Small expectations

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently showing Waste Not, an installation by the Chinese artist Song Dong in collaboration with his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan. The exhibition lays out all the items that Zhao collected and hoarded throughout her life. It takes several large rooms to accommodate her treasures: the old clothes, some folded up in neat bundles and others rolled up and tied with ribbons, the shoes sprawled all over the floor, the toys and handbags, the flower pots, plastic baskets, wicker baskets, pots, pans and kitchen utensils, handyman’s tools, cardboard boxes, plastic food containers, styrofoam containers, paper bags, empty bottles and jars, plastic bags folded in small triangles. (You must see the photos here if you haven’t seen the show.)

You might wonder about the mindset of someone who has made it her life’s work to hoard used plastic bags. According to the program notes, Zhao never threw anything away, even if it was broken or no longer usable. She’d lived through shortages of just about everything, and in any case new articles cost money, and anything could potentially, hypothetically, prove useful again.

As you enter the exhibition, the first thing you see is Song’s and Zhao’s notes posted on the wall side by side. Zhao explains how laundry used to be done in China, how ingenuity and folk wisdom minimized the amount of soap needed to keep the clothes clean, soap being rationed and in extremely short supply. (You can read it here if you click on the “artist book”.) Curiosity takes the better of you, so you look around, and the entrance is indeed flanked by a stockpile of coarse soap bars, laundry accessories, detergent boxes and empty cleaning liquid containers.

You could be tempted to jump to conclusions – “those poor people” as well as “why is this supposed to be art?” – but the show encourages you to take more time to think about it. Some small part of your mind has already started wondering about those mysterious little boxes stacked next to the laundry supplies. Toiletries, Chinese medicines, or something else altogether? And that’s Belgian chocolates over there, so I guess they did have those in China? And what the hell is that weird metal thing?

We had rationing and shortages of food and basic items, too, when I was growing up in Poland. My grandmother responded just like Zhao did. She kept every paper bag and plastic container “just in case”. My parents, on the other hand, had their hoarding capacity constrained by the size of our apartment, 600 square feet for the five of us. There’s no way that Zhao Xiangyuan’s shoe collection would have fit in there. We’d normally have only a few pairs of shoes for each of us at any given time: a pair each of year-round loafers, sneakers, winter boots, sandals. We rarely had two different pairs of same-purpose shoes. Once the soles wore off or we grew out of them, they were discarded and replaced.

We used everything for as long as we could, often until it broke. Every purchase – a blanket, a transistor radio or boombox – was treated as a long-term investment. You didn’t buy it unless it was really necessary, and once you had bought it, you wouldn’t discard it lightly. We always hoarded foodstuffs and toiletries in moderate amounts, because there was no guarantee that you’d be able to replace them as needed if you ran out of them, and in larger amounts when rumours warned of imminent shortages. There was a good deal of logistic planning involved.

We improvised, too. A lot. Zhao’s “coffee table”, a wooden plank sitting on top of several empty plastic canisters, struck a chord. I’ve had similar furniture, first in the dorms back in Wroclaw, then in Toronto as a graduate student. Turns out, the old habits served me well even here in the land of plenty, back when I was making a lot less money than I do now.

Are you getting tired of this already? That’s kind of my point. There’s a myth that just won’t die, that a hard life dulls the mind, leading to apathy and indifference. No. More often than not, a hard life wears you out precisely by demanding so much of your mental faculties and directing them to ends to which many of the readers here have never given much of a thought. Like where to buy soap, how to stretch your ration of it so it’ll last a month, how to make a shelf out of the plywood scraps in the basement, or where to store all those plastic bags that you might need sometime. Your mind is actually working overtime and at full speed, just not on anything that would count for much in other circumstances.

When I moved to Canada, I had a lot to learn at first: how to find a place to live, how to get around, set up a banking account, arrange phone service. But then it was done, and I found that I had a lot of free time left all of a sudden, now that I didn’t have to spend much of the day hunting for groceries and buying them one item at a time. It wasn’t an instant hell-to-heaven transition, not on the budget I had, and making ends meet still required a lot of my mental resources, but nonetheless the shift was significant. I didn’t always know what to do with that freedom. Studying mathematics, the sort where you actually sit down and think seriously about a problem, was something I’d used to do in whatever scraps of free time I had left once everything else was taken care of. It took me a while to start thinking of it as a full-time occupation, something to prioritize above grocery shopping and daily errands.

And Zhao Xiangyuan?

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 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.

One year after her death, her possessions are still touring the world as an art exhibit.

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