Many profound changes have taken place on the Chinese contemporary art scene in the last two decades, as China’s society and economy have gradually opened up to the rest of the world. The record-breaking boom in demand for Chinese contemporary art in international markets seems to have attracted the most attention. Less obvious but equally important change is also occurring in the fundamental ways that art is thought about and valued within China. Perhaps the greatest insight that ‘Waste Not’, Song Dong’s current installation at the Barbican, offers us is that this lofty process of artistic revaluation is grounded in changes at the most basic level of everyday material existence.
Song Dong is a conceptual artist best known for his esoteric and transient performance pieces. In ‘Breathing’ (1996) he exhaled onto the ground in Tiananmen Square and on the surface of the frozen Lake Houhai, creating a patch of ice one the former, but not the latter. It symbolised how our capability to transform the world through our actions depends on having a strategy that is sensitive to context, but it could also be read as a criticism of the uncompromising nature of the more radical pro-democracy activists and intellectuals of his generation, and a metaphor for the limits of unreflective idealism.
Song Dong graduated in Visual Arts in the seminal year of 1989, and his output is typical of what the critic Gao Minglu has called ‘apartment art’, that is, art made using basic resources by artists who were the first to wean themselves from dependency on the state, and who have remained at the margins of ‘official’ culture. Many avant-garde artists from this ‘New Wave’ generation first achieved fame and success overseas, even after the Communist Party started to realise that it might pay to be more relaxed when confronted with the shock of the new. Political liberalisation by itself does not explain the rising esteem of conceptual art in China; traditional concepts of artistic worth have also evolved.
The official culture of Imperial China was predominantly literary, with poetry and philosophy regarded as the highest art forms, and with painting deriving its value by association with calligraphy. Sculpture and other art forms were valued for the technical prowess that they embodied, but they were still regarded as crafts and not as ‘high art’. Crucially, this hierarchy of artistic value was not simply aesthetic, but had a moral dimension. Since the mastery of a script consisting of 80,000 characters required extensive practice, the quality of an artist’s brushstrokes determined how accessible the message would be and, in turn, was believed to offer a glimpse into the artist’s soul (at least in terms of who the artist considered as standing inside or outside of ‘China’ – a nation defined by culture not ethnicity). By contrast, a purely pictorial representation was held to be universally and uniformly accessible to all Chinese, a belief underpinned by a confidence in the unifying power of a common Chinese culture.
Such elite ideas survived the twentieth-century, which is one reason why until quite recently the Chinese contemporary artists who have achieved most recognition within China have been those working in paint and related media. Partly from a desire for a space for creative freedom, Song Dong abandoned painting early in his career and turned to conceptual art. ‘Waste Not’ (from a Chinese adage: wu jin qi yong) is a sprawling assemblage of possessions that Song’s mother Zhao Xiangyuan accumulated over her lifetime. The installation consists of all manner of bric-a-brac, from bottle-tops to old newspapers, cereal boxes to antiquated durables, snakes around the zig-zag exhibition space, climaxing with the skeleton of the wooden outhouse in which she stored the flotsam and jetsam of her oftentimes precarious existence.
In the first place it is a powerful reminder of how the trajectory of Chinese art reflects the great upheavals and traumas that touched the lives of over a billion people since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The reality of living with material insecurity is made concrete in the preamble to the exhibit, in which Mrs Zhao describes how she was dependent on the organs of the state – represented at the local level by her work unit (danwei) - for all the necessities of life. But she also knew that as a woman of ‘bad’ class background (her father had been a state employee under the previous regime) she was especially vulnerable to persecution from frequent and vitriolic political campaigns. Her habit of hoarding thus began as insurance against the CPC denying her access to subsistence.
According to Song Dong, the traditional Chinese virtue of frugality (wu) means that ‘anything that can somehow be of use should be used as much as possible’. Given China’s historic problem of managing high population density relative to available arable land, the stigmatisation of waste is understandable. But the Communists also co-opted the virtue of frugality in their propaganda, with a twist. Thrift now meant that some (mostly rural) people should forego all but the most bare material necessities in order that the surplus can be used by other people (mostly urban workers and cadres) to experiment in the hope of generating material abundance, and thus self-sufficiency. Such grand experiments could be hugely wasteful, but they embodied a radically modern ideal. Although Imperial China is famed for its feats of using large-scale technology to tame the forces of nature, it was the Communists who married this to the belief that traditional hierarchies in society were not objective, fixed laws of nature but malleable constructs that can also be re-ordered in pursuit of development.
In extremis, making a virtue of frugality can easily blur into making a vice of experimentation and risk-taking, since the possibility of expending inputs on a process that yields an unanticipated, and perhaps useless, outcome is intrinsic to experimentation, whether in science or in society. The Qing dynasty, the last to rule China, was trapped by this kind of hostility even to modest reforms designed to catch-up with Western science and technology. To break out of this rigid impasse, the logic of frugality needed to be extended to people, conceived of as resources in themselves. If an assessment of material abundance or scarcity depends on how we perceive the human potential for creativity and innovation, then any such assessment contains a political judgment. Consequently, policies that restrict freedom of choice and purport to be predicated solely on an assessment of established facts effectively impose a particular, naturalised political idea; such restrictions are not just material, they are also ideological.
It was this insight that lay behind Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators in the 1980s, who believed that the CPC was prolonging the burden of rationing (as recently as 1984 a worker would need to save up several years’ worth of danwei coupons to buy a bicycle) not because of any objective necessity but as part of an anti-democratic effort to preserve an outdated ideology that had lost so much of the loyalty it could formerly command.
In the period since then – the so-called era of ‘Reform and Opening-Up’ – frugality has undergone a further transformation. Although many of the older generation in China bemoan the relentless forward march of consumerism, Mrs Zhao does not appear to be amongst them. In her written introduction to the installation, she acknowledges the differences in attitudes towards material belongings between the generations. But instead of asserting that one generation is more ‘correct’ in its aspirations and values than the other, she simply hopes the installation will help China’s youth to appreciate their own situation by better understanding where they have come from. It is possible to read the work as a message to those who have grown up in a richer, freer and more stable China, reminding them that it was not always thus and that the present must not be taken as given. It looks to the past to illuminate the opportunities of the present, and the moral duty we have to not waste them.
In this spirit it would be a mistake to interpret ‘Waste Not’ as a straightforward critique of the materialist ethos of consumer culture, or as drawing a parallel between the drab uniformity of the Maoist era and the homogeneity of globalised consumerism. More profoundly, it hints at the possibility that material abundance can free us from the kind of tyranny that possessions have over us in times of scarcity. At the same time it reminds us that realising this liberating potential requires that we actively participate in the productive process of pushing back boundaries to human development, because it is only by being free to discover our own boundaries that we can freely consent to propositions about finitude, and to the legitimacy of political authority grounded in such propositions.
‘Waste Not’ is an injunction targeted not only at people who can’t be bothered with squeezing toothpaste tubes to the bitter end. It is a moving and evocative meditation on the importance of not wasting human potential, and why material development is a necessary but insufficient condition for living by this moral rule. It also suggests that traditional values – like frugality itself - may contain untapped potential, and that through free experiments in different modes of living we can discover new and valuable reinterpretations that retain what was valuable in the old for making sense of the world as we find it. The two interpretations of using ‘resources’ wisely are mutually dependent because the ability to autonomously choose our own values and way of life requires a degree of material independence, which in turn requires a measure of political liberty – there is no ‘steady-state’ or natural endpoint at which prosperity can be permanently traded-off for civil rights, or vice versa. Song Dong’s work raises pertinent questions for contemporary China, where political and judicial reform lags behind economic reforms that have delivered extraordinary gains in living standards.
And in doing so, he helps us to make sense of changing trends in Chinese contemporary art, because we can see that the social, political, and economic turbulence in China in the twentieth-century (implicit in the pathos of this ‘life raft’ of possessions) shattered conventional ideas that all Chinese share a homogenous cultural compass. During periods such as the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76), there was an unprecedented outburst of bottom-up activity and expression, which resulted in some of the most violent civil conflicts of the entire Mao era, and which deeply fractured the persistent idea of a common cultural ‘core’. These events impressed on many Chinese cultural elites that, when it comes to putting words into action, people that have used the same Chinese words for thousands of years discovered that they mean many different things to many different people living in different circumstances. Recognising the true extent of this cultural diversity has reduced the aforementioned gap between literary and other art forms, since paintings, sculptures and other forms are increasingly recognised within China as having a comparably rich plurality of interpretations. It is to Song Dong’s credit that ‘Waste Not’ tells us so much about the causes and effects of this ongoing revolution.