BY Madeleine Thien in Fan Letter | 28 JAN 19
Featured in
Issue 200

Madeleine Thien on Song Dong’s Installation ‘Waste Not’

‘Even a piece of paper had a trajectory and a life: to be written upon; to be used as a tablecloth or to clean the table; to be burned for heat and to become ashes’

BY Madeleine Thien in Fan Letter | 28 JAN 19

Song Dong, Waste Not, 2005–12, installation view at the Curve, Barbican, London, 2012. Courtesy: the artist and Barbican Art Gallery, London; photograph: © Jane Hobson

In 2005, Chinese artist Song Dong created an exhibition with his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, at Tokyo Gallery in Beijing. The installation, Waste Not, consists of more than 10,000 items which Xiangyuan saved from the time she was a little girl. Those 50 years saw the arrest and imprisonment of, firstly, her father and, later, her husband; the birth of modern China; the loss of tens of millions of lives to political violence; the consecration and abandonment of collective living; and spiralling waves of repression and freedom. ‘Don’t waste anything,’ Xiangyuan told her son. ‘The future will not forgive you.’ She believed that even a piece of paper had a trajectory and a life. To be written upon, folded or turned into toys. To be used as wrapping. As a tablecloth or to clean the table. To be burned for heat and to become ashes.

In Waste Not (from wùjìn qíyòng – ‘waste not’ or ‘let all things serve their proper purpose’), multiples give us the infinitely personal. Scraps of fabric, bars of soap, abandoned toys, hundreds of utensils, magazines, empty toothpaste tubes, bottles, string, even the wooden frame of Xiangyuan’s house. They are all , which can be translated as things, substance, creature or creation.

‘My mother’s way of living is art,’ Song wrote, ‘but she doesn’t know it.’ My own father, who passed away in December, had the waste-not ethos, too. A piece of clothing lived multiple lives, surviving in smaller and smaller pieces. People hold onto faith and worldly goods in such endless ways. Xiangyuan curated the show until she passed away in 2009. In those last years of her life, people who had lived through the Cultural Revolution and collected the same things, substances, creations, , would come up to her and say: ‘It’s not just your home, it’s my home also.’ 

Madeleine Thien is the author of four works of fiction. Her 2016 novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about art and revolution in 20th-century China, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governon-General's Literary Award for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Women's Prize for Fiction and The Folio Prize. She is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, New York, USA.