Household collection shows soap opera of a lifetime
''Through this work I wished to reconnect my mother with people and give her a new start in life.'' ... Song Dong's Waste Not exhibit, which will be displayed at Carriageworks. Photo: Mick Tsikas
AT FIRST glance, it looks like the cleaners at Carriageworks have downed tools. Hundreds of plastic water bottles compete for space with pots and pans, toothpaste and toys, rows of shoes and piles of clothes in the vast public foyer of the arts complex.
A pathway through Chinese artist Song Dong's Waste Not even takes visitors past the wooden skeleton of his parents' 120-year-old house.
The director of Carriageworks, Lisa Havilah, points out a calendar that marks the date in 2002 when Song's father was cremated and a large pile of soap Song's mother collected during her lifetime.
One man's trash...
Artist Song Dong stands amongst his art installation "Waste Not" of 10,000 items from his mother's house, which is displayed at Carriageworks in Sydney, December 28, 2012. Photo: Mick Tsikas
''During the Cultural Revolution, you could only get soap through collecting coupons,'' she says.
''She was worried her children wouldn't be able to have any soap as adults so she collected it to give to the kids when they became adults.''
Part of the 2013 Sydney Festival, Song's Waste Not features more than 10,000 items collected by the artist's mother over five decades, carefully laid out across an area of 1275 square metres.
Value in "something made by your hands" ... artist Song Dong. Photo: Mick Tsikas
The Beijing artist says the vast installation was originally conceived to help his grieving mother cope with the death of her husband in 2002.
"Through this work I wished to reconnect my mother with people and give her a new start in life," he says.
The title of the work refers to a Communist slogan from the Cultural Revolution exhorting people to be thrifty and reuse objects.
The 10,000 items took Song, his wife and daughter, and six Carriageworks staff two weeks to arrange on the floor of Carriageworks, and is the ninth time Waste Not has been displayed.
Waste Not was previously shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009, the year Song's mother died, and at the Barbican in London in 2012.
''Each time we have a very different experience,'' he says.
It is also a trip down memory lane for the artist, who says he discovers something new about his parents each time he installs the work.
This time, Song says he found a device his father created for rolling cigarettes, which he had not seen for more than 30 years.
Another item fashioned from scrap material by his handy father was used to make fried noodles - a simple dish denied to many during the turbulent decade of the Cultural Revolution.
''Our life was very difficult, but my father was always making things and my mother made clothes for us,'' Song says. ''I have deep memories of that. They taught me the value of something made by your hands.''
One of China's most acclaimed contemporary artists, Song was born in 1966, the year the Cultural Revolution was launched by China's leader Mao Zedong, and his work often addresses the impact of this momentous period in Chinese history on his family as well as the country's fast pace of change.
His previous works include Eating the City, a series of sculptures made from biscuits that viewers could consume, and Breathing, which featured him lying face down in Tiananmen Square and the frozen Houhai Lake.
His latest work, 36 Calendars, features household calendars depicting historical events from the past 36 years drawn by Song and will be exhibited at Hong Kong's Asia Art Archive from January 22.
A retrospective of Song's artistic practice over the past 20 years, Dad and Mum, Don't Worry About Us, We Are All Well, will open on January 5 at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Haymarket.
Although Song's work provides a personal insight into Chinese history, Havilah says it is also a portrait of a family over a number of generations that has universal appeal.
She says Australian viewers too will be familiar with the hoarding of objects for scarce times: ''In the same way our grandparents kept items in case things ran out, it connects to the Australian memory as well.''
Waste Not is on at Carriageworks in Eveleigh from January 5 to March 17.
Dad and Mum, Don't Worry About Us, We Are All Well is on at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Haymarket from January 5 to March 30.