The Curve

After fifty years in the dark, Zhao Xiangyuan’s legacy and memory takes centre stage at Song Dong’s re-installation of Waste Not in The Curve at the Barbican, Londonher son’s quest into both a unique culture and a universal family framework. Rekindling very individual relationships with over 10,000 objects and through them, memories of his and childhood during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Song Dong conceived Waste Not in 2005 as a cathartic way for his mother to rediscover her life in the present through what she had collected in the past following the emotional devastation of her husband’s death.

Zhao Xiangyuan tragically died in 2009 and since, Waste Not has taken on a new dimension: serving as a platform to bring the entire family together again.

Infinitely thought over and intimately changing with each re-installation, Waste Not brings together exhausted toothpaste tubes, crippled chairs and a rather striking dilapidated section of the family home in this all-encompassing installation. The space itself is brilliantly accommodating and much less rigid and cubic than Song Dong’s reinterpretation of the piece at MoMA in 2009. The Curve allows you to sail past seas of bottle tops and marvel at the juxtaposition between the striking packaging and the austerity in which the myriad of articles were hoarded, every step brings something else into view – a perpetually shifting horizon of medicine bottles, earthenware pots and bed sheets which gives every viewer intimate time with the possessions before they encounter ever more. And then back again to read a different story of Zhao Xiangyan’s life thanks to the sinuous shapes within Barbican’s Brutalist architecture and the Song’s innovative use of space and eye for narrative curation.

Detached window frames creep up the walls and nondescript wooden sheets envelop you as you walk round. On some occasions you feel better for the experiencing of the looming vertical aspect of what Song Dong and Song Hui (his sister who assisted with the installation, along with Dong’s wife, Yin Xiuzhen) have created, wardrobes and ironing boards are brilliant elaborations on the groundwork – colour coordinated shoes and rolled shirts – and you can see how these connections have been made. You can smell the musk on the sheets, you forget that you are in a gallery and these objects (rather frustratingly) become very tactile.

However, these moments of sensory enlightenment are interspersed with an awkward, almost lazy curatorial practice. The Curve is a challenge to work with, especially if everything you are exhibiting is compartmentalised onto squared wooden boards and you have to grapple with narrow winding walkways and a preconceived meandering route through the organised chaos you are about to initiate. A barricade of chairs forbids you to get too close to amazing eclecticism of the scissor or soap collection. Arranged adjacently in a single file, trailing from the opening of the installation to somewhere over yonder, one assumes near Narnia or the radiators, the harsh backs of the chairs are a little constricting. Further in, Waste Not becomes a place where both the contents and the box it came in tower above you: the exotic printing of the cardboard and icebergs of polystyrene may give you a glimpse into how, exactly, everything was stored but it seems a little one-dimensional. All the boxes are together purely because they are all boxes and for no other reason. They take up such space in a clumsy, ramshackle way you want to fold them into themselves like Russian dolls and banish them to the back of the exhibition. Every item is vibrant with energy, the energies of previous lives and the new purpose these items now have. The room buzzes with the story of every bowl, every day ticked off old calendars and every soiled tea-cosy but you want to intervene occasionally and inject some life into monochromatic sections and make them what Song Dong has shown, from the rest of the installation, they can be.

Regardless of reused boxes and the like causing a lull in what is otherwise an exploration through waves of unexpected joy and pleasure through childlike inquisitiveness, you wonder at the extent to which Song Dong has put the life of his entire family on show and the confidence it takes to do so. When removed from a house and transported to the gallery these items take on a presence which is more than the sum of their parts and materiality becomes secondary to the emotion tug which engulfs every viewer.