By Rebecca Catching
On November 15, 200 enthusiastic viewers headed to Malu Town for a day of art, performance and thought in celebration of the opening “Prototypes—Duplicates and Cast-offs”—the second exhibition of the Assembly Line Project.
Driving through the smoggy peri-urban sprawl of Jiading, busses navigated the suburban highway system to Systence Electronics—a functioning electronics factory specialized in making machines which produce safety equipment for cars such as seat belts and air-bags.
En route, visitors were entertained by performances by Christopher Connery (of theater collective Grass Stage) who provided a background to the history of the assembly line to enhance participants’ viewing experience. Also performing on the bus was Wu Jiamin (Grass Stage) whose work explores the restrictions on the body, in terms of physical movement and human behaviors within the industrial environment.
Viewers arrived at the back gate of Systence Electronics and were greeted by something of an industrial “stone forest”—Li Xiaofei’s “Unknown Facets”—an installation composed of sculptures of accropode blocks coated with a fine layer of steel shavings which were procured from the factory cast-offs. Nearby his second work, “City of the Unknown,” also made skillful use of the refuse of industry with seat belts, steering wheels, seat belt inertia reels and spiral-shaped steel shavings arranged on several wooden forklift palettes.
Li also made a number of interventions to the physical space of the factory—acts which he thought of as “improvements”—for instance, polishing a set of metal rails on the factory to a brilliant sheen, punctuating the sea of blue storage boxes in the warehouse with boxes of different colors and holding a collective sing along with the workers which was later made into a video.
Moving into the workshop, viewers encountered Lise Yuen’s nylon inflatable installation “Buoyancy” which slowly deflates before it is speedily resuscitated by an industrial air blower. The shape, which resembles an air-bag, makes a topical Link to Chen Hangfeng’s work, “Remains,” a charred deformed wreck of a car which, after breathing quietly for a couple of minutes, begins to emit a few chuckles which soon escalate to a hysterical pitch.
In the workshop area of the factory—which contains various kinds of lathes and water jet cutting machines—we see several video works. Mao Chenyu’s video, “Species: Collectivist Jailbreak,” features CCTV-style footage of the workers at their stations paired with a video the inside of a greenhouse at the Shanghai Botanical Gardens—creating a parallel between two very controlled environments designed for maximum productivity.
Placed in and around the machines offering a bit of levity to the workers are the animated gifs of Liao Wenfeng. Images of a man hitting his head against his leg, or a chair being cut by a number of knifes offer a certain resonance to the repetition and incessant auditory assault of the factory.
It was this inspiring space—with its bulky machinery and yellow lines guiding the flow of the worker’s movement which became the stage for many of the works of theatre collective Grass Stage (for more on the work of Grass Stage see here.) For instance, Wu Meng, dressed in an anti-static suit shuffled listlessly around the factory sipping red wine through a face-mask (most of the wine ended up bleeding down the anti-static suit) in a performance inspired by a visit to Foxconn. Later on, Jia Ying performed a meditation on the idea of “manual” labour exploring the function of the hand and the human relationship to machines in a performance that had scores of actual factory workers looking on in awe and crowing around for iPhone pics. Dressed in Systence Electronics uniforms, Grass Stage members performed one of their earlier works “World Factory” which involved a subtle mimicking of the actions of assembly line workers combined with rhythmic use of speech to convey the incessant gallop of the beast of globalization. Elsewhere in a quiet room to the right of their performance, Grass Stage member Liu Xing gathered with workers in a performance which straddled the border between artistic action and real-life—a casual discussion with workers aimed to examine the changing social position of the working class.
Through another set of doors, the workshop area opened out onto an assembly zone, where a number of machines stood mutely by. This provided the backdrop for Yu Kai’s work, “Today You Rest,” wherein the performer after studying the movements of the workers and speaking with them on numerous occasions offered them a chance to listen to their favorite songs while receiving a soothing massage.
On the central wall of the workshop, there is a poem depicted in pink wall text “Wall of Fame” a poem written especially for this exhibition by artist Xiao Kaiyu, the pink bringing evoking a certain romance amidst the silent workers, toiling diligently amongst the clanging and banging of the workshop.
At three o’clock the halls of the Xiteng electronics rang with the sounds of the Peng Liyuan’s “In the Field of Hope”—sung by the factory workers in a performance organized by Li Xiaofei.
Leaving the workshop the exhibition moves into the main lobby which is stacked with a totem pole of wooden crates Xiang Liqing’s work “Foundation” which evinces a gradual accumulation reflecting the growth of Systence Electronics, which came of age of transition—from a centrally-planned economy to an era of unbridled entrepreneurship.
In the second-floor glass lobby on the way to the meeting rooms and showroom, Liu Guangyun’s “De-colorized and Bleached Workers’ Uniforms” hangs—an incongruous scene of faded clothing dappled with spots of color looking like spent shells of the individuals who once owned the clothes—a reflection on how the regional identity of the migrants is slowly bleached away the longer they spend time in urban environments.
Further down the hall in the factory showroom, amongst the imported German pneumatic presses is the work of the Belgian artist collective “Performing Objects.” Their performance which took place the week before the exhibition involved the collecting objects from around the city which were placed in a “warehouse” area delineated by tape, then taken to the “studio area” (also delineated by tape), then processed according to a series of one-word directives and finally placed in an exhibition zone.
Towards the very end of the hall, in the meeting room, complete with projector and whiteboards Per Hüttner and actor Li Hui enacted both a Chinese and subsequently an English version of Hüttner’s performance “The Brain in a Year with 13 Moons” which used the format of a corporate presentation to compare and contrast the functioning of the human brain with the mechanisms of a factory.
Following a stimulating afternoon on the shop floor, visitors returned to M50 to view the second part of the exhibition held at V-Art Center. Upon entering the space they were greeted by Per Hüttner’s “Is it a Wall Text or Is it an Artwork?” a series of stereotypical images of industry and the human brain combined with quotes by Nietzsche, Zeldin and Pierre Clastres which in contrast to the images aim to attempt to redirect our ingrained patterns of thought.
“An Ethnography of Systence Electronics: A re-reading of the gift of socialism” by Mao Chenyu in the adjacent room also employs a wealth of sources to explore notions of collectivism within the factory environment. On the main projection screen plays Eisenstein’s “The Strike”, which at the time challenged western notions of individualism in cinema, contrasted by a vicious looking chain of animal traps one clamping onto the other in a vicious death grip.
In the main exhibition area, Grass Stage artist Ding Bo examines the physical aspect of labour performing a series of calisthenics in front of the machines in the workshop. The image of the performer overlays the original image of the factory, reflecting the social hierarchy of the physical labor of different professions.
Notions of the collective and the individual are revisited in Liu Guangyun’s video, “Filling Space—50,000 Pearls,” where workers form the backdrop for a giddy cascade of pearls (representing individual aspirations) which bounce in animated fashion before they return soberly to the floor leaving nothing but a wall of workers, standing frozen as if carved into a façade.
Meanwhile in Xiao Kaiyu’s work “Poetic Reflections on the Assembly Line” Xiao explores the gap between workers of various socioeconomic backgrounds. The project involved several poets whose main topic of writing and research is workers and peasants. Xiao asked these poets, who like the workers also grew up in the countryside, to enter the factory and read their work to a worker of their choice. The resulting reactions range from awkwardness to boredom, to glimmers of understanding and connection.
Also exploring the relationships between individuals is Lise Yuan in her installation work “In Between.” The steel structure is sheathed in a PVC curtain which hangs in concentric circles acting as a metaphor the layers of people that surround us, protect us and ultimately reflect us and our behavior.
Alternatively, the work of Egill Sæbjörnsson offers a meditation on the creative process, with his work “The Picture Draws Us”. The work involves an interaction between a projection of a drawing and a pencil—the resulting effect is that the pencil is being pushed along by the projection, much in the same way that the movements of the humans are controlled by the rhythm of the machines in the factory.
“Moving Forward” a video by Chen Hangfeng also employs movement and rhythm in a film shot from the dashboard of his car. As the driver moves speedily through the city, the audio track playing on the car sound system adds a surreal and often sublime tinge to the constant flow of images. Evoking the visual language of a car commercial, the work examines the experience of driving—of being a kind of motorized flaneur—and the excitement and power which comes with it.
It’s perhaps a fitting work to end with as not only did the Ford assembly line greatly popularize the idea of assembly-line production, but the auto industry also played a key role in promoting the idea of planned obsolescence—a factor which keeps the global economic system running at a constant “so-called” healthy whirr.