. I wanted to become a big painter in the future but at that time I didn’t know you could do so much with art, I thought it was just about painting. 

DD: 'Waste Not' is about your life, your mother, your family. Can you tell us a bit more about the story behind the expo?
Song Dong:
In 2002 my father passed away very suddenly and my whole family was deeply sad. My mother stopped talking with other people. She stayed silent and would just cry. She not only held onto everything, she let it build up everywhere, all over the table, all over the bed, all over the floor. I, with my sister, tried to organise her room, to make it clean and perfect, but this made my mother really angry and for a whole night I couldn’t sleep. I knew I didn’t want to control her again.

So I had this discussion with my mother and said, "maybe in the future we can show all of the things you have". My mother, in the beginning, didn’t agree. She said "if you show this, everyone will know your mother is messy". So I told my mother, "if we show this work I think it will really help me and our family" and then my mother agreed, she said, "if it will be good for you then I can do everything for you". We first showed the work in 2005 in the Tokyo Art Gallery in Beijing. When the show opened lots of people came to talk with my mother because our family had a similar story to theirs. Talking with these people during this time helped my mother get better. So this work really changed her life.

DD: Do you have a favourite object amidst all?
Song Dong:
Yes, my favourite object is the soap, which you can see near the beginning of the exhibition. My mother collected the soap during the time of the Cultural Revolution and some pieces are older than me. My mother was really worried about my future. She was worried that if I couldn’t get enough soap then maybe I wouldn’t have a really good life because during the Cultural Revolution each family could only get one piece of soap per month to use for washing themselves and their clothes.

So on the day I got married my mother gave me all of the soap she had saved for me as a gift. But I said "no, now we use washing machines, I don’t need that soap". I think my mother was really upset but she said "ok, I will keep the soap for you". So when we started to do 'Waste Not' and I found the soap again, by then I had learnt a lot from my mother and her generation, and so now I think that it is not only an object, it is love, so that is my favourite.

DD: How did your 'Writing diary with water' project come about? For how long have you been doing it?
Song Dong:
I’ve been doing that since 1995. I think 'Writing diary with water' is really different to 'Waste Not' because with the water diary you cannot remember something, you cannot see, but here at the Barbican you can see so many things. For me, I think something and nothing is the same because in the end there is nothing.

DD: What about the 'Breathing' performance at Tiananmen Square and the Back Sea lake, what message did you want to convey?
Song Dong:
I think it’s just my feeling. The thinking is about how I live in the cultural and in the social and I think it is a dialogue with our history and our life.

DD: In which way does 'Waste Not' also reflect China's past and traditions? How do you feel about the rapid modernization of the country?
Song Dong:
I think 'Waste Not' really reflects normal life and the difference between generations. For example my grandfather and grandmother had a different life from the rest of my family, which you can see by the different objects and the relationship the object’s history has with normal life. In the exhibition you can see my grandmother’s shoes, small shoes because her feet were bound, so the size is small but the style is really traditional. There are also sports shoes belonging to my niece so you can see how different generations of woman have a different sense of what is beautiful. In Waste Not you can see the cultural life of everyday people. So it is like a little history.

‘Song Dong: Waste Not’ - until 12th of June 2012 at The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, London