We Have No Choice but the Assembly Line

An Interview with Li Xiaofei

Interviewer: Gong Linlin
Date: 12 December, 2013
Location: Fei Contemporary Art Center (FCAC)
English Translator: Rebecca Catching

Gong Linlin (GLL): Let’s talk about your solo exhibition first.

Li XIaofei (LXF): I have had two solo exhibition in New Zealand: one is in the Strakwhite gallery in Auckland that often presents some experimental exhibitions about videos, devices and so on, the other is in Toi Poneke Center of the Wellington government. My project belongs to the WARE art exchange project—mutually organized by the Wellington municipal government and the Asian Art Foundation. They invites a visual artist to the station to produce work every year.

GLL: Don’t you have any picture album about this two exhibitions?

LXF: No, we didn’t produce any albums, but we have invitation cards and posters because all that have been showed are some old pieces of work.

GLI: How old are they?

LXF: they are works created in the previous two years in this project. At present, “The Assembly Line” has three series. The earliest one is about a series of interviews, which is consist of nine separate videos where there are images of machines. Of course, the most ideal way is to integrate nine videos into one exhibition. In Starkwhite, we showed six videos. The other one is a mute series without dialogues but only some live sound. A Package of Salt is in process belonging to daily essentials series, whose subjects include things like oil, salt, soy, vinegar. I edited it in Sweden in July this year, so it is still fresh.

GLL: Has the series of interviews come to the end?

LXF: Actually, I am doing some interviews now concerning about lots of things, but contents selected into my works accounts for very little shares.

GLL: why would you divide it into three series?
LXF: At the beginning, I did not do it in this way. However, I have been focused on “The Assembly Line” these years, but I thought that I needed some logic and a clear direction, so I divided it into several series and maybe there will be some other series in the future.

GLL: Tell me about what kind of logic you pursue?

LXF: It is hard to say. It is just that I prefer to work on a certain kind of platform. There are often two or three at once.

GLL: Have you found this logic?

LXF: Of course not. But I still want to create works within a certain framework, and then extend my thoughts from it but not trying to grasp the whole. Sometimes, people’s way of thinking is quite similar and because of this it is quite easy for your thinking to be similar to others’. Having established such a framework and then to execute everything based on it, means that it doesn’t matter even if my thinking resembles others. Only if I do it for long enough, then I can penetrate into it more deeply. Therefore, it doesn’t matter of other people’s ideas compete with mine.

GLL: I find that “The Flower’s Funeral 1” and “The Children” are very different from the present series. It seems that your concern shifts, doesn’t it?

LXF: The Flower’s Funeral may be different, but the “Assembly Line” is an extension of “The Children,” I think. It is “The Children” that gives rise to the later “Assembly Line” 2

GLL: How?

LXF: The Flower’s Funeral is an extremely emotional piece of work. The idea occurred to my mind when I talked with a gay friend. However, The Children was done after I had interviewed a group of children, aging from 6 to 12, during 2009 and 2010. Children at that age do have their own thoughts, and they can express themselves very clearly. They are more real than the older ones. During the World Expo 2010, Shanghai University carried out a Public Art Project planned by Wan g Dan and they invited me. Every artist needed to design seven or eight posters for the light boxes of in the pedestrian tunnel between Metro Line One and Line Three. I followed the same method in which I interviewed the children. Fifteen people, of different identities and different professions, were interviewed. The print shop worker in the first work of “The Assembly Line” was among the interviewees.

GLL: So in fact it was the extension of this working method.

LXF: Also the extension of paying attention to the society. The questions I asked the children were very common, such as “What did you do today ?” and “What’s your dream?”, just like talking about daily issues. The communication between the adults and I were also like this, very trivial. But through the later edition, these words had another meaning after being completely separated from the contexts.

GLL: But I think The Children is also very emotional, and I suppose that you focused on man’s inner activity as an individual at that time. You pulled yourself further away from The Pipeline, especially when you chose those cold scenes to show the factories. It seems that your concern shifted from individual’s inner heart to social phenomena. Particularly, you selected the factories in the Yangtze River Delta, which were connected with our urbanization issues. This year, SHENSHUANG chose your work possibly for the reason that you paid attention to urbanization issues, or the problems appeared in the industrial development.

LXF: On second thought, I find that The Children is very social. The sociality is hidden in the behind, not that straight. Every word that each child said was accompanied by his surroundings, family and education. I interviewed lots of children and each of them gave a person very different impression. This is the difference between the individuals. Moreover, the difference between the countries is particularly big, which can be seen from their daily languages. It doesn't have the cold aesthetics as the factories when it is displayed, just looking like many people are talking in circulation, but its sociality is very strong, actually.

GLL: Did you indeed pay attention to the problems appeared in urbanization and industrial production?

LXF: Surely I care a lot for it is of great significance. The reason why “The Assembly Line” is able to come into being later is that it is the development of capital, which is exactly the development of society. Certainly those are the common sense everyone should has already known, so it is unnecessary for me to figure out all these things.

GLL: Firstly, I chose the district of Yangtze River Delta because I live in this area; in addition to that, this area also has obvious representativeness for it is the most developed economic region of China. If you make a drive around this area, you will find distinctive differences here compared with the inland. All you can see are various types of factories, whose productions are of great differences. As a result, I always wonder what the people in those plants will be like.

LXF: The project began with the interview of a typographer. The time he mentioned about his life and work, he unconsciously showed a combined sentiment of romance and reality, a complex emotion of inner world which attracted me very much. Then l asked him whether I could visit his job site or not, he said there was no problem, so I stepped into that place with vidicon. I understood why workers had that kind of emotion as soon as I got there.

In the manufacturing shop, machine has replaced human and become the protagonist. It seems that human no longer exist. The relationship between human and machine has turned complex and strange. After I photographed the site, it took me a long time to think about how to deal with those materials. It was about several months later, I realized that the machine was actually paralleled with human entirely, yet sometimes they were mixed together. So I attempted to use the sliced method——human, machine, human, machine——which mixed the two to create the very sense of reality with a illusory feeling hided in it. The effect turned out quite good after editing, so I finally used it. Later, I also photographed the boss, chairman and so on.  

GLL: The extremely example of what you have said about factory environment may be Foxconn.

LXF: I haven’t gone to Foxconn before. But I do visit huge manufactures afterwards like Chery. To tell the truth, I prefer the smaller factories than the giant ones, for the milk of human kindness in the smaller ones is stronger. Thus, I can get to more real things.

GLL: As an artist, when you are interviewing others, are you feeling sympathetic about them? Or you are just interrogating society? Or even you just intend to satisfy your own curiosity?

LXF: Here comes the most interesting point. First, I am not a journalist (who works for the press), nor a director of documentary, I am merely an artist. I don’t think their life is as cruel as what we have imagined before. The brief former self report about my work has clarified my perspective, namely, the factory is filled with an intense collective and romantic atmosphere which is generated as the prolonged assimilation with environment. I remembered a factory which produces stainless steel pots and pans. A step of the factory is machine stamper, precisely, is to squeeze a whole algam into many small moulds. During the process, the machine moved above regularly up and down, and the worker moved below rhythmically following the movement of machine. It was quite a fantastic feeling that the worker and machine became one and they moved under a synchronous state. I could feel that workers enjoyed such a rhythm during shooting.

GLL: So are the situations you present in the film all their daily and real states? Have you ever made a film editing to make it more aesthetical?

LXF: Definitely not. I respect scene very much, so I nearly never use lamplight, and a forehand rehearsal. I do shoot what the scene has present, the interview also focus on the home-style topics casually, much like the relax way we are talking now. The interviewee doesn’t know what I am going to ask him. Similarly, I have no idea of what I should question him. It is only during the process of chatting that I can grasp the suitable questions. 

GLL: After you shoot those series of interviews, was your deepest impression about the workers is that they were still very romantic?

LXF: Of course, the romance I have said is relative, to the hardship of our impressions. For example, I went to a slaughter house in Wellington. I even couldn’t spend one second there. But the time I saw the workers who seemed totally immersed themselves in their job, I realized this feeling directly related to the circumstance you were staying upon.

GLL: Can it be put to that human is domesticated by environment?

LXF: I think it is dual. Human and machine are forever contradictory. Under the present situation of social development, all the products rely on the assembly line, but we also pay out great expenses. This is a paradox.

GLL: Does it mean that the surroundings change those people?

LXF: More than that. The human and the machine are always a pair of contradictory matters, with the development of the society, all product depends on the assembly lines. Meanwhile, what it has cost on us is unimaginable, which is contradictory instead of being simplex. The purpose of what I did is not to show how romantic the worker are, or to sympathize with them, because it means nothing to me, those who film documentaries do much better than me. The role of the human in the social development, not like this and not like that, that’s what I want.

GLL: What is the workers’ reaction to you, an artist, in the interview? What do they know about the art and you?

LXF: For them, art is none of their business. That I can make interviews in the factories depends on whether I know the boss or not instead of being an artist or not. There’s nothing about the art, but it seemed to be the art after organizing what I got.

GLL: Is there something between the art and the reality? Is it the way of knowing someone?

LXF: This comes to what I’ll do next. In previous years, I finished the series in inland. But I am doing interviews in the factories from abroad in recent years, cultural differences appear obviously according to the way of finding the factories. In China, I can make it through my friends or someone I know. Even the one who receive me and I don’t know each other, I just get in. Things become very different abroad. For example, when I got to New Zealand this time, the boss of the factory needed to know who invited you and look at your resume, meanwhile, organizers had to send enough emails to introduce me, then waited for the reply, after which it needed to be affirmed again. If lucky enough, you could get into the factory and talk with the boss about why you did this, what you did with these materials, which seemed that you should sign a contract with them. Thus, too many emails wasted too much time, but you get very little time to shoot. Two hours’ shooting that you said before was only two hours, no one second more. That is actually their concept of the time, which is difficult to change. On the contrary, it is so easy, direct and effective in China.

GLL: Can you stay there as long as you like?

LXF: Of course not, but I would get something funny if I got a good chance. Actually, I was not alone when shooting. There was always someone with me, he often told me what I should shoot, what it was and what was beautiful. Therefore, it would be so lucky to have some useful materials.

GLL: Now that he told you which is beautiful, it proved that he had aesthetic consciousness. Though the workers didn’t care the art, they still decided which is good and which is bad, by themselves.

LXF: That’s right. Their first response was that I would advertise for them when I got a vidicon there. Based on this, they told me every process clearly. They didn’t believe that I was not interested in the technology at all and stared at me with strange eyes even though I had explained to them again and again.

GLL: I feel that your shooting becomes the least important part while the most important part may be how you get connection with the factories.

LXF: Certainly they are both significant. I plan to make a Solo Exhibition in OV and write a book about the assembly lines. In June I got to the north pole of Norway, Kirkenes. And in November I went to the extreme south of New Zealand, Bluff. I planned to add what you said just now into it through comparing the two materials, because I felt interested in those about the social relationship. What’s more, there would be several parts of my work. At the beginning, I focused on the factory, which is the basis of the assembly lines. After that, something about the mode of thinking of human would be on my schedule. Why do we make a decision so fast? Is it from the inertial, experimental way of thinking of us? Or some other factors? Then what I want is to discuss with those from different  disciplines for something interesting.

GLL: I still feel that you can control nothing except the final video. The way how you do it is the participation of the artist, without which these pieces can’t get together.

LXF: Yeah. I went to every factory myself without any assistants, for I had no idea about what I would shoot before getting there. If there was no machine working in the factory, I would feel down. But now things changed, it’s not important any more. That’s ok for me to get some photos there.

GLL: Have you felt yourself like a useless artist when facing these?

LXF: Actually, the artist was nothing before. But it is different now. A few days ago, I got a chance to go to Heng Shun vinegar factory in Zhengjiang for my friend knew a manager there. Just have a guess of my visit, only the building! I can just look at the building instead of entering. They said it was intangible cultural heritage which was protected by the nation and patent, so I couldn’t get in. No matter how long time you spent on the way, what you could do was only looking at the building outside the workshop. Even though, I didn’t feel down for having guessed that. It took me so much time to find these factories, that’s the art.

GLL: Why did you make a soundless series?

LXF: Actually, after finishing the third and fourth video of the interviewing, I wanted to change the way, the way of only language. The interview, the conversation, the language influenced the society directly, and it seems to be funny after my choosing and editing. What’s more important, so much can be understood without saying it out, especially you had interviewed more and more. The words is nothing, the picture itself is everything. There were always something impressed me deeply in the previous  shooting, they were the soundless series.

GLL: Comment and letter appeared in A Packet of Salt, it was like a documentary but not a typical documentary.

LXF: In fact, these series didn’t come to an end, they were mixed and associated with each other. I  got deeper in what I made since I have focus on this series, especially A Pocket of Salt. The inner relationship interested me instead of one sentence or a simple question.
What I want to show is not how the salt comes or how the salt works, just the meaning of the salt in this society, or the relationship between human and salt. At the end of the video, several sentences said why only saltpetre was produced out instead of salt even though they were made together. The reason was that the saltpetre valued more, on the contrary, the salt valued less. As the result, it became serious pollution to the environment after letting the salt part into the environment. What I focused on was to discuss the social issues though comparing the value and non-value, the salt was just a medium.

GLL: Salt or other everyday objects are used as media, but they are actually about the problems of globalization.

LXF: This is what I need to do next. I plan to use "a crab and a piece of chocolate” as the name of the exhibition, including the OV solo exhibition I have just mentioned. It is somewhat similar with the names of the interview series works such as "a foreign boss", a workshop director”.  “A crab" was shot in a city called Kirkenes in northern Norway, where a kind of large crab, probably the world's most expensive kind of crab, is produced. In New Zealand I took pictures of a chocolate factory. Chocolate is the most common everyday food in the West, and the most common gift brought back by Chinese from abroad. This year I went to the farthest ends of the world (among the places I've been to), more than twenty thousand kilometers away from each other. But what I have seen is basically with no differences: most people were speaking English; Chinese people were everywhere; supermarkets were especially the same, and you couldn’t even believe your eyes, the goods, patterns, internal furnishings, the positions of goods and the look of the cashiers were all very formatting and standardizing. The only thing I find different is the colors of the seas, the sea in Arctic is deep dark and deep blue while the sea in the Antarctic is dark green.

GLL: Salt, chocolate, how did these everyday objects connect with you? Or only when you expect to shoot it, a bag of salt is an everyday object, otherwise it’s as if does not exist?

LXF: When I'm talking about everyday objects, I mean those things you cannot do without. Oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, nothing can be missing. I just treat them as a medium. What I actually care about is not the salt itself or the chocolate itself, but what else in our present society does not need the production lines? And where exactly the contradiction is? Everyone in this world could end all speak the same language, eat the same food, use the same equipment, and all things of nationality could be assimilated by Assembly Line. I do not know what are your feelings after seeing A Package Of Salt?

GLL: My first feeling was that this was a new work. It didn’t like your previous works, which were fast like the production lines – brush, brush, brush. It’s slower, and once I saw it, I saw river boat slowly moving forward. And I also thought it’s a bit like a documentary before I finished watching, because the contents of the pictures and captions gave me the feeling of watching a journey of a packet of salt, but it’s more sophisticated visually. And maybe it’s because I had watched your works before, I knew that you were certainly not doing a documentary. You didn’t do literacy or ethnographic-style expansion pack.
When I first saw your production lines series, I found that you paid a lot attention to many everyday objects, including printing house and vinegar, and things out from printing house would go on to our tables. After you inquired these everyday objects deeply, will they affect the way you think or perceive in return, or will they change you?

My first feeling was that this was a new work. It didn’t like your previous works, which were fast like the production lines – brush, brush, brush. It’s slower, and once I saw it, I saw river boat slowly moving forward. And I also thought it’s a bit like a documentary before I finished watching, because the contents of the pictures and captions gave me the feeling of watching a journey of a packet of salt, but it’s more sophisticated visually. And maybe it’s because I had watched your works before, I knew that you were certainly not doing a documentary. You didn’t do literacy or ethnographic-style expansion pack.
When I first saw your production lines series, I found that you paid a lot attention to many everyday objects, including printing house and vinegar, and things out from printing house would go on to our tables. After you inquired these everyday objects deeply, will they affect the way you think or perceive in return, or will they change you?

The basic necessities of life are inseparable from the production lines, and ultimately we human beings will be shaped by the production lines. If this is the case, what kind of attitude should we hold?

LXF: Positive attitude. We can only accept, and since we cannot leave, why would we? It seems that we cannot choose now, so we can only accept.

GLL: Don’t you think it is pathetic that we have no other choices?

LXF: Not really, because it is not a matter of choice. We have to use Assembly line. It’s like that we have to breathe fog and haze.

GLL: You said that you initially meant to use videos to solve the problem of paintings.

LXF: Yes.

GLL: You still meant that, huh?

LXF: It’s a long time since I have painted.

GLL: You will not consider anything about paintings when you make videos now?

LXF: No, I will not. What I care most is what my creating system is like and what is the most appropriate way for me to demonstrate it. If paintings are necessary, I will paint or have others paint them.  And if devices are needed, I will also make them in any form or material. Since I have to travel around now, videos might be the best manner of working. Now my computer is my studio.

GLL: So you don’t define yourself as a video artist?

LXF: No, I don’t like that kind of definition. I am an artist, to add an prefix, contemporary artist, although the word “contemporary” has been abused nowadays.

GLL: Your woks have not often been seen in China. Why is that? We can hardly see your works except in some unpopular art exhibitions.

LXF: In my early time in Shanghai, I was an art teacher. At that time, painters didn’t have as many chances to exhibit their paintings as those who made videos, devices and action art. But I didn’t catch it. I went to Creek Art Center after a temporary time in making videos. After that, I seem to have become an art worker, but many people still don’t know it.


1. Song of the Burial of Flowers
2. After 2000 – When the mountain flowers are in full bloom, She will smile mingling in their midst.