June 6, 2023

Reading Rubbish. Song Dong: Waste not. The Curve, Barbican, London.

Song Dong’s mother kept odds and ends in case they ever came in useful. I recognise the compulsion but rarely act on it. I’m often chastised for cardboard and milk containers in with the regular rubbish just because the recycling bag is jam packed. Dong’s mother kept everything. Beginning in the sixties out of necessity, but it became an obsession, and even more so when Dong’s father died in 2002.

My daughter (6 ¾) and I wandered the meandering path cleared between carefully arranged taps, washing up bowls and souvenir tea trays. Then by the most spectacular snapped relics of packing polystyrene, all of it at a slight remove from our day-to-day with the Chinese ideograms and differently stylised advertising.

It made me think of those paparazzi grubbing around in D-listers’ trash, how much they learn. This wasn’t a grubby experience. How much we learned. Dolls loose their arms in China, and chairs grow threadbare in the same way; there is always too much string; we all feel guilty for plastic bottle tops.

I want to list what we saw because of the inherent humour or pathos: was it just me who found the tin of rusting ball bearings funny? the radiators imposing ? the triangles of dozens of plastic bags folded inside themselves unnerving? the shoe box of teddy bear fur scraps more heartbreaking than when McNulty balls-ed up his chance of happiness in The Wire? I stared into decade old emulsion caked onto a tin in the same way astronomers scan rainbow nebula.

All this stuff carefully handled for decades, telling the story of hardship, of family and the human capacity for dealing with what life throws at you.



I sneakily rubbed the worn fabric on a chair seat: every object had become super-charged with meaning, as if to vibrate with poignancy. Suddenly, R. Mutt’s upturned urinal is back in the forefront of your mind, making more sense than the news or anything your parents ever said.

None of what was saved by Dong’s mum will be used for what it was intended, but rest in archival sound boxes between exhibitions. The inevitable waste and rust slowed down in order for this exhibit to be replicated, until my daughter is an old woman. How long does it take a bottle top to degrade?

This show, in its simplicity, staggers.  Every single tail end of flex or carefully scrunched plastic bag has a purpose and has reused in a manner magnified beyond the original intention. Nothing wasted.


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