I came across an elderly couple and spoke with them hoping to hear about the years of transgression in Dafen. It turned out that they had only moved into the village 4 years ago after retiring from teaching posts. It suddenly dawned on me that Dafen and it’s lack of history was a haven for people to curate their identities.

I was surprised to see this display of “life insight” in a painting gallery. There was someone’s laundry in full view, knickers and all. Had this been a sculptural installation or an oversight I would have felt much less bashful. Somehow the borderline exhibitionist intrusion gave me a voyeuristic peep into a life of mystery. Was this supposed to be the artist?

In the kitchen the smell of food rose out of a rice cooker and every utility that was in use and had an air of contemporary Chineseness. My confusion was lifted by the gallery attendants who confirmed that they took advantage of the utilities and the space to communicate the aspired life of artists. The attendants represented artistic lives, by living?

This was to be the Chinese take on of an artists’ loft.  The attendents, lounging across the coffee tables and generally ignoring any visitors, were painting a somewhat sexy life. Perhaps they illustrated a new way of leisure, soaking in supplied culture and constructed history, as the perfect Taoist tourists.

In contrast a more gruesome portrait is depicted by private gallery owner/painters. Was this constructed process authenticating the originality of the painting?

The artist spoke of his past as an assembly worker and his journey of becoming a gallery owner. As with other owners, he offered me a cup of tea and recited an assembled story I’d already heard many times already. What if the rags to riches story was simply a manufactured tale to satisfy our touristic philanthropy? Is this cynicism going too far? Nice chap though.

I finally came across someone who seemed to do ‘real living’ in the village! Amused by my interest in his unglamourous teacup washing, he invited me to visit his gallery for a fairer assessment. The painting merchant was curious of outside opinions of his world. It was humbling to witness his capitalist critical approach.

His world was an eclectic mixture of commercial kitsche. The motive was direct that it made me blush at the brazenness. He switched off a game of Solitaire to explain the art of the right purchases. I had a strange sensation of gazing into the looking glass only to realising that the other side is also staring back.


Written by Lisa Ma

Lisa Ma is a Speculative Designer & Researcher whose recent work is a kind of service design with a twist. Through an ethnographic research process she explores fringe groups that are largely ignored by society. Although finding insight in the extremes is a common approach within design, the research typically tends to focus on increasing mainstream utility in some way. Lisa’s projects uniquely emerge as services that look to create functional and mutually beneficial interactions between fringe groups and the mainstream populace. Her design methods become a platform for engagement, creating radical new kinds of relationships, a sort of Community to help us explore alternative futures. Her work has lead to the creation of some surprising services, including parasitic spa therapies by cat ladies, doorstep water filtration sessions from conspiracy theorists, and historical village tours for stranded passengers by Heathrow activists. In her latest field-trip, Lisa lived in a joystick factory in China, where she explored the idea of ‘Situational Fringes’ and the modern slums. Lisa holds a Masters Degree in Design Interactions from the Royal College of Art, and a BA in Art, Design & Environment from Central St. Martins. She has worked professionally as a designer at Conran and Pentagram in London and most recently in service design for Deutsche Telekom T-Labs in Berlin. Lisa shares her adventures at fringejoyride.com, and is currently based in London.


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