Space invaders
Published: Aug 02, 2011 08:21 AM Updated: Aug 02, 2011 08:37 AM

Artful lodging at Wisdom of the Poor Photo: Courtesy of UCCA

If you live with your parents in a tiny house which is crowded with cases and wardrobes and your wife is pregnant with a baby, what will you do with your tiny offspring if there's no space? That's the question faced by Zhang Damin in once popular Chinese TV drama Garrulous Zhang Damin, but it's one that's also pertinent to old Beijing residents living in hutong or dazayuan (courtyards) like artist Song Dong.

At the renowned art center in 798, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Song Dong has moved the whole dazayuan, from the shabby cabbage storing case to the plank beds used as tables in the daytime to the space and showcased Wisdom of the Poor. Growing up in neighborhoods like this, he has the chance to observe the habits of neighbors borrowing public space since childhood.

"They are so smart that they can take up public space by expanding the outer wall inch by inch. They have no room for the increasing number of family members but have to 'steal' public space. And there are numerous examples to prove that. I slept on a big case for years when I was a kid. So I planned to show this off," the artist told the Global Times.
His mother used to remind him that they are poor people and "no matter how wealthy we become, poverty will always run in our veins." In the artist's memory, "Tidying, organizing and finding places to store our things was a big part of growing up in a dazayuan."

"My mum had stockpiled an unbelievable amount of 'stuff' that took up every nook and cranny in our courtyard, spilled out into the adjacent hutong and even filling an old underground air raid shelter. Everyone living in hutong did the same thing to 'borrow space'. I am interested in how the poor can get more space and more rights, a concept that has been with me my whole life," he added.

At the space, you will not only see the way in which friends and neighbors borrow from each other, thus striking a delicate balance between public and private space personal rights and respect for the rights of others, but also see how the other usages of old tyres, car seats and even a paper flyer. People, always dreaming of a large house to live in big cities, find odds and ends for life in a space like the house where Song and his parents live.

"As the saying goes 'Life is art, art is life.' The poor use intelligence and ingenuity to improve their lives; magnifying their neglected 'value systems' allows us to ponder more deeply the relationship between frustration and creativity," he said.

The 45-year-old artist began this project over five years ago and focuses on the real wisdom of the poor. The artist named these practices jiequan or "borrowing rights". 

"We have a long aesthetic tradition of jiejing, 'borrowing the surrounding scenery', to create something more beautiful and pleasant. And today, we have expanded the concept into the everyday life. It is more than a method by which people expand their rights. In fact, it is the spirit that animates our whole philosophy of existence," said the artist.

Song's exhibition takes up most space at UCCA. "His artwork reminds us that we are inheritors of a simple but valuable wisdom, a spiritual wealth that has little to do with material possessions," said Jér?me Sans, UCCA Director.

When: Until September 8

Contact: 5780-0200