I just returned from New York, where I witnessed the intersection of pathology, culture and politics in Song Dong’s art installation Waste Not, at the Modern Art Museum. 

“Waste Not” is the English translation of a cultural mandate under the Chinese communist regime when supplies were scarce and people were terrified.  Surviving scarcity required vigilance, and because of the cultural-economic-social stew, saving became both a moral and practical imperative. 

Where does fear go when it is no longer useful?   This is a favorite-flavored gum for a therapist to chew.  Waste Not is a testament to the staying power of fear, how it costs real comfort, and outlasts logic. 

Mr. Dong imported his deceased mother’s worldly possessions and arranged them in neat groups:  Bits of string, partially used bars of soap, bottle caps, shopping bags, rusty exhaust pipes, empty disposable water bottles and broken pots were saved along with shoes, clothes, and carefully bundled old newspapers.  In the center of this massive cornucopia of debris stood the tiny wooden frame of his mother’s house, a space smaller than my therapy office.


The fear-based hording phenomenon makes me think about the common western lifestyle of “inadvertent collecting.”  This does not result from personal experience of tangible insufficiency.  Unlike our parents and grandparents, most adults today did not survive the depression.  Most of us did not live through World War II, when victory gardens provided a real alternative to hunger. 

Yet we have households so filled with stuff that we can’t find the things we need and then wind up buying more of the same.  Stores like Costco sell six packs of 28 ounce Comet.  Now, I challenge even the most OCD person in the world to go through ten pounds of Comet in a year! 

Storage facilities have become big business.  Personal organizers are an up and coming profession.  Mall parking lots crammed with cars are a testament to the American appetite to acquire.   Seeing Song Dong’s exhibit I realize this appetite to acquire surpasses nationality and is universal, only it is American wealth that supports the acquisition of snow mobiles, I-Pods and flat screen televisions, as opposed to more humble items. 

In the end, anything we own and do not enjoy or use is worthless.  I regularly scour our home for seldom used appliances, outgrown clothes, dull books, and toys that have fallen into disfavor to donate to Goodwill.   But it’s not enough to stop the tide of stuff that comes in the door.  Every birthday party brings that infernal bag of “party-favors” that my children covet and collect.  Every holiday is celebrated with tokens of affection. 

Waste Not reminds me I want to do more to let go of clutter and embrace space.  Like root-bound plants jammed together in a pot, without room we cannot grow.


One thought on “Waste Not–Then Again, Maybe We Should…

  1. I read about this exhibit with great interest. A few years ago I had many of my best-loved possessions stolen, including furniture, art, music CDs, kitchen housewares, and a ceremonial peace pipe given to me by a medicine man. I was consumed with anger, for I knew the thief and had trusted him enough that he had a key to my house. And since I had given him a key the police would not pursue it as a robbery. Shortly thereafter I moved to Nicaragua and had to get rid of everything anyway. Although I greatly prefer giving things away to having them stolen, it’s interesting that I don’t miss much. Mostly the music, for therein lie memories. Which aren’t material.

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