The Museum of Modern Art’s multistory atrium seems designed to hold monuments. But at the moment it’s filled with the distinctly ungrand contents of one person’s everyday life.
The person is, or was, Zhao Xiangyuan. She was born in China in 1938 and died in Beijing in January. For nearly 60 years she lived in the city with her husband and two children in a tiny house crammed with domestic odds and ends — clothes, books, kitchen utensils, toiletries, school supplies, shopping bags, rice bowls, dolls — which were used, then recycled, then indiscriminately hoarded. Now the entire cache, every odd button and ballpoint pen, is at MoMA, along with Ms. Zhao’s fridge and bed.
How did it get here? Ms. Zhao was the mother of the artist Song Dong, one of the most inventive figures in contemporary Chinese art. He is often referred to as a Conceptualist, meaning an artist who trades as much in ideas as in materials. And it was he who had the idea of turning the contents of his mother’s home, which was also his childhood home, into the installation titled “Waste Not.” It is at once a record of a life, a history of a half-century of Chinese vernacular culture and a symbolic archive of impermanence.
Although new Chinese art has a reputation for brash iconoclasm, loss is really its big subject. Political Pop painting may be big at auctions, but much of the most interesting new work is less about attacking the powers that be than about regretting the diminishment of the powers that were, or might have been: familial cohesion, social stability and spiritual certainty. In this respect, China’s new art is very much on a continuum with its old art, specifically with the tradition of landscape painting with reiterated motifs of changing seasons, parting friends and dreams of a golden age.
Mr. Song has, in complicated ways, been on this track for some time. He was born in Beijing in 1966, on the very eve of the Cultural Revolution, a period of ideological danger and economic want. His mother came from a wealthy family that lost everything after one of its members was jailed as an anti-Communist spy. His father, trained as an engineer, spent seven years in forced labor after being accused of counterrevolutionary activity.
Purely to survive, his parents adhered to the Cultural Revolutionary dictum of frugality in daily life, with his mother carrying conservation to extravagant lengths. In an ever-more-crowded environment, Mr. Song started painting early and prolifically — his mother encouraged him, his father did not — but suddenly stopped in 1989 after the bloody events at Tiananmen Square. He went into retreat, and when he publicly resumed work a few years later, it was in the mediums of performance, video and photography.
In 1995 he began the practice of keeping a daily diary, writing the entries on a flat stone, using clear water instead of ink so the words disappeared. On a visit to Tibet he had himself photographed repeatedly striking the surface of the Lhasa River with an archaic Chinese seal, a stamp of authority that left no imprint.
On a frigid New Year’s Eve in 1996, he lay face down in a deserted Tiananmen Square for 40 minutes until his warm breath had created a thin sheet of ice that shimmered on the dark pavement for a few hours before disappearing. He did the same thing on a frozen lake called the Back Sea in a park in Beijing, only there his breath made no impression: he couldn’t create ice on top of ice.
That two-part piece clearly had a political dimension, though an ambiguous one. It seemed to suggest that in a powerfully antagonistic setting like Tiananmen Square, a single person might effect a change, though it could only be minor and fleeting. In nature, that great source of Taoist art, no change could be made because none was necessary: everything, positive and negative, was absorbed into it.
The Back Sea is near Beijing’s old center, and increasingly the city became the subject of Mr. Song’s work. Both he and his wife, the artist Yin Xiuzhen, watched in dismay as the neighborhoods they had known as children were obliterated. Both artists scavenged fragments from demolished buildings and made public installations from them, treating the fragments, in the Chinese way, as material that retained the vital essence of all the people, dead or relocated, who had once come into contact with it.
When Mr. Song’s father died, in 2002, his mother was inconsolable. She continued to live in the jammed Beijing house, throwing nothing away and obsessively bringing more stuff into it, as if continuing to feather a nest for a now-absent family. And despite the threatened destruction of the surrounding area, she would make no move that entailed parting with her possessions.
Finally, in 2005, Mr. Song proposed that they turn the accumulated junk into an art project. In this way, he argued, nothing would be discarded and lost; everything would be meaningfully recycled and preserved. His mother agreed to this and together, with the help of Ms. Yin and Mr. Song’s sister, Song Hui, they emptied the premises.
Then, in an exhibition space in Beijing, they sorted its contents into the kinds of meticulous piles and groupings seen at MoMA: stacks of neatly folded shirts, clusters of bottles and cans, groupings of stuffed animals and so forth, arranged in and around a dismantled section of the original wood house. As a finishing touch, Mr. Song created a neon sign reading, “Dad, don’t worry, Mum and we are fine,” and hung it over the installation.
The piece, originally documented by the art historian Wu Hung, has since traveled to Europe, and has arrived at MoMA under the curatorial eye of Barbara London and Sarah Suzuki, with Mr. Song, his wife and his sister continuing to do the labor-intensive sorting and placing.
Seen in the museum’s immaculate surroundings, the installation sends out mixed signals. On the one hand, it is fascinating to be wandering, right here in New York, through a time capsule of a lost era of Chinese culture. On the other, it is disturbing to imagine anyone growing up, as Mr. Song did, in so smothering a physical environment. Finally, it is deeply moving to see the span of one person’s life — his mother’s — summed up, monument style, in a work of art that is every bit as much about loss as it is about muchness.
And five years after the piece was conceived, there is one more note of poignancy. Once Ms. Zhao had agreed to collaborate with her son, empty her home and effectively let go of her past, she moved into the more manageable setting of a Beijing apartment near a park, where she died last winter after falling from a step ladder while trying to rescue a wounded bird in a tree.