Song Dong: Waste Not, Barbican Curve, London

A life told in stuff. Most of it useless and unlovely, and yet strangely affecting

So do you think some big gallery – maybe Tat Britain, ha ha – would let me put my mother's old rubbish on display and call it art?

The Barbican's latest gallery installation, by the Chinese conceptual artist Song Dong, has prompted many such comments, and ruder ones.

The obvious answer is yes, all things being equal, a lifetime's-worth of anyone's household detritus will have a story to tell. Never mind that this particular, and particularly vast, accumulation of bottle tops, used toothbrushes, bald doormats and rusting cookware was initially prompted by the material privations of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966. Waste Not doesn't, whatever the publicity says, tell you all that much about history, still less about politics.

The biggest surprise is that this trash from another time and place looks so familiar, so un-Chinese (which perhaps says something about the globalisation of the plastics industry). Every culture has had its "waste not" periods. My own mother, brought up in wartime London, is still incapable of throwing away used wrapping paper or a chipped mug, despite being able to afford new wrapping paper and mugs. That's common enough to count as normal behaviour.

What is intriguing about this collection of effects that would normally have found their way to landfill is its sheer size. Where did Song Dong's mother store all those cardboard boxes, those defunct and almost identical television sets, that chipped and shattered kitchen cabinet, the 16 washing-up bowls? A timber-framed hangar, which we're told was part of the family home, itself mended with scaffolding poles where beams are missing, suggests a spreading rural domain. But more pressingly, why hoard those things? What can you do with a battered and taped cardboard box other than use it to hold more stuff? What use a dozen squeezed-dry toothpaste tubes, each carefully capped? Come to that, why only a dozen of those?

Song Dong, who first suggested displaying this stuff to his recently widowed mum to help her through depression, arranges the objects with a curator's care, but defiantly not an interior designer's eye. Beauty is not the point. Not one of these things had aesthetic value even when new.

As you wander through The Curve's banana-shaped space, led along paths marked out with string, the items are grouped on the floor by use, not colour, shape or texture. Each is identically spaced from its neighbour: kitchen stuff here, living-room stuff there. A bed, laden with carefully folded clothing, surmounts a veritable car park of trodden-down shoes, touching in their decrepitude, and in the fact that all are still in married pairs.

The more you look, the more you see this as a densely detailed portrait of a family's life together. The mania for keeping things long past their useful life – the impoverished flipside of the "affluenza" identified by the British psychologist Oliver James – is a bid to fill an emotional void left by children grown and gone, a partner deceased. The faded and ferociously ironed-flat baby clothes are freighted with longing – perhaps not only for times past, however hard and meagre, but for an imagined future: phantom grandchildren, the cycle beginning again.

Psychologists are undecided whether compulsive hoarding is an isolated disorder, or a symptom of another condition such as OCD. Whatever, it affects about 5 per cent of adults in the West, and is inversely related to income. Viewed in that light, Waste Not has relevance to us all. At what point does thrift cross over into illness? And should I be worried about my growing collection of carrier bags?

To 12 June (entry free)

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