One woman’s treasure

is another woman’s rubbish, and there is something oddly pathetic about both.

Chinese artist Song Dong’s walk-through installation in the Barbican is made up of just some of the masses of things his mother collected over a lifetime of hoarding. Old shoes and clothes; rolls of fabric; plastic bottles and glass jars and biscuit tins; mouse traps and bird cages; laundry soap and toothbrushes and used-up tubes of toothpaste…

It all reminded me of the hopelessly transient Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, who collects empty cans and old newspapers

 because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.

Sylvie tries desperately to be like other people, play-acting at keeping a home, a family, but she simply has no idea how to do it. Things, whether they are carefully washed empty cans or dried-up bars of soap, do not a home, a future, or stability make.

Song Dong’s mother, living through years of communist shortage, hoarded because she was afraid that tomorrow there would be no more soap. And then, as shortage turned to surplus, she was afraid that tomorrow there would no longer be the right kind of soap, the type she understood and was accustomed to. When everything is changing so fast, you hold on all the tighter to what is familiar.

I recognised lots of things from Song Dong’s mother’s hoard. Gigantic thermos flasks with flowers on the side. Enamelled bowls decorated with scarlet fish and peonies. The spotted and flowered cotton fabric that is used for aprons and baby carriers and sleeve protectors throughout the country. The country may be changing at an impossibly fast rate, but these things are still quintessential China.

Strangely enough, among all the assorted footwear, there was not a single pair of Liberation Army shoes

I recognised many things, but in fact in China I never met a hoarder; instead I was struck by how little people seem to possess. I stayed with families who apparently had fewer possessions (including the ubiquitous red and white enamel bowl and flowery thermos) in their entire house than I had in my rucksack.

I was envious of them. I imagined (from my ignorant outsider’s viewpoint) they had everything they needed, and had done away with the superfluities. These, I thought, were people the deprivations of communism, and the incredibly fast changes of state capitalism, seemed to have passed by. They were too small to be affected, too modest, too far away. It was hard to reconcile their lives, tucked away in the mountains of rural China, with those other mountains of stuff coming out of the factories of East-coast urban China and taking over the world.

Song Dong and his siblings tried to persuade their mother that in these days of plenty she did not need to hoard anymore, and to throw away some of her useless stuff. Then they realised they were only making her unhappy. So instead, Song Dong invented a purpose for all her accumulated stuff – he turned it into ‘art’.

Those things that had waited so long to be used could finally be used. My mother was very happy and told me: ‘keeping those things was useful, wasn’t it.’

This backwards logic reminds me again of Sylvie in Housekeeping. The hoarding of useless things is at the heart of Robinson’s work of art too. Possessions can’t be family or home or happiness. But they can be a history of a country, a mentality, an act of love and of art.

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