Last week I buzzed into Toronto to see the Art Gallery of Ontario‘s newest exhibition titled Wisdom of the Poor: Communal Courtyard, an installation of 100 vintage Chinese wardrobe doors. The doors are joined together to create snaking walkways, small rooms and larger “courtyards,” reminiscent of Beijing’s traditional communal living spaces. The artist Song Dong reclaimed these doors from a typical Beijing neighbourhood that was being razed to create new buildings.
In the artist’s statement, Song Dong discusses ideas of privacy, poverty, neighbourhood and communal space. He explains:
“Communal courtyards evolved from formerly private courtyard homes, illustrating the complex and evolving relationship between private and public space…Because of the deep-seated human need for privacy, the various families living in these courtyards expanded their private space by constantly encroaching on public space, a process that ultimately resulted in the unique and now-familiar layout of the courtyard compound.”
As I wandered through the installation, where only the backs of the wardrobes are presented to us, the artist’s statement resonated with me but there were also other layers of meaning. Peering through wardrobe windows to the “private” space inside rooms, we became voyeurs looking at the fronts of the wardrobes. Ordinarily only the immediate family would see these, emphasizing the sense of what is public and what is private.
Our reflections in the mirrors were now layered upon countless other reflections of people who lived with these wardrobes on a daily basis. What possessions would have been hidden behind these wardrobe doors? I found it interesting that when cloth was used to cover a window, it was invariably a sort of sea green. Was there a particular cloth that was only used for wardrobes? Various personal touches, such as a painted window or quirky door handle, added, for me, a whimsical and very human touch. A particular favourite was a cracked mirror mended with tape that had come from sock packaging. When one is poor, nothing is wasted.
This is an installation that invites us to linger, pausing over details and allowing ourselves to become lost in the idea of urban living. If you’re in Toronto in the next few months, I urge you to visit! The exhibition remains until July 17, 2016.