There’s an amazing installation at the MOMA NYC by Beijing based artist 宋冬 Song Dong called 物尽其用 or Waste Not. The breathtaking display of his elderly mother’s entire collection of material possessions (including the wooden frame of the house) covers the entire space of the second floor atrium.
Visitors are invited to walk through clear paths spliced through the painstakingly organized rubble ranging from dusty phonographs to old shopping bags. You see worn-out kung fu shoes, placed alongside tacky 80s white pumps, juxtaposed with more modern looking sports shoes. You find a large collection of old plastic soda liter bottles, old stoves, large teddy bears, a cupboard stacked quarter a meter high with old medicine packaging. You wonder where the heck did she find the space to store all these items. At a far end of a wall near the ceiling, the words 爸爸，别担心，我们和妈妈都挺好的。Papa, don’t worry, we and mom are all doing well glowed in neon blue lights. This installation started as an attempt to help his mother cope with the grief of her husband’s passing in 2002. She too has since passed away. 物尽其用 has the lyrical sentiment of a Mahler-esque requiem.
Walking through the exhibition, these innocuous commercial products lose their cold, industrial edge. In its place, I realize that each of these items were dearly valued, some probably loved. The human and history behind each of these material, commercial items was haunting. Amassed over 50 years, I could almost trace the modern Chinese’ journey from Mao to now. Poor to rich. Each item, each nearest, slightest possession was luxury. A value that can’t possibly be compared with the spoils that we modern urban folk throw out a daily basis.
As I lingered in the installation, longer than I did for the Matisse or Picasso, I eavesdropped on what others were saying. Wow, I guess I’m not so bad compared to her. How did she keep all this stuff. This can’t be the real frame of the house. It felt like a flea market of sorts.
Yet seeing these items laid out in a New York City building, surrounded by people foreign and touched by a tribute of a stranger, I felt a strange and ironic familiarity. Off-white electric hot water boilers that you have to pump by hand. Beautifully designed shopping bags that I could always count on getting from my 二姨, who kept them even though they had accomplished the task of transporting her purchases safely home. Metal mooncake boxes my 大姨 would keep just because they were pretty. Modest wooden framed beds with rock hard mattresses, exactly the ones I slept in whenever I stayed over with my aunts. Dark, unfinished wooden cupboards emptied and moved when my grandfather passed away.
Sometimes material possessions do mark a life.