The Art of Accumulation in an Age of Decluttering

Mimi Wong standing infront of her childhood home. Image courtesy of the author.

My childhood home in California is filled with antiques. Fragile Han Dynasty ceramics, dirt-encrusted Chinese Buddhist sculptures, various porcelain, lacquer boxes, and snuff bottles occupy the many rooms and surfaces of the house. Paradoxically, amid all these items of value is an abundance of cheap thrift-store finds. From an early age, I became accustomed to exploring the aisles of Goodwill and the Salvation Army while my mother picked out our clothing, dishware, and other household goods. Accompanying her hunt for discarded treasures, I added to my modest collection of vintage buttons (the kind one sews) and my greater amassing of Sweet Valley High paperbacks and Archie Comics. But while my family knew how to scrimp and save, we were less adept at getting rid of things. As the accumulation spread, the dining room and living room became unusable until even the hallway—lined with boxes, pairs of shoes, an old vacuum cleaner—became a tight squeeze.

Our house bursting with stuff stood in stark contrast to the spick-and-span suburban homes of my friends, where the furniture was modern and the common areas presentable and always ready to receive guests. When I visited, I did not have to hop around the floor of their bedroom in order to avoid piles of laundry like I did in mine. There were periods when my family’s house became so cluttered I would be too embarrassed to invite anyone over, but it wasn’t until much later that I understood the severe scope of my mother’s behavior.

The concept of hoarding was first defined in 1996 but wasn’t recognized as a discrete mental disorder until 2013. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Hoarding disorder is an ongoing difficulty throwing away or parting with possessions because you believe that you need to save them.” Most people are probably familiar with extreme cases of compulsive hoarding through TV shows like A&E’s Hoarders that are explicitly intended to shock viewers. It’s easy to express revulsion when you haven’t lived it. What viewers don’t see is how gradually the hoarding often starts until it becomes normalized.

As an adult who struggled to keep my own living space clean, I worried I was doomed to repeat the cycle of mess. I hadn’t learned to live any other way than to let things—whether dirty dishes, unopened mail, or books I’ll never read—pile up. To my friends, I played it off as an unfortunate quirk rather than disclose the dark depths of my inner hoarder—a monster I was desperate to rein in. Over the years, I encountered others who shared my filthy little secret. They are friends who similarly grew up with parents who hoarded. We also happen to be the children of immigrants. Through our confessional conversations, what’s become painfully clear is the link between our parents’ excessive accumulations and the hardships of their pasts. But a reconsideration of hoarding may also provide a way to transform such remembrance and grief into something worth saving.


Hoarding’s correlation to scarcity and trauma can be seen in Chinese artist Song Dong’s Waste Not (2005), a collaboration with his late mother consisting of over ten thousand domestic objects that she collected over the course of half a century in her Beijing apartment. I saw photos of the installation when it was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009, the same year Song’s mother passed away. In the installation, her belongings—everything from plastic-bottle caps to empty shopping bags to used toothpaste tubes—were spread across the gallery floor. Seeing clothing folded and stacked on the wooden bed, pairs of shoes covering so much of the concrete floor that it would have been impossible to walk across the space, I was not so much horrified as I was comforted by the familiarity of it.

Song Dong, Waste Not: Song Dong, 2006 (installation view), at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Andrew Russeth.

Song’s matrilineal history mirrors my own: a grandfather who had been an officer with the Kuomintang and, following the nationalist party’s defeat by the Communist Party of China during the Chinese Civil War, a family plunged into poverty. Song’s mother coped by frugally saving everything she could. But what was once a strategy for survival spiraled out of control after the death of Song’s father in 2002. “She didn’t want to have an empty room because my father was not there,” the artist said in an interview about the work. Rather than toss everything out, Song realized he needed to include his mother in the process of organizing. Sharing her story publicly, he credits his mother as the artist and the installation as “her generation’s work.” The careful curation of objects by category and type honors her memory, as well as the history of the objects themselves, and by creating new relationships between the objects on display, their beauty and nostalgia are equally celebrated.

By contrast, Taiwanese artist Huang Yu-Hsiu’s photo series Hoarders (2016–18) presents a grimmer reality. The images expose dimly lit rooms piled high with trash-filled bags and haphazardly hung clothes. In the context of such dilapidated dwellings, the accumulation overwhelms. There is no order, only chaos. Huang documented the living conditions of over twenty individuals, many of whom conveyed similar feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, and fear of loss. Huang does not specify the locations of the photographs, perhaps to preserve the anonymity of the people whose homes he visited. While not physically present, the inhabitants represent those most vulnerable and rendered invisible in society—the elderly, disabled, mentally ill, and poor. As if obscured by their possessions, they are there but not there.

Huang Yu-Hsiu, Hoarders, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

This ghostly presence reveals not only the hoarder’s desire to hold onto the past but how they remain haunted by it. Not everyone has the opportunity to exorcize their demons the same way Song Dong was able to for his mother.

My mother came of age under British colonial rule in Hong Kong, treated as a second-class citizen and unable to return to her parents’ ancestral home in Hunan province. In the US, she roamed antique malls and flea markets in search of relics, specifically those from China that had somehow made their way overseas and were being peddled by dealers who, back in the 1990s, didn’t know their true value. Instead of magazine subscriptions, we received catalogues in the mail from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which my mother would study in order to teach herself how to differentiate between what was authentic and what was fake. All I knew as a child was that we had a lot of old things. I didn’t understand their significance to my mother until I fully grappled with my own sense of identity. Through collecting, she keeps alive the dream of cultural belonging, the antiques serving as both connection to and substitute for the melancholic fantasy of a motherland.

Scholar Anne Anlin Cheng suggests a plausible link between the impulse to care for abandoned objects and what she describes in her critical text Ornamentalism (2018) as the “crushing objecthood” of being a racialized figure. Embodying both the “oriental” and “ornamental” in Western imagination, the marginalized Asian woman exists in the blurred boundary between person and thing. As Cheng so poignantly articulates, “Sometimes, disposable lives find themselves through disposable objects.” Might not the ease with which objects are thrown away after they’ve served their purpose correlate with the ways in which certain people are more likely to be cast aside once their labor or value has been extracted? Hoarding, then, becomes a response born out of empathy—“saving” as an act of grace.

The Hoarder of Things (installation view), at the Hessel Museum of Art. Courtesy of the museum.

The Hoarder of Things, a graduate exhibition held this spring at CCS Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art, highlights not so much the materials themselves as it does the “quotidian acts of collecting,” according to the exhibition’s introductory text. In his curatorial essay, Calvin Wang contemplates how things lose their meaning once they are disposed of. “When objects no longer serve their conventional purpose, they are often thrown away. Landfills, dumpsters, and streets are filled with things abandoned and discarded,” he writes. “Untethered from their previous status as objects, the cigarette butt, lost earring, pigeon feather, and chicken bone become one and the same—detritus, trash, mere things.”

Stripped of their previous meaning, these things can be redefined, in this case, as works of art. The group show included works by Yuji Agematsu and Nobutaka Aozaki, two Japanese-born, New York–based artists. Agematsu’s cigarette-pack cellophane wrappers are filled with debris gathered from his daily walks in the city (a month’s worth in total, one for each day); a can of Del Monte corn acts as paperweight atop a stack of old receipts courtesy of Aozaki. So-called junk such as ink smudges from a broken rollerball pen, a child’s sweater shrunk in the wash, and a plate with scattered breadcrumbs, hangs suspended between panes of glass in Mexican artist Tania Pérez Córdova’s Empty Days series (2021). In Mimi Park’s installation Playing dead in a jiggling world (2023), the Korean-born and New York–based artist rigs electrical wires, motion sensors, and motors alongside found objects of batteries, binder clips, toy figurines, and other miscellanea. During the exhibition, she arranged them on the ground as if these were items in a yard sale. Once repurposed, these remnants are reanimated and transformed into a study of everyday life. The mundane is imbued with novel possibilities.


“I’m so excited because I love mess,” Marie Kondo famously proclaimed in her 2019 Netflix reality series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Following the success of her bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in Japan in 2011, she brought her KonMari organizing method to America, where, despite her popularity, she also faced backlash from white, Western audiences who did not want to be told to part with their things. I’ll admit that I, too, initially bristled at the simplistic idea of getting rid of anything in my apartment that did not “spark joy” until I watched the show and later read her book.

The misreading of Marie Kondo potentially stems from prevalent associations between minimalist aesthetics and East Asian culture. In practice, Kondo’s Shinto-inspired philosophy, combined with basic principles of feng shui, relies on the fundamental belief that everything possesses an “energy” or spirit. In autobiographical moments from her book, Kondo divulges bits and pieces from her childhood, writing, “I began to treat my belongings as if they were alive when I was a high school student.” While she acknowledges that not everybody believes “inanimate objects respond to human emotion,” it’s clear she does. It would be easy to find all of this very hokey were it not for Kondo’s startling honesty and self-awareness when she identifies the root cause:

Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things. I think that precisely because I did not feel comfortable exposing my weaknesses or my true feelings to others, my room and the things in it became very precious. I did not have to pretend or hide anything in front of them. It was material things and my house that taught me to appreciate unconditional love first, not my parents or friends.


This acceptance that Kondo finds in objects echoes Anne Anlin Cheng’s consideration on what it means to live a life of objecthood. In a world that does not always recognize everyone’s humanity, nor allow all of us to be fully human, Kondo prefers to nurture her kinship not with people but objects. Thus, she declares, “I can think of no greater happiness in life than to be surrounded only by the things I love.”

Far from being the monstrous caricature ordering people to cull their most prized possessions, Kondo understands intimately the pleasure we derive from our belongings. She insists her method is based purely on personal feelings, hence what brings one joy: “For a shoe lover, it might be one hundred pairs of shoes, while a book lover might not need anything but books.” She does, however, direct us to confront an uncomfortable truth about hoarding in times of surplus, stating, “If you have lived in Japan or the United States all your life, you have almost certainly been surrounded by far more than you need.” Our complicated relationship to our possessions may in fact be indicative of how capitalism has turned us into consumers. By imploring people to pare down to a manageable level, Kondo is simply asking us to take an honest look at ourselves. When she states, “To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too,” she thoroughly grasps that clutter is just as much physical as it is psychological.

By teaching us how to let go of our things, Kondo becomes a savior figure for Joshua Nguyen, author of the 2021 poetry collection Come Clean. In his poem “Save Me, Marie Kondo,” lines recalling the memory of the speaker’s grandmother sit adjacent to a catalogue of items:


[red lipstick]


[half-used tiger balm]


[silver tooth]




The bracketed items, stored in boxes—“[this box for all her áo dàis]” and “[this box for her pearls]”—visually pile up on the page. As Nguyen explains, the poem’s structure offers a way to explore “this idea of messiness from the past, trauma, and memory.” The placement of the grandmother’s belongings beside the process of remembering seemingly equates object and memory, as if to say that sometimes the items that are left behind are all we have. “Especially coming from a background of Asian Americanness, there is always a constant need to fill in gaps, especially from history you do not know,” Nguyen laments. In invoking Kondo, the speaker is asking to be freed from that messy past and unknowable trauma, from all the mysterious boxes that children of immigrants must sort through.


I can’t deny that my mother has imparted upon me a love of secondhand things, things with hidden histories. Although I feel relief about currently living in a place where friends are always welcome to drop by, and having an understanding partner who helps maintain our clean home, I sometimes fantasize about an alternative (or maybe inevitable) future, in which I am an old woman surrounded by many precious things. At the same time, I fear one day I will receive a call that my mother, who lives alone, has fallen, buried under a mountain of things. I worry her mountain of things will become mine, her hoarding my inheritance. She worries I won’t recognize what’s valuable and pleads with me not to throw everything away after she’s gone. It is a loaded gift.

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