Global Meridians / Assembly Lines

By Rebecca Catching

This latest work in the “Assembly Line” series delves further into the topic of transformative effect of globalization upon people, nature and communities. As if skating along a meridian, Li Xiaofei traverses the globe from North to South, examining the tidal flows of labour and resources, as countries both developed and developing respond to the challenges of the global economy.

This newest set of videos features some pieces in his earlier “interview” mode of working but also other works which can be characterized by the “aesthetics of machines” mode. Combined together they look at the fetishistic attitudes towards consumer goods and the lives of those who produce them in a global context. We see the worker in various different forms, idealized with glamour lighting, shot in a straightforward way—which leaves little room for job envy—and humanized through the telling of their personal stories.

Strangely enough it was visiting the the placid quiet remote fishing village of Kirkenes, Norway which offered one of the best windosw into many of the issues associated with globalization. On a slippery wet floor, big plastic crates full of king crabs shuttle back and forth as men dressed head to toe in thick plastic water-proof clothing casually grab a giant claw and toss sci-fi sized crustaceans into the appropriate bin. The camera takes in stunning tangles of nets, a still life of gloves hanging on the wall and the eerily moving mouth of the crab—its claws shackled, its eyes staring blankly as it waits for its demise. There is something foreboding in this. How different are we really from crabs in bins if we fail to realize the limits of the environment?

In the background we hear a woman explaining how the community went through a great crisis because of dwindling fish stocks. The situation was so bad that they even made an appeal on television for someone to “buy” the village, but in the end what ended up saving them was the success of another marine species, the king crab.

But despite the booming crab industry, the narrator (who never appears on camera) fears that artic drilling will have a huge impact the marine ecosystems. In mentioning this she elicits the idea that economic interests/systems compete very much in the same way as different species compete for food and water resources.

This idea of resource competition is reiterated in other footage which features two hydro electric dams on the border between Norway and Russia. The dam is shared, but each country has it’s own generator. The Norwegian one is yellow, the Russian one a Soviet-era green. Both are spinning furiously and turning a giant steel cylinder. Here we see two countries literally sharing the same resource—and in this case “power” can be understood in the sense of electricity but also in terms of influence.

At the time when the dam was built, cold war tensions played themselves out across this territory. The frenetic movement of the machinery combined with the scenes of silence convey this idea of the simmering tensions on either side of the border. Li Xiaofei highlights this cold war ominousness with vast expanses of ocean rippling in the light, and as a ship glides stealthily by—one cannot help imagine nuclear submarines lurking beneath the depths.

Certainly there is a hint of menace in this work—the threat of what happens when drastic changes render resources scarce—one need to look no further than the petro-aggression faced by oil rich countries (such as Kuwait) to see the effects of resource scarcity.

Interestingly rivers, minerals and seams of coal do not respect international borders. They reward some nations with great bounty and leave others scrambling to import. Human labor however is much more fluid, well that is depending upon immigration policy.

In this show, Li Xiaofei examines the experience of several immigrants all with very different ways of adapting to the changing globalized economy. The first is that of a Chinese worker in a factory in New Zealand which makes light switches. His story tells not only of adapting to the challenges of a new culture over the course of many years but also the story of labor flows and the “race to the bottom” phenomena which has laid waste to the manufacturing industry in the West.

“A Production Manager,” shows a different kind of immigrant, a German plant manager who has recently moved to China to supervise the manufacturing of forklifts—a product which is becoming more and more crucial in this world of warehousing, container shipping and global trade. This video unlike previous works is visually much more quiet. It opens with a completely white room through which an elongated metal part makes a graceful entrance, moving through a window and closer and closer to the camera. Then a worker in wearing a spray suit and a chemical respirator enters and aims his industrial spray gun at the piece of metal. There is something very cold and clinical, almost like a hospital or a futuristic spaceship. Throughout this whole process the German is talking about his experiences so that we think it is actually him in the white suit, but actually the figure is one of his workers. It seems the race to the bottom does bring some out of poverty, but inequality pervades.

Howevery, this is not to say that all the works cast workers in a dehumanized role. For instance, “A Bar of Chocolate” depicts a chocolatier who talks about how despite being a well-recognized brand in New Zealand he would have trouble turning a profit in the European market. He explains about how he wanted to make something of himself. About how he had to allocate his financial resources—and we see him as a person who is trying to improve his life, yet at the same time he is part of the factory, the machine and an unsustainable global system.

The choice of chocolate as a product is also somewhat interesting. Unlike his works depicting industrial wastelands—salt manufacturing plants, coal mines, zinc processing operations, coal briquette factories—this factory seems something more akin to a large scale bakery. As if the artist is purposely trying to candy-coat the process, using a product which brings up such pleasant associations in order to lull us into forgetting that it is indeed a factory. There is also the sense of consuming, both in the sense of eating and buying—it is such a truly pleasurable experience but at the same time it has its costs.

Chocolate also has another symbolism for Li Xiaofei. Many Chinese, he explains, find chocolate to be bitter on the first taste—but slowly over time they grow to like it. He likens this experience to the process of immigration—slowly adapting to new things until they become almost pleasant. Perhaps this is a useful strategy when dealing with all of the challenges of globalization, adjusting and over time and growing to accept the new realities.

What sets this body of work apart from previous works is the juxtaposition of the two sides of globalization. The dirty heartland of manufacturing, the mesmerizing patterns of the textiles as they are busily woven together as seen in “Assembly Line 18” filmed in Hangzhou and the luscious film-star close ups of the workers in “Assembly line 30” (filmed in a Guangzhou aluminum factory, medicine factory and furniture factory)—versus the dairy farm in New Zealand which looks not so different from  the pastoral acadias produced by the Hudson River School of painters. In this show Li Xiaofei has included many scenes of natural beauty; the azure waters of Lake Pukaki; the gentle reflection of leaves in the water in Stockholm’s Kungsholmen island. In presenting these videos at OV Gallery, he chose to juxtapose them in a way so as to create new meanings. For instance the video of island Kungsholmen is paired with a video of cigarettes funneling down through a sorting machine in a New Zealand factory. Cigarettes are themselves a product which creates air pollution when consumed and both videos are tinged a sepia grey as if the colors have been blocked out by an atmospheric haze.

Other works present more quotidian imagery, scenes of everyday life—such as passengers sitting peacefully on a sunlit commuter train in Sweden. What we see here is perhaps a balance between quality of life and economic development or is it that the race to the bottom has channeled all the polluting industries towards developing countries?

This concept, filmed in a furniture factory. Here in a high-contrast back-lit factory we see workers processing pieces of wood against the backdrop of three spinning industrial sized fans. We see them toiling away as fans whisk the noxious fumes from the paints out of their vicinity, while the Swedes sit comfortably almost in a daze as the dappled sunlight plays across the floor of the train.

In this exhibition Li was very excited to have footage from two opposite poles, from Bluff on the Southern tip of the South Island to the Arctic Circle, with China somewhere in between. In his shooting, he always tried to include shots of water, noticing that the sea presented itself in a wide spectrum of color depending upon the location. But at the same time, despite its specificity, the sea is what links us all together. It is at the same time a barometer of our industrial activity with the rising sea levels being a marker of global warming. The sea is a source of economic prosperity; it is a means of transport. It is a source of food for billions of human inhabitants and it is from whence life came. The sea, like the earth and like humanity, all deserve our concern and contemplation if we are to survive the challenges of the assembly line.