Finding Art and Meaning in Hoarding

Eliminating most of my material possessions before setting off to live my life on the road left me with much lower tolerance for clutter and hoarding.  My chest used to feel tight and heavy when I thought about my parents’ packed garage, attic, closets, fridges (multiple), and freezer.  I told my friends that if there was ever an emergency, my parents could survive for a few years with everything they have at home.  Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little.  They are certainly not like those hoarders you see on reality TV programs nor do they need to seek professional help.  But they just had a lot of “stuff” that they “might” use one day.  Every few years I’d sort out their pantry, garage, or their storage bins, only to return another time to find it full again.  Mom said she didn’t like to run out of things, that it was better to have extras.

I don’t know what prompted this but finally last summer Mom took the initiative to get rid of some of their things.  She said “since you (referring to me) are here we’ll do it.”  Thanks, I guess?  It took almost a full week of hauling things out of the attic, moving decades-old furniture, and donating mountains of clothes to have some more room to breathe.  If it were up to me there would be even less left in their house but as K reminds me, it’s not my house.

So when I found out a Chinese artist had turned his Mother’s hoarding into art, I just had to go see it for myself.  What did he find in his Mother’s 10,000 pieces of household items?

IMG_0833This exhibition called “Waste Not” was part of the annual Sydney Festival, presented by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Carriageworks.



As soon as I walked into the cavernous space at Carriageworks my eyes were overwhelmed with everything all at once.  I didn’t know where to look first.


All of items were sorted by type and neatly placed, with wide enough passage ways in between for people to walk along them.


There was everything.  Everything from plastic bags folded into small squares, which reminded me of RK who does that,

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to rows and rows of plastic containers, which reminded me of Grandma who can never throw them out even when I tell her they can be recycled.

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Shoes in various shapes, sizes, and color.


A collection of bottle caps.

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Tubes of toothpaste that hadn’t been fully used and saved.

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Bottles, bottles, and more bottles.


On one side of the wall were cardboard boxes with toys and other nicknacks stacked on top.


There was a platform on the third floor where I could get an aerial view.


These household items (over 10,000 of them) were collected by the artist’ mother over five decades.  Living through a difficult time of hardship and scarcity she used, reused, and repurposed everything she had.  After her husband passed away in 2005, her artist son Song Dong suggested that they work on this installation together, in an effort to help sort out her life.  He wanted to give her “a space to put her memories and history in order” to free her from material possessions yet preserve his parent’s dignity.

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Song Dong said of this project,

Wu jin qi yong (rendered as Waste Not in English) was not only the guideline for my mother’s life, but also portrays a whole generation of Chinese people.  In the Chinese dictionary, the explanation of wu jin qi yong reads: anything that can somehow be of use, should be used as much as possible.  Every resource should be used fully, and nothing should be wasted.”


Song Dong’s mother passed away in 2009 but the artist continues to show this around the world, working with his wife and his sister to reorganize and reconfigure the installation.

As I have myself experienced a similar type of “collecting” in my own family I wondered about where daily life of a hoarder ends and art begins.  Why is this installation considered art and not simply a public display of hoarding?  Did the act of unpacking, sorting, and arranging transform the items into contemporary art installation?  Is it about the intentions behind the artwork?

Is there certain virtue in frugality?  Does holding on to things create an intimate cocoon of memories, warmth, and safety that turns a house into a home?  I think my Mom and Grandma both know that they couldn’t possibly use all those empty glass jars they have around the house.  Do they represent for them something other than clutter and just stuff?  Are they now collecting for the sake of collecting?  Is it ironic or fitting that Song Dong’s mother’s everyday household items are now being used as contemporary art?  They didn’t go wasted after all…


Carriage Works: 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh, NSW

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art: 181—187 Hay Street, Haymarket, Sydney, NSW


Street art on the way from Redfern train station to Carriageworks.

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Double Take at the White Rabbit Gallery

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1 Response to Finding Art and Meaning in Hoarding

  1. lunasealife says:

    “They didn’t go to waste after all.” Ha! Yes, and now after her death, due to his re-framing/re-valuing, they’re providing an income for her son! She couldn’t have imagined a better use for all this stuff, I’m sure.

    As a former horder(lite) and child of packrats, I am so glad I’m lighter now – though the clutter does still accumulate when I stop for too long.

    The human psyche is so fascinating.

    While I think there is virtue in the concept of not wasting anything (though simply *keeping* trash doesn’t mean that you’re not still guilty of *creating* trash), I think there’s a more important goal of lessening consumption. Ie using a few cloth bags instead of amassing all those plastic bags, and for god’s sake, the majority of the stuff arriving in those plastic bottles is not good for you.

    And I think art is always a matter of framing it as such.

    Also, the toothpaste tubes gross me out.

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