Li Xiaofei's Assembly Line

By Per Hüttner

In May 2012, the European network Vision Forum organised a series of events and exhibitions to reflect on the relationship between creativity and thinking. It brought together creators from China of and the west to dialogue in many different formats and contexts. Each public session of project entitled “Think Again” started with a screening of a video work by Li Xiaofei from his “Assembly Line” series. The videos are 6-8 minutes long and use a documentary language to show people who work at factories in the region around Shanghai. The interviews are intercut with images of the industrial plants in full production, creating a rhythmic and chopped tempo as we are thrown between images of man and machine. The work is a poetic reflection on how the relationship between sameness and individuality is expressed in these often inhumane spaces. The work poses questions that also were central to “Think Again.”

In our everyday lives, we are interacting with a whole range of mass-produced objects. Everything from chicken meat that we eat to the computers that we use come from production lines and Li Xiaofei underlines that we consume without necessarily thinking about the factories and the people who have been involved in the production of the goods. His videos momentarily close this gap and the project asks how we can create a space for thinking about the (individual) history of the mass-produced objects that surround us and also the labour that goes into producing them.

“Assembly Line” asks us to what degree consumerist society and the pseudo choices it offers (the choice between different brands that host the same components) has stops us from making real choices and if that stops us from discovering true diversity, the beauty and depth that surrounds us in the world?

The work reflects on what the difference is between production and creation. Difference can only be ascribed to objects that also have traits of similarity. We can define what the difference is between a man and a woman; a Chinese and a Swedish person. Still, how can we describe the difference between a Dutch man and jealousy or between a Japanese woman and mathematics? As a matter of fact, the more alike situations are, the more difference can be defined.

When we see “Assembly Line” we have to ask if art has become inscribed in production-line mentality. It is inevitable that factory-based production influences art (and it has done so since Minimalism took centre stage in the 1960s). However, then we also need to ask to what degree has the artist become a producer of pseudo-original objects whose purpose is to develop his/her brand name and/or inflate the wealth of its owner? If so, can this activity inspire thinking in the exhibition visitor? Or formulated differently: is art so convinced of its own good nature that it no longer can provoke thinking in its audience?

All of the above questions are highly pertinent today, when traditional Chinese values are confronted with Western ideas on a daily basis. They also open the door to reflect on to how Chinese life since World War II has been shaped by the introduction of Platonic and idealist ideas through communist values. And also asks how these ideas merge with Confucian concepts in this great nation as it maintains its quick shift from agrarian to industrial production. This allows us to understand how ideas and cultures remain in ceaseless dialogue and exchange of ideas.

A version of this text was originally published in “Think Again,” 2013, Edited by Rudi Heinrichsen and published by Vision Forum and Fei Contemporary Art Center. ISBN 978-91-980725-0-1.