What a sight: The second storey of the Vancouver Art Gallery, usually stark and pristine with priceless works of art, is filled with stuff. It would not be unfair to call the items, spread out on the floor across three large rooms, junk. But these things - pop bottles, cans of Raid, bits of outdoor carpeting, socks - were a treasure to one woman, and as such have travelled to art galleries around the world in a monumental installation called Waste Not.
This installation is the work of Song Dong, a noted Beijing-based conceptual artist. Consisting of more than 10,000 items, as well as the frame of the tiny house where he grew up, Waste Not serves as a memorial to his father, Song Shiping, and a tribute to his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan. There are strong echoes here of both the Cultural Revolution and of China's new consumer culture. And there's an environmental message too: Nothing in Zhao's life was thrown out, or went to waste.
Deemed a counterrevolutionary in the 1960s, Song's father was sent away for a number of years to be "re-educated" at a labour camp when Song was about 3. To earn a living for herself and her two young children, Zhao became a house painter.
Those events only exacerbated her obsession with collecting material goods. Scarred by sudden poverty in her own childhood (her father, accused of spying, had been imprisoned), and with household items difficult to obtain in Communist China, Zhao held onto everything. Before her son was even born, she was hoarding bars of laundry soap. She presented a box of the soap to him, decades later, for a wedding gift. Some of the bars were older than he was. A carefully stacked pile of ancient soap is one of the first things the visitor encounters in Waste Not.
"I think this soap is her heart," Song, 44, said, while installing the show in Vancouver. "She said, 'I had [a]really hard life. I don't want you to have the really hard life, so I keep [these things]for you, for your daughter or son.' "
In 2002, Song's father died suddenly of a heart attack at 66. The impact on Zhao, then 64, was tremendous. Once very social, she didn't want to go out, didn't want to talk to anyone. The woman who had saved everything, storing it away in boxes, wanted to see these things again. She began unpacking. Each item held a memory, a treasured connection to her husband.
So when Song and his sister tried to organize it all and throw some of it away, their mother resisted. Strongly. "My mother was really, really angry with us," Song said. "All night I can't sleep. I think a lot. Maybe I can find my mother's way to have a life."
It took him three years, but Song completed the mammoth task of organizing the enormous collection into an installation, which opened at a gallery called Beijing Tokyo Art Projects. "When we do this work for my mother, she was really, really happy. She said: 'Finally you will use all of the things.' "
The Beijing opening was a turning point for Zhao. "My mother sat there and talked with other people. They had the same memories, same stories. My mother said the work gave her a second life."
For each item, there is a story. The neatly stacked fast-food containers were once filled with his mother's homemade meals for homeless cats. The squeezed-empty toothpaste tubes had once been carefully cut open by his father, so that he could mix watercolours in with the toothpaste, to give his young, artistic son the "oil paint" he had requested.
His grandmother's tiny shoes stand next to his niece's large, flashy orange sneakers. This is his quiet comment on evolving perceptions of beauty: In his grandmother's time, it meant bound feet; for his niece, beauty is athleticism.
There are half-finished knitting projects, a bed piled with pharmaceutical packaging, 10 umbrellas (one broken), 24 watches (plus one watch strap), boxes for everything from fresh hen eggs to an HDTV.
Objects are subjective. The viewer walks in and sees a child's jacket. Song looks at it and sees his childhood; his mother's careful hands, sewing. He sees her quiet strength, making him a little People's Liberation Army jacket (which he coveted) despite the fact that the army had taken her husband away.
Song first envisioned Waste Not as a tribute to his father. At each show, he installs a sign. "Daddy, don't worry. We are well," is how the Mandarin sentence roughly translates.
"That's facing the sky," says Song. "So my father knows we're here."
Last year, Song's mother was trying to rescue a wounded bird in a tree, when she fell and died. Days later, Song had to install Waste Not at a gallery in Britain. "That time, we just cried," he says. "It was a really hard time." Later that year, the exhibition travelled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That was also difficult: Zhao had planned to be there; she had already obtained her visa.
At the VAG, surrounded by his mother's things, Song feels her presence. "My mother is everywhere, not only here, because my mother and father are in the sky. They can see the sentence. They can know we are in Vancouver now."
Waste Not is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Jan. 16 (vanartgallery.bc.ca).