Emotion from the Mundane: A Meditation on the Collections of Song Dong & Dan Cox

Rhythm Circus magazine

Comparative reviews of a Barbican exhibition by artist Song Dong & an Andy Holden exhibition curated by Dan Cox at Cubbitt Gallery. 

Early in 2011 Dan Cox was curating an eclectic mix of Andy Holden's sculptures, music, films and paintings for Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. Each week the two would meet and discuss the underlying ideas and thoughts tying together Andy's work with Dan's curation and texts. One day he suggested a title for the show, Chewy Cosmos, Thingly Time, and sketched out notes on the idea the following morning. Later that day he got on his bike and was cycling through Dalston to his part-time job at a pub when he was tragically hit and killed by an HGV.

Andy's exhibition in Cambridge went ahead, in memory of Dan and with a catalogue containing his draft introduction to the exhibition, which he sent by email an hour before the collision, and unedited transcripts of recorded conversations between the two. Alongside the artist's work was the Dan Cox Library, bespoke seats and bookshelves to contain all of Dan's books. It is this library which has now, for a month, been sited in Cubitt Gallery surrounded by fragments of Andy's sculptures and studios of many artists who knew and worked with him.

Dan considered books themselves of secondary importance to the ideas and content within, that the books were just vessels which had no use other than helping with the delivery of ideas, which in turn didn't mean anything until it had been absorbed and used by the recipient. The texts act as memorial to the man who built the collection, though it is one which can be utilised and used - visitors are encouraged to sit, read and take ideas from the library whether for their own learning or in seeking to understand Dan's unconcluded thoughts upon his concept of the Thingly Time.

Just down the road from the Cubitt Gallery, in the Curve Gallery of the Barbican, Song Dong, a Chinese artist whose conceptual work usually contains a huge element of the personal and poetic, has transported to London and unpacked 10,000 items his mother collected, hoarded and stored over five decades. The title of his installation, Waste Not, relates to the relationship of a generation of Chinese people to the material world and the philosophy of not abandoning any item which may one day prove to have a use. Song Dong's mother, Zhao Xiang Yaun, was of this generation and her frugality, such as the collecting of scraps of fabric not requiring clothing coupons distributed by the Communist party, slowly developed into hoarding which then, following the sudden death of her husband and resulting emotional breakdown, took her habit to the extreme. The objects began to fill her house and clutter her life, though any attempt by her children to tidy and remove the collection only served to fuel their mother's unhappiness because, in her eyes, all those disposed objects could one day have served a use and found their purpose.

Song's method of understanding the world, and his perspective of it, was to make art. He wondered if the same process could help his mother as well as exhibit her life's collection and the Waste Notphilosophy at the same time, and this installation of disparate objects is the manifestation of Song's artistic collaboration with his mother. Medicines, yoghurt pots, a burst football, porcelain horses, 24 toothbrushes, furniture, a triangle space of the floor made up of plastic bags tightly folded into triangles themselves, towers of cardboard boxes, bird cages, cabinets with doors wide open revealing even more items within, 9 set-squares, piles of newspapers, shoes...

The list goes on, and though this is, at first sight, a collection of factory-made and consumer items, the ways in which they have been stored, organised and displayed has a deeply personal and haptic feel to it. Zhao died in 2009, but she personally laid out the first installation of items in Beijing in 2005 from which Song has derived this arrangement - in Song's words she is the artist and he the assistant. His mother's consideration and care of each item is clear in the way the objects are installed around the gallery; all the shoes are in neat rows and facing the same direction, bars of soap carefully layer on one another, bottle tops create a polka-dot surface. Each object, however small, seems to sit in its own space enabling it to be carefully observed and understood without neighbouring items crowding it out, which in itself manifests the value Zhao placed into the seemingly most disposable and useless of items. Song wrote that the “exhibition of these objects is just the visible part of this project, more importantly it gave my mother a space to put her memories and history in order.”.

The notion of a collection is a very personal thing - the editing and selection of items, whether Zhao's objects or Dan's books, is one filtered through the mind of the collector, and it's impossible not to think about the hand and mind of the person behind each when viewing them. Song's installation acts as museum to cultural change across the changing political decades of China's recent history both through the physicality of the artefacts and the poetics behind the act of collecting, though I find the more immediate museum to the personal and emotional created within the absence cast by the lost husband and father. The buttons, fabric and soap suggest the maternal and caring. Each of the piles of books and magazines is carefully bound and tied with a bow of salvaged cord suggesting of the hands, will and action of Zhao in the dedicated and sincere work of building the collection. The very mass of these 10,000 objects seems to impart upon the viewer the overwhelming importance to Zhao of the life of her husband (as Song says, “I understand her need to fill the space with those daily life objects more as a need to fill the emptiness after my father's death”) and the most unlikely commercial and disposable of objects become transformed into mournful mementos of loss, grief and emotion.

Dan's library books, too, are much more than just one copy of a print-run of thousands of identical books. As I flicked through Dan's copy of Erasmus' In Praise of Follya football ticket from Heysel stadium fell to the floor. In Bergson's Matter and Memorya train ticket from Liege to Maastricht for a journey taken a year before his traffic accident acted as bookmark. From the beginning of the same book scribbles and notes proliferate in the margins until they suddenly stop on page 66. As I read page 65 part of my mind wonders if these were the last words Dan read before his death, and if the sudden ending of his notations marks the moment that the transferral of Bergson's ideas into Dan's ended too. Or, I wonder, perhaps he just stopped reading Matter and Memory and jumped to one of his other books to fold the ideas from pages 1 to 66 into the texts of another writer, or perhaps even to transform and regurgitate his ideas developed from reading this library into his own work. These tickets, underlinings, notations and scribbles, secreted within the pages, act as reminders of the mind that was scanning the texts for ideas within, the creator of the library who was life was tragically ended so early, and imbue into the mass-produced object a hugely personal and haptic level of meaning equally felt within Song's library of objects.

Waste Not, by Song Dong at The Curve gallery, Barbican, London, 15 Feb - 12 June 2012

The Dan Cox Library for the Unfinished Concept of Thingly Time, by Andy Holden at Cubitt Gallery, London, 17 February - 16 March 2012