Just back from a few weeks in China where I was well protected from the dangerous platforms such as WordPress and the like. Just checking back in now with Facebook and other friends, and taking note of Evan Osnos recent piece in the New Yorker. Osnos, arguably one of the most persuasive talking heads in the Klayman documentary about Ai Weiwei, is also increasingly one of the most credible voices about contemporary China on a wide array of subjects. Particularly pleased, then, that he’s paying attention to contemporary art.
The context for Osnos’ piece is the new opening at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. The exhibition (curated by Bao Dong 鲍栋 and Song Dong 孙冬冬) is a major event in its own right, with 50 commissioned works by 50 artists or artists groups, members all born after the end of the Cultural Revolution. As to the Apple performance discussed in Osnos’ piece, it seems to me a continuation of pervious work done by contemporary Chinese artists, but a continuation of a subject that needs to be continued. I have in mind a couple of pieces by Ai Weiwei, but principally the Tate sunflower seeds that follows a similar thread, although it does so much more obliquely. Ai is commenting on labor in China, with hands so cheap he could commission the creation of virtually countless hand-crafted porcelain seeds. (Tate purchased only 8 million of them–there were more). Of course, Ai’s piece is about much more than mere labor, with a very wide metaphorical scope encompassing China as symbol, but the implications of contemporary art object as concrete commodity are there. In this case, though, Li Liao 李燎 goes for broke, exhibiting the mechanics of contemporary global capitalism in China from source to destination. He does so by actually getting a job at FOXCON and making the iPads, etc. himself, then exhibiting them in a place where most of the consumers of art are carrying such devices in their pockets anyway. As Osnos describes:
I watched two young men separately linger over it for very different reasons: one was a hip Chinese gallerygoer in chunky glasses and a camel-hair coat, taking it all in; the other was a gallery security guard in a borrowed suit and white gloves. He was studying the details of the contract.
This is performance art at its best, and the type that China will need more of to keep the scene fresh in the years to come. As that develops, I for one hope Evan will keep reporting what transpires.