I recently visited the MoMA on one of their free Friday thingamawhatsits. I’m all about supporting the arts in theory. I just don’t seem to put my money where my mouth is. It’s a recession, people. The concrete ‘shroom biz isn’t exactly booming.
Focus, Elly. Try again.
So I was recently at the MoMA and was totally and completed enthralled with the current exhibit from Song Dong entitled Waste Not. The piece is a collaboration between the artist and his mother and consists of the frame of the mother’s home and the entirety of the contents that were once inside the home – from her bed, to a massive assortment of used toothpaste tubes. Girlie knew how to horde some shit.
The project began as a way for Dong and his mother to heal after the death of his father. Without her husband, she was becoming increasingly withdrawn from life. As the two worked together to catalog each item, she emerged from her depression and resumed living. To make the installation even more poignant, Dong’s mother just passed away in January.
It felt so invasive and disrespectful to walk amongst this dead woman’s things. It reminded me of the feeling I’d get when babysitting for the bizarro family down the street as a kid and I poked around in their closets and cabinets. Obviously it was wrong…and thrilling…and fully disrespectful…and simply an urge I could not resist. But here were all these belongings on display, inviting inspection, divulging desires, admitting awkwardness. I could have spent a solid week pouring through that exhibit and still would not have seen each component individually. Just the volume of her collection of random pieces of twine could fill an entire day.
The thought of someone cataloging all my belongings and splaying them across a well-lit concrete floor fills me with physical pain. I can think of about twenty things off the top of my head that sit in my drawers and I’d rather the world not know about. I certainly don’t need them shown to the world. I’m not sure there’s enough wine on Earth to get me through that scenario.
So this was her life? Piles of broken-down, dusty, and discarded trash. That’s what it becomes when you’re gone, right? I suspect she had a story for every item there – a memory of repairing her husband’s boot with a piece of that twine, or the toothpaste tube that Dong used after loosing his first tooth. These empty shells might have been her treasure chests. Without those stories, that affection, that pile of broken pots is just a pile of broken pots. Junk.
If I’m not here to tell the stories, that rock is just a rock, not a piece of the Berlin Wall. That’s just a framed picture from some nature calendar, not a picture of my very own warthog that Dad sponsored in my name. That’s just a kitschy Pac Man throw pillow, not the talisman that saw me through chemo. That’s just an empty walnut shell, not the wrapping of a Christmas gift from my grandfather. Treasured junk.
After walking the trail through the battalions of plastic bottles and portable record players, my thoughts turned to my grandfather. He knew how to accumulate some shit, too. Mountains of shit. Continents of shit. Solar systems of shit. My family spent more than a year trying to whittle down his belongings after he went into the nursing home. There was only a narrow walkway through the house as towers of trash filled every square foot. Some of the tamer items found cleaning out the shed included four gallons of Elmers Glue, a wooden crate full of bent nails, used tealights, paper bags, and sand from the neighborhoods holiday luminaries, and multiple wasp nests.
Even I have to concede there probably wasn’t a story for each of those nails – but there might be a story that justifies the box as a whole. We’ll never hear it, though. Even if I were to hear the story, I don’t think it would be enough to make me hold onto that box of bent nails. It’s not my story. It’s not my treasured junk. I’m sure no one will hold on to my box of ticket stubs…I’m not entirely sure why I still do.
Somehow Song Dong took his mothers junk, treasured or not, and turned it into a memorial. Art. I think I’d prefer cremation and a party with an open bar. In the meantime, I’m going to write a little story for each of my treasured junk pieces and super glue ’em on in the hopes that they’ll escape a trash bin when I’m gone.