When "Waste Not" Goes Too Far

by Katy on July 8, 2009 · 12 comments


The Museum of Modern Art  is currently featuring an installation by artist Song Dong who meticulously laid out a lifetime of his mother’s hoarded possessions. These are not meaningful family heirlooms, but are squeezed out toothpaste tubes, worn out shoes and the like.

Apartment Therapy’s website described it as such:

The new installation on the main floor of the Museum of Modern Art is a public viewing of a hoarder’s life-long collection. Chinese artist Song Dong organized and displayed every item from his mother’s home, including numerous television sets, toothpaste tubes, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, and shoes. Song Dong’s mother accumulated these items over fifty years — it was a common practice during in China when people lived the concept “waste not” (wu jin qi yong). The installation feeds our hoarder-fascination and explores cultural reasons for extreme collecting…

The impression of it all is very striking. This woman obviously had a huge problem letting go of her possessions, and one can only imagine how crowded and limiting her living conditions must have been.

I too adhere to a to a waste not philosophy, but am usually able to let go of possessions that have neither use nor meaning to me. It is part of a creative mindset to see potential in objects that others might see as garbage, and I consciously fight this inclination in myself.

Hoarding, whether it be squeezed out tubes of toothpaste, lamps or old newspaper is a serious problem that goes beyond housekeeping. Filling one’s home with excessive stuff is not only a deterrent to being able to have people over, (which then cuts down on a supportive network) but can also be a health hazard due to everything from tripping to rodentia to toxic molds.

Thank you to Fabulously Broke in the City for the info on the MOMA show.

Resources for hoarders (and those who love them) include:


Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Collecting, by David F. Tolin.

It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff, by Peter Walsh.

Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, by Karen Kingston.

Has your life been affected by hoarding? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristie-ND July 9, 2009 at 8:01 am

No, I could never live like that. I have epilepsy, and I literally cannot function with alot of clutter around. My brain just “stops” for lack of a better word. I have a family member who uses the bedroom I use when visiting as storage. When I get there, I have to put alot of things in closets in the other 2 bedrooms, to get it out of my sight. Thankfully my family knows it is because of my seizures and not because I am being snotty.

I think that kind of clutter defeats any purpose, and makes your life LESS vs more.


Jessie July 9, 2009 at 11:29 am

Being a compulsive crafter, I see every little odd and end as an opportunity to create something wonderful. The trick I’ve learned (and am still learning) is to figure out what will be useful soon, what might be useful later but is too valuable to let go, and what is simply cluttering my life.


A. Marie July 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm

My profound sympathies to the MOMA artist, who plainly had to clean out his mother’s living quarters and just snapped at some point. Having had to do the same for both my mother and my mother-in-law in the last 5 years, I definitely feel for him. And having passed the 5-0 mark some time back–and being acutely aware that I have no children to do a similar cleanout for me–I am being MUCH more careful about what I keep.


Kristin July 9, 2009 at 6:32 pm

My parents (both 70-ish) are both hoarders….several years ago my sister and I cleared out my tiny childhood bedroom that my mom had filled with stuff (unreturned library books, piles of old mail, tons of gifts she received and never used, household decorations). It took several days, and several loads of stuff went to the Salvation Army, but I think we ended up filling about 50 (yes 50) large black plastic garbage bags and dumping them in the trash….we “snapped” and got tired of making decisions about what to donate, trash, keep, etc. And guess what, about 5 years later the room was filled with stuff again! If the hoarder is still hoarding it’s a losing battle. My sister and I threaten to “light a match” to all my parent’s stuff after they’re gone!


Karen July 9, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Jessie, what a great tip about “what will be useful soon”…soon being the operative word! I often keep odd caps and corks, since I make a lot of flavored vinegars and because I put them in various recycled bottles, never know what size the bottle tops will be. But with this new tip, I will look hard at what I’ve got stashed away already–and keep only what are the likely sizes, to be used soon.

Hoarding does have serious ramifications. Our mother kept everything, everything! Which meant we could not find anything: not important documents, valuable jewelry, or even everyday useful items. As she got older, the piles of stuff filled up rooms and even partial doorways, which is dangerous. Chaos engulfed her life. Needless to say, cleaning out her house after she died was not fun for her children. In response to this, I try to be very conscious of what I’m leaving my kids to deal with. I am constantly sorting, rearranging and reorganizing. But being a thrift store junkie, only for useful stuff, you understand–I still have too much stuff, even if my doorways are clear ; )


connie July 9, 2009 at 8:03 pm

I have cleaned out my parents house after their deaths and it was draining. The smell of moldy closets with the sadness and loss were too much to bear.
I try real hard to give away, toss, or recycle 10 items every day. I am working on this for 21 days+ -to try and form the habit. This is difficult since I love books.
I have lose friends who are hoarders and it spills into every area of their life. It is limiting.
Whenever I get weak and want to store things, I read anything written by Peter Walsh. He is inspiring.


sandy July 10, 2009 at 3:48 am

I battle with stuff and clutter everyday of my life. I live in a small house with my husband and two children and stuff piles up every single day. I don’t have enough time in a lifetime to go through all the paper and little-things-without-homes. I guess I should just get rid of it, but something stops me! I’ve read books with a Buddhist theme and get all inspired but then I just can’t part with the stuff. I’ll have dreams about things I have given away and realize I might have some regret over giving it away. What is the psychology behind it???


tammy July 10, 2009 at 4:47 am

My father has this severe problem and my neighbor suffers as well. My neighbor cannot have anyone in her house as it’s so bad.
*sigh* this recalls a real mess for the future for me and my siblings!
I pray for those fighting this insidious disease of thrift gone too far.


lindainkansas July 10, 2009 at 7:02 am

I was along for the experience as my husband and his siblings cleared out his mother’s home of many years before she moved to an assisted living home. Not only was her home packed with “stuff” that she felt was still useful and valuable–she was adamant that nothing should be thrown away or donated–because it was all such “good stuff.” We all had to split it up, take it home, and USE it. I see now, in retrospect, that there were two or three strong forces at play in her accumulation of an incredible amount and variety of things. 1. As a child and young person during the depression, saving things and using them up was deeply ingrained in her. The idea that something could be consumable/one use/throw-away was totally alien. 2. As a person who worked hard all her life, each object, large or small, represented part of that hard work and lifetime of earning. 3. She “treasured” many of the small conveniences of everyday life–plastic measuring medicine cups that came (FREE!!!) with cough syrup, aluminum pie tins (FREE!!!) from the bottom of store-bought pies, plastic tableware that came (FREE!!!) at a company picnic–to such an extent that she washed, sorted and kept it all. Because it was all such GOOD stuff.
So that was about 6 years ago (she died last year), and I have slowly but surely winnowed out of our share of “stuff” the few things I wanted, and donated the bulk of what remained. She had a lifetime collection of irons from her mother’s and her own life. Did you know there were once KEROSENE-FUELED irons? She had one. These went to a museum.
I’ve donated “stuff” to local schools, senior centers, vacation bible schools, crafters, family, friends, etc. And when I bake and take pie or cookies–I use those crazy aluminum pie tins, pass them on, and say a quick prayer for Mom Vera. I think I’m actually down to less than 3 dozen tins, God bless her.


Linda July 10, 2009 at 10:54 am

I too struggle with this issue. My Gramma grew up during the depression & saves everything…including the wrapper from the cheeseburger she ate last night (“It’s a good piece of paper”)…I kid you not. We moved in with her 2 years ago & I still work on getting rid of stuff. With the progression of her Alzheimers disease, her hoarding tendencies have intensified so I have to sneak stuff in to the trash & giveaway boxes & hide it all. Since she raised me, I’m also fighting this battle for myself. I recently watched a movie called, “7 Dumpters and a Corpse”. Two brothers had to clear out their mothers small apartment after years of her hoarding & collecting and during the movie, try to come to terms with the reasons behind her compulsion. The movie starts out with them trying to find a company that will come to scrape what is left of her body off of the floor…she was dead for a long time before anyone knew, hidden amongst all that stuff. Adding to my own problem is that it seems like as soon as I get rid of something, I find a use or need for it. Example: My husband finally convinced me to get rid of 3 baby gates we had when the kids were little (they are now 16 & 11). Not a month went by before I realized I need them now to keep Gramma out of certain rooms in the house & to keep her from going out the front door. I went ahead & bought one new one but will wait on the others until I can find them from freecycle or the thrift store. Wouldn’t you know, the thrift store we donated them to had already sold them!


Happy Mum July 15, 2009 at 5:11 am

New York Times article about this installation.


Nuanced and poignant.


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