“An uncluttered room creates a vacant mind (alt. a vacant space arises out of an uncluttered mind) (虚室生白).” – Zhuangzi (庄子) (circa 369 – 286 BC)

居城市中,当以画幅当山水,以盆景当园囿,以书籍当朋友。- 张潮《幽梦影》

“Living in the city, it is fitting to have a painting as one’s view of mountains and rivers, a potted landscape for a garden, and books as friends.” – Zhang Chao (1650 AD – ?), “Flickers of Sublime Dreams”


“Rising, half a mat (ie three feet square). Sleeping, one mat (ie three feet by six feet).” – “A Garden of Adages (1797)”

Prescient and succinct, these hardly need any explication.

Many I think will be personally familiar with the phenomenon of the rising cost of urban living, resulting in having to do with smaller homes.

If one begins by thinking, “I’d like my house to be as big and as lavishly-appointed as possible, anything else is a grudging compromise”, then being forced to live in a smaller space could be truly oppressive. That’s imagining an opulent ending point, and constantly feeling disaffected by how far away it is from reality.

The three aphorisms above however invite you to look at the issue beginning the other way round:

  1. A cluttered, hassled and unquiet mind may find some relief by being placed in a physically serene place. But doesn’t that all go away the moment your surroundings change? Why not spend a moment reflecting on why your mind is turbulent, and when you have resolved that, then you will make a tranquil space for yourself wherever you may be;
  2. Sometimes the mere notion of something is enough. Magnificent mountains and gorges, a lush, sprawling estate and friends in abundance; a little scenery, a little greenery, a little company. Tasteful little gestures can make your life more pleasant, even in constrained circumstances, and I certainly don’t feel deprived with my little painting, potted plant and books. In fact I find that as time passes, I get quite familiar with them, which leads to a kind of fondness;
  3. “This place is too small”. But beginning with the proposition that sitting or standing, a person takes up about 3 feet square, and that lying down takes about twice that space, the question is then “how much space do you need?”. Different people will have different answers, but I think it is a positive exercise actually naming what you intend to do, and stating how much space you need, then working up to see exactly how much space you require.

From specifically addressing the need for physical space, the question then extends to metaphorical space, and in fact things in general.

If one of my pieces succeeds in making a smaller space more pleasant, and maybe even prompts the viewer to reflect on these questions, then I would consider it to have been very successful.