“Zero Degree Writing” and the Depth of the Image in the
Work of Li Xiaofei

by Jiang Dandan

Li Xiaofei’s video works cannot lie. He makes inquiries into the most un-poetic thing of all, the “Assembly Line,” but what is the relationship of this video work to reality? Moving close to the ground, his video camera approaches the cold core of reality, all the while maintaining the fine details of said reality. Maintaining a space or a looming “critical distance,” his work is a process of opening up the viewer’s eyes—a process sometimes intermingled with narrative sounds.

Simple, direct: Behind the “zero degree writing” of the video, it is the repeated, measuring, editing and polishing of every detail. It seems very unadorned and natural, but actually it is also elaborate, forever within the natural aesthetic of the video. It illustrates the unpolished nature and the constant and precise adjustment of the measure, like if someone has a great skill it can help them realize the essence of the universe, like the paradoxical practice of Zhuangzi's “void-quietness,” which gives us the access to the Dao.

This concerns the method of writing and creative style, exposing a paradox between truth and reality. The distance is one which strictly corresponds with reality and is also seemingly infinitely drawing near to reality, but it also is closely related with reality. This kind of distance pays sincere attention to reality itself, the detailed and logical description and observation in regards to the context of creating—namely the “Assembly Line.” In a coldly logical way investigating and depicting, the distance poses questions to reality which do not leave any traces.

Here we disturb the sequence of linear time trying to give sequence to the three different stylistic phases of the assembly line series. Each phase represents a method of writing and “aesthetic effect” or there is a starting point to be discovered and yet it remains all the way through in some form. Thus Xiaofei uses three ways of working that do not conflict with each other: the ways to observe, write and contemplate on the “Assembly Line” reality of our world.

The First Moment

In the “Interview Series” in 2010 which captures common people, Li Xiaofei had a chance to get in contact with a printing worker, so he started the “Assembly Line” project. Then he slowly moved on to various kinds of workshops and factories in the Yangtze River Delta starting from Shanghai. He uncovered many different problems such as low wages, high pressure and stressful working conditions, the fast tempo of city life and the inequality caused by the growing divide between rich and poor, the boredom of daily life and the loneliness outside of the workplace—the invasion and killing of the space for existence and its accompanying organizational forms as a result of the mechanisms of high speed development. The distribution of power, the residence permits of workers from other provinces and their limited rights and the difficulties when their children want to attend school and the anticipation and the sense of helplessness towards the future for the lowest strata of society—all of these opinions are expressed in solid and naïve ways, which is to say romantic ways (referenced works: “Assembly Line Interview Series,” “A Printing Worker,” “A Workshop Director,” “An Women’s Federation Director.”)

Concrete descriptions by the individuals intervene with the aesthetics of the machines. During the narration, the surrounding machines are continuously rotating (cranks, rotating gears, the opening and closing machines which produce a strange orange and green glow) with pieces of paper printed sliding out one after another, printed cotton being woven one piece at a time, artificial wood flooring sliced into boards, in the droning workshop. The noises cover up people’s voices—sometimes people seem to be lost in thought as if their hopes or dreams cannot be realized in the face of the intractable hardships of life. Li Xiaofei is merely recording—taking up the methods of “absolute depiction” This kind of depiction without emotions (cold) reminds people of Roland Barthes (which he borrowed from Camus), the examples that Camus came up with of “neutralness,”and “absolute” and he mentions these as a kind of empty voice. It’s the only thing that can correspond to the unhealable sorrow in us.

Here the lives of the individuals are moving with the machines and the human bodies even represent some features of “mechanization,” for example the woman worker who is standing expressionless beside the machine in the high-end cigarette filter factory. The high cost of the filters requires her to spend her life in a virtually still position, only to move occasionally in order to cater to the needs of the machines. We see a collage of expressions or “non-expressions” of the workers in different factories, sometimes marred by the shadows produced from the machine’s lights. Roland Barthes “面部姿态” or “un simple lieu de facettes” is not expressing anything but the images themselves which are a representation of a state.

As the assembly line moves along, the lives of humans become increasingly lifeless, like objects and they become unconscious, subordinate (slave-like) (more or less distantly echoed with Charlie Chaplin’s early movies the parody in “Edward’s Mechanical Hand” or the critical reflection on contemporary man in German Writer Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities.” We also see them reflected in “Factory Girls” by Leslie T. Chang (the contemporary American female reporter of Chinese origin) and the life reality of the factory girls in the famous work of Chinese female poet and author Ding Yan. Or it is the assembly line work of Edward Burtynsky—the inhuman backdrop of a large scale factory in Fujian, set against a background of identical, dull pink and blue uniforms.

The relationship between humans and the environment of machines which is represented by the assembly line may be seen as an allegorical medium, casting a spotlight on production within consumer society. That is to say the production mode of overly “mindless labor.” Though Li Xiaofei depicts the workers during moments of rest, laughing or taking a nap, this still cannot erase the decisive moment—during working hours life is dull and flat and with distinction. And it’s not only about the “featurelessness” as a result of people working in assembly lines, it is also about the increasing integration which erases differences in this age of the consumer and the assembly line. It also reminds people of Paul Virilio “In the end, high speed development delivers the message of our own existence—different kinds of phenomena, the disappearance of direct perception and consciousness.” The speed and the disappearing symbols is like the ending of “A Printing Worker”—one ray of red light coming out from the black boxes, shadowing the face of the man who is talking about loneliness, then finally all the images fade into the darkness.

Behind the camera Li Xiaofei is paying silent attention to ordinary individuals in the assembly line production environment. No comments are needed. What he does is to intertwine the images and the noises of the production with the narrative voice. And this is enough for people to make people reflect on “In this Age of Mechanical Reproduction” the way of thinking and the process of production together “create assimilation.”(“The assembly lines doe not allow differences. It homogenizes the world,” said Li Xiaofei in regards to the “Assembly Line” project [July 1,2012]), the value of abstraction is increasingly taking the value of concrete bodily, vivid differences of life.

The video world contained within his work is cold to the point of having no poetics, absolute to the point of no excess. And again there is a kind of directly expressed power leading people into the assembly lines to watch and listen. As if the opened work is beyond criticism and reflection. And any possible connotative messages are included in the meandering time of the dispersed, reversible, lingering fragmented video itself. It tells us about all kinds of truth. In a high speed developing society, there are many individual’s lives spent with machines to the extent that they themselves become part of the operation of the machines. The fact that the artist is looking through the machines for examples—the gears of the printing machine which open and close and give off glaring golden or silver rays (Assembly Line Interview Series “A Printing Worker”), heralds the transformation of lifestyles brought by the modern assembly lines. Zhuangzi says与物相刃相糜《齐物论》we are inevitably “enslaved by objects.”

Second Moment

In Spring 2011 , Li Xiaofei did a residency in America where created another work with images and interviews juxtaposed with each other. On the Hudson River, he used moving cameras to shoot the skyscrapers along the riverbank, the pipes and moving cars. This together forms a very orderly city, interspersed with interviews in a waste water treatment plant, with all kinds of images of machines (sewage pump processors, transmission pipelines and the factory equipment monitors). All of this data is displayed in another space which is behind the orderliness of the data screens. Here there is another space of operations—a huge amount of kinetic energy supporting the transformation and maintenance of this gigantic city. In the representations of the modern city we do not see the assembly line.

Although the scenery in the city and the assembly line’s motion all look ordinary, they are filled with details and gradations, reflecting deep ideas while permeating and interacting with the narrations in the video. These two spaces are intertwined yet distant from each other, carrying a huge place for energy recovery, recycling and transmission. While the artist chooses to use the “absolute” method to handle the task of representing the world, he is also showing another world which is either beyond or below it. And this fact categorizes the art as realistic but “documentary” in its nature. He exposes the hidden profundity of the world of using the same sensitively interlaced style.

The artist says that from that moment, the idea of the “Assembly Line” moved a step forward. It shows the huge production system which is part and parcel of modernity and which echoes with the organized forms of urban space. There are two parallel yet connected threads in the video. Still there is no comment, only representation. The comparison drawn between the energy recovery and the assembly line (which carries the notion of sustainable development) and the city scenes which are not anti-utopian but to some degree recognize the function played by the assembly lines in sustaining the order and the function of energy transformation.

In the recent “Daily Assembly Lines” series, the video “A Packet of Salt” (2013, selected in the 60th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in 2014 and the 8th Berlin Biennale) begins with a slowly moving salt-loaded barge on the river, then progresses to a white heap of salt and then the large-scale factory. A young mother with her child in arms walks past the wooden bridge—a kind commonly seen in riverside villages in Southeastern China. The gentle and poetic scenes of the daily life (the background music is a folk tune) and the sight of salt-producing factory (Or the eddies of salt as they rapidly move on the conveyor belt), as if replacing the monotonous and frozen sense of time with the time that flows like some kind of liquid are inseparable. The slightly dark-colored sea salt heaps look like shadow mantled hills.

And the desolate land, polluted by the discarded well salt contrasted with the “beautiful” hills of salt made to look like a Chinese landscape painting create a profound contradiction. In the presentation of the “guanxi network,” (a network of social connections) there is a hidden perhaps damaging threatening element. Here we will borrow the term Roland Barthes used in La Chambre Claire: this is not confined to the superficial communication between the image and the witness “studium,” but it surprises people by the impact of fragments, which is deep in the sphere of “punctum.” The extension of the surface and the penetration of the punctum together appear in the neutral mixture of images.

In the “Assembly Line — No.10” which is cut to a short video of 2 minutes and 37 seconds, there is nearly a 2-minute long shot focusing on a coal worker who is sprawling on a brown bench. Underneath there is a pair of brown shoes. The colors of the walls and ground all seemed to be transformed into the dark color of coal. The carts roll by one after another, fullly loaded with coal. The video, however, still focuses on the sleeping worker through the spaces between the moving carts. When the coal-laden cars are finally out of sight, the camera continues to provide a close-up of the grayish green suit of the worker, including his bare feet stained black by the coal. All of these details, while depicting the surroundings, all suggest the coarseness, toughness and the ubiquitous existence derived from the pitch black coal. This person, who is too tired to be roused by the carts, is peacefully talking a nap right in front of the burning boiler, like an “ornament” in this extreme environment: his life is embedded in the coal site. With a resting posture, he is too tired to feel the danger around him. Other things are self-explanatory. The machines are like the masters and the individuals—a silent decorative puppet, which is subordinated to the context of assembly lines.

“A Wedding Photo” (2013) begins with the peaceful surface of the sea. The camera moves from the ship in a central location following it as the ships gradually converge in orderly rows. Against this beautiful backdrop shot in a contemplative style, a voiceover shouts out instructions suggesting, tips and rules regarding poses, procedures and physical arrangements. The ships turn out to be the background for a wedding photo shoot, the kind which has become popular since the mid 1990s and thus has become the theme for many visual artists. From kitsch to the parody of kitsch, for instance the unremoved assimilation of Zhen Guogu’s [1970-] immature and affected wedding photos “My Bride,” to the embellishment of symbols such as the little angels and Donald Duck in Feng Zhengjie’s [1968-] “Romantic Journey,” series to Lu Zhirong’s [1968-] strangely shot avant-garde series “Wedding Dress” (1997-2000) in which for instance in front of the window of a wood building, against the desolate background (which looks almost like ruins) there is a naked man creating a dissonance with the image of a bride wearing a silvery, cheap wedding dress, to the kitsch burlesque (for instance Wang Jing [1962-] his performance art photography series “To Marry a Mule”—the animal dressed in a hot pink dress with plastic flowers, the artist acting as the groom—in an ironic commentary on consumer culture.

However, there is little existence of kitsch in Li’s work. The person giving out orders is unseen, just like the shooting scenes. And when it comes to the end of the video, we can only see a bride standing on the beach in her white wedding dress (and of course she is making a pose as ordered by the photographer), while simultaneously the voiceover tells us that these ships are actually there to steal sand from the ocean floor. In the logic which puts pursuit of profit foremost, nature is only a backdrop for tourism—a theatrical set for a conceptualized ideal of love and life. Just like the artist says, “These sequences rebuild an illusory ‘truth’ by constantly fragmenting, regrouping and transforming.”(July 1, 2010) The dual reflection is indeed reflected through an image: the bride who stands on the beach with an affectedly shy pose and the sweltering beach under her feet (the traces of sand being dug in the background are quite obvious). The assembly lines in operation, whether in the past or at the present, are all hidden in the details of the scenery.

Li’s only method is to simply ask and inquire. In writing, he lets the reflectivity float upon the truth, without the slightest logic mixed in. Only moments and fragments exist, just like the moving images of the shot which are non continuous, at the same time in a holistic way sequentially continuous—which is another kind of his non-descriptive narration. The artist presents the invisible by a narrative strategy of retreat and ellipsis and he leaves the viewers to further imagine, reconstruct and explore the possibility of reflection themselves. The viewers are actually liberated through this void of narration—since there are no clear instructions, there are multiple means of interpretation. This also reminds us of the “absence” that Barthes mentioned. He said, “In this way, narrations are concluded as a form of negativity, within which the social and legendary aspects of languages are erased, and which are replaced by a neutral status of inertia. Thus, the idea itself is able to remain in full form, not having to carry a subordinate confinement in a context of history to which it does not belong. ”

In the making of “Assembly Line” series, Li gradually digs deeper into this contemporary world. The parallel and co-existing threads he lays out are like the interlacing between the swift movements of the shuttle and the shadows left by the fluorescent lights. Every moment of “Assembly Line” gives out material aesthetics, while it is not purely physical thanks to people’s presence. All is calmly explained in the “travelling” as images construct and repeat.

The Third Moment

In 2013 Li had a chance to travel around the world, including the two Poles (Norway’s Kirkenes city within the Arctic Circle and Bluff in New Zealand—the country’s nearest point to the Antarctic), where he continued making the “Assembly Line” series. And gradually the focus of his attention and reflections changed as the artist, as creator himself, was equally confronted and examined when dealing with different cultures. As a result, Li’s solo exhibition “Crabs And Chocolate” in OV Gallery during February and March 2014 assumed a totally different style, which provoked astonishment.

In these places not invaded by people and pollution, Li engaged in conversations among the mountains, clouds, trees and lakes. Pure and quiet, they seemed everlasting. The branches and leaves of the trees reflected upside down in the water in Stockholm’s Kungsholmen island—the image quivering, the shadows swaying in increasingly large motions. Away from the hubbub, these geographically isolated, uncontaminated scenes, reflect the world—the mountains, the clouds, trees and lakes and have a mutually reflective relationship of dialogue. Is this a new world, which praises “perception/sensibility” anew, has the artist re-discovered poetics in a distant land? Are these places possibly concealing the artist’s memories toward his hometown—a small county in Hunan? When the haze covers the sky and the lakes are no longer pure? Do these places serve as a distant utopia or are they like the moon’s reflection in the water, which is, of course, unattainable?

However, the artist reminds us that we are not able to indulge in these little corners of purity. Thus every natural scene is juxtaposed with a corresponding image: for example, the two works depicting water reflections are contrasted with the video depicting the workings of Imperial Tobacco. With only the ordered arrangement of surfaces and dots, the latter is also simply composed. Stuffed into thin, white cigarette papers, the tobacco rolls rapidly and accumulates in numbers, the volume of production steadily increasing (“Assembly Line — No.29).

We see a focus on detail in “Assembly Line — No.29” —a textile factory in Hangzhou with close-ups of the latitudinal lines—here just about every moment interweaves musical and visual effects of the slight variations in color (“Assembly Line — No.18). In the self-contained interior system of the “Assembly Line” series, natural and man-made, the colliding of nature and artificial elements emphasizes the duality of the “remaining scenery”—abundant yet fragile, within a context of an inner tension.

The colliding nature of the scenery, or perhaps this inner tension highlights both the abundance and fragility of the “remaining scenery” as the lines of the trees and mountains tremble, fluctuating in the shadows.

The non-poetical poetics of industrial production, extending the “image writing,” light, color and sound creates the immediacy and of “real time” (of an interwoven video which employs editing of the image, shifts, changes the depth of the surface) or it reminds us of the modern production model, how in this “living world,” it can cause breaks, variations and momentary changes to our lives. To answer the question we may find some clues in these visual details: the orange stripes that appear in the liquid copper during copper production process, (“Assembly Line — No.11”) (which more or less reminds us of the same orange stripes floating on the polluted river in the strange scenery of Edward Burtynsky’s “China” series.) The black liquid in the pool—the byproduct of iron smelting—roils and turns into bubbles (“Assembly Line — No.02”). Approaching industrial production in a “zero degree” method an “analogon” intensively emerges. What it illustrates is perhaps the devouring, invasive and threatening power of the alienated and heterogeneous groups, as well as the metamorphosis of the world full of assembly lines. The artist doesn’t all avoid the roughness and brutality of the production process using assembly lines, just in the same way he approaches the pure pristine corners of the world with the same objectivity (using no “re-enchantement” of the picturesque scenery but only the clear reflections which suggest the existence of the world).

Li no longer only focuses on the details in the production process, but also the wider area of the assembly line space, while the possibility for reflection appears in the non-reflective details, just like how Barthes’ “ponctum” can strike the inner core of the viewers. The stretching, spreading and expansion in the horizon brings out the full potential of longitudinal depth—this is another kind of profoundness and poetics hidden in the “zero degree” narrative approach. The truth (reel) which is contained in the simulacra and which out-performs the flat, descriptive, actual reality (réalité), conveys the facts hidden behind the simple physical repetition in “Assembly Line,” again using a “zero degree” artistic approach: the artist illustrates the reality of working in the in the assembly line, the fatal destructive power of the industrial production to the environment and to life.

As the artist’s horizon widens, instead of only questioning the relationship between modern people and modern automated production, he begins to address more global issues, including co-existence after the Cold War, ecological concerns in the context of global warming and the possibility for future co-existence among different regions and cultures.

As a result, we have the chance to see the transformation of a small village in the northern Norway (“A King Crab,” 2014). The clues of the story are hidden in a two-dimensional line drawing. The remains of Cold War projects on the beach, and the multi-colored buttons on the machine at the hydropower station. The electric generators in red and green are from Russia while the Norwegian ones are in yellow and black. Li uses the blocks of color as if creating an abstract painting (it is useful to know that Li graduated in 1998 from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art studying oil painting before he turned to video art in 2002), and the burden of these two great machines is not only limited to the mechanisms of the realities existing on the borders but also extends to geopolitical issues. Before the appearance of the “lifesaver” king crabs, the village had been in an economic crisis because its fish stocks had decreased. The camera focuses on the big bodies of the live crabs, while the voice-over tells us that these crabs have severely damaged the balance of the food chain as they devour almost all the fish. Isn’t it the same mode as the one which appeared in “A Bag of Salt,” which provokes reflection on the greediness of capitalism—where in the production chain of the well salt and saltpeter, the former is discarded because of its low price? Compared to the expanding network of desire brought on with the global spread of Neoliberalism, the purity of “these no-man’s lands” appears to be increasingly brittle, just as we see in “Silent Assembly Line—No.9” where the light clouds are quickly dispelled by the smoke made by electric generators and the scattered bushes and trees are dwarfed by the high towers. The artist silently watches the tower giving out smokes and which disperses second by second, knowing that they are not simple clouds and smoke, but indeed a visual illusion suggesting the cruel fact that industrial production is relentlessly eating away at nature.

In a carriage of Swedish high-speed train (“Assembly Line — No.21”), where the sunlight slants across the leisurely resting travelers and the mountains and forests sweep by the windows, the forward expanding “depth of field” seems to lead the picture into a never ending journey, or a peaceful destination. The artist places this video side by side with the video which depicts a scene of intense labor at a furniture factory in Nanhai, Guangzhou (“Assembly Line — No.31”). In the latter video, a female worker with no protective mask is busy with the furniture. The turning fans in the foreground and the poisonous dust floating in the air shows an intermingling of “lightness” and “heaviness.” Submerged in a vertical tension, 7 Li’s video draws a realistic portrait of the lives of the assembly line workers in this rapidly developing country which is frequently called “world’s factory,” by focusing on the moments in a “line drawing” minimalistic approach instead of intervening with of criticism. But actually he peels off the simplicity of criticism, using a unique form of line drawing to depict those “moments of labour,” expressing the unique kinetic flow of assembly line time, or imparting the formless “disappearance” of time.

In a forklift factory in Shanghai’s Qingpu District, a skilled worker (for reference see “A Production Manager” of “Assembly Line Interview” series) is spraying paint on a forklift frame which is moving slowly on an automatic mechanized system. Li tried to perfect every detail—the mist spurting from airbrushes, the silver protective suit and the gas mask, all covered by light green and grayish silver. After being sprayed, the car frame again moves out of sight and leaves behind with it a religious aura surrounding commercial production. The silence between the two sentences of the interviewees is purposely prolonged to express their reflections on different lifestyles. (Their fear of speed and anxiety over the changes brought on by high speed development—this sobering mentality creates a contrast to the helpless life of the assembly line.) Meanwhile in “A Bar of Chocolate” in New Zealand skilled immigrant chocolate makers work with relatively more ease compared with the workers in the Chinese forklift factory. But, can this more individualized approach in the higher-end factory radically erase the assimilating nature of the assembly lines? “A King Crab,” where an interviewee from a Northern European village hopes that the Northwest Passage will be delayed (for fear of environmental damage), also reveals this inevitable prevalence of the assembly lines with the profits associated with it.

Faced with the assembly lines, the artist records, constantly devoting his full attention. But what he achieves is not only recorded reality, but also the kind of beauty found in the non-poetic reality of commercial production—although the word “beauty” can hardly be used due to the profound correspondence between images and the reality (perhaps using some kind of present force—an un-ignorable force acting on life and the environment). The ethics of “zero degree writing” as well as the depth of questioning and reflection which appears in the “Assembly Line” series is just like the disappearing serenity of the individual who is deprived of personal characteristics by the machines. The remaining character possessed by these individuals is merely presented in the video through an artistic approach, asking for the contemplation of the viewers. (This reminds us of what Craig Owens mentioned about the way of shooting garbage in his book "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” which was first published in 1980. “It is not a narration but a representation.") 8

How shall we face and even depict the fact that “the skin of the world,” our environment, is severely damaged and the “poetic dwelling” rendered impossible? In his work, using the “zero degree,” approach, Li expresses no sighs or sadness (such as the kind that Elja-Liisa Ahtila wrote when faced with the world’s desolation), or traces of romanticism and criticism that would suggest personal opinion. This is the way he raises questions, with no judgments or answers. He has no intention of concealing the coldness of this industrial world while probing into the details of the manufactured sights to bring out another “reality” of artistic industrial images, at the same time displaying the shortcomings of modernity.

“Assembly Line — No.13” (2012) has the effect of a triptych, which looks like a diluted puzzle. At first sight, it looks like a series of fast-flowing alternative Chinese ink paintings whose colors are extremely faded. On the left side there are continuous shots of splattering sand. The images are extremely pure. The falling gravel looks like dark patches of color in the shape of something nearly indistinguishably “figural” which enacts curvilinear motions, resembling a piece of dynamic “experimental Chinese ink painting.” In the center there are blurred shots of galloping lions and panthers taken from the Discovery Channel. Somewhere in the corresponding images, there is a suggested desire for observing speed. In the pure and moving images that alternate between a state of true and false, the speed of production and the state of the animal on the hunt, expose the absence of reflection. The answer to the puzzle, however, may lie in the image on the right. In the first second of the video, the bamboo leaves at the edge of the camera with the accompanying dull hills of stones and dust form an ordinary and static scene. But then the video goes on to rapidly unfold the distance between visual illusion and the reality: dust from the stones piles rise, fall and accumulate, leading the viewers’ eye to the bamboo leaves which are constantly sullied by the dust, until they are finally erased from the screen. The ugliness of industrial production is thus presented through a traditional composition. The rock crushing plant in the middle of the bamboo forest is telling the damage and erosion that industrial production has inflicted upon the earth. Yet it is told in a hoarse whisper, in the distance between “zero degree writing” and the visual aesthetics of images.

The artist hasn’t showed any stance of giving lectures. Instead he crawls on the ground and shoots the falling stones and dust from below, while the images of preying predators from the animal world race across his mind (as a media for reflection). He adjusts the height and distance of the camera, focusing on the bamboo destroyed by the falling sand and stones, as if bringing out both observation and reflection simultaneously. The artist tells a story about the infinite damage brought upon the skin of the world by an eager pursuit of profit, efficiency and the high pace of development, by showing the contrast between the dynamic and the static, the active and the passive, the visible and the invisible.

The "Assembly Line,” series depicts tangible or invisible transformations, twisted and distorted lifestyles, the hiding, covering, damaging even thorough destruction of the formation and regeneration of nature. All these problems are presented in the author’s “experience” of the assembly line and the environment (including physical participation): almost completely flat penetrating zero degrees from one point, the smooth transfer of the flat image, and the feeling and response of the heart, strip away the most basic inquiries, and also gradually pierce through the details of images. Through the initial stage of the creation of “Assembly Line,” this video artist focused on presenting the conscience, ordered and geometric forms of machines, emphasizing elements such as line, space, proportion and volume. This standard machine aesthetics always exists and sometimes appears in some works. But it seems increasingly, the assembly line video series lies between documentary recording and the truth found in art, and the image included is of a form which comprises both painting and photograph, between representational shape, hyper-realism and abstraction, and sometimes even a transition from the aesthetic feeling of pure geometric forms to the abstraction of Chinese ink painting which is originally quite different from machine aesthetics. It should be pointed out that the paradoxical aesthetic on the perspective effect of “range” and “gap,” on the contrary, hints the lack of “poetic dwelling” in a pure moral means and the damage to the natural landscape when it is replaced by the manmade landscape. However the industrial culture which makes a false representation becomes the media of implied meaning which spies upon the surroundings, especially the encompassing changes to life, landscape and lifestyle, which accompany the assembly line mode.

Li makes all efforts to represent the “Assembly Line” video series in a real way, from the real simulacra parallel to the real visible with the depth of the “invisible,” to “write” the non-poetic nature of industry in a seemingly poetic way. He has no intention of either creating a false aesthetics or deceitful utopia. To a certain extent, it works in concert with the alteration of the concept of video which has emphasized realism since the beginning of modern art history: the modern pioneer of pure photography Paul Strand created the “New Objectivity” style where art is “born from real life.” The geographical place created by the French photographer Sophie Ristelhueber conveys the documentary power of “realism.” American film director, Godfrey Reggio’s documentary Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance, 1983, reveals the destruction of the ecological environment and the simple/honest culture, and so it continues with the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky who created “Manufactured Landscapes” (Jennifer Baichwal created the documentary of the same name following his path of shooting) which presented world landscapes changed by industrial manufacturing. In the context of this era, some kinds of “intertextuality” offer new possible readings. Something also worth mentioning is: the expression of cattle and sheep Li filmed in New Zealand’s natural pastures and here, the grass between the valleys, perhaps can be compared to Wang Jiuliang’s (1977 -) photographic work “Junk Siege” which displays cattle with piles of rubbish at their feet. Li slightly dilutes the scenes which feature fields of debris. The scene of damaged bamboo, perhaps can be compared to Lu Chunsheng’s (1968 -) video work “Chemical History” which presents the destruction of nature as a different kind of sublime. Or there are green hills covered by green industrial nets in Yao Lu’s (1967 -) series of video works “The Shelter and Reconstruction.” Also I should mention that using a concise style of video, the Big Tail Elephant modern art group in the 90s in Guangzhou, explored social problems—stripping any pretense of illusion.

Though he may harbor some utopian landscapes in his heart, Li Xiaofei never indulges in any visual illusions, informing us in a clean and concise way: these are the remaining landscapes, the only ones left in the world which are gradually being damaged and our mode of modern manufacturing. The disorderly shots of the fields of debris in the bamboo forest depic the scenery of a “dying landscape”—namely the process of destruction of the natural scenery. Critique of reason, sensibility of aesthetics, the ethics of “zero degree writing,” the responsibility facing us and the common sense of crisis of the world today are all involved in the simple process of generating the “present.” Li focuses on the tension between the scene and “zero degree writing.” He opposes plot design and his works are devoid of dramatic and artificial elements. Li always insists on shoot according to the facts. He does however edit and augment in a process of “traitement” of the fragments of the video. Thus creating a concise, multiplicitous and flowing style. The intellectual dimensions of the ideas are on the outside rather than embedded in the narration of the image itself, waiting for the construction of criticism.

Li Xiaofei’s works are always open and the power present is mixed with the power absent. The audience is brought into this plane to open up the world of the assembly line. The completion of the process of creating the video is the completion of the writing, something which reflects what the worker gives to the viewer. When leaving, we are different. The hard or soft “power” of the assembly line is written in a favorable way and increasingly in ways that include or omit, but effectively force us face all kinds of problems caused by the reality of today’s assembly line world.

Jiang Dandan, Distinguished Research fellow, Department of Philosophy, Institute of advanced studies on European Culture, University Jiaotong (Shanghai); Director of research program, correspondent at the Collège International de Philosophie (CIPh, Paris)


1. Roland Barthes, “Réflexion sur le style de ‘L 'Etranger’”, in Existences, n° 33, juillet 1944; Œuvres complètes, I, Seuil, dition établie et présentée par Eric Marty, 2002, pp.75-79.

2. Paul Virilo, Esthétique de la disparition, Editions Ballad, 1980, réédité, Galilée, 1989, p117.

3. Walter Benjamin, ”Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”, 1935 Rebecca Catching, “In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, 2012

4. 2010 Asian Cultural Council Grant (Rockefeller Foundation), New York USA

5. Roland Barthes, "La Chambre Claire: Notes sur la photographie," Editions de L'Etoile, Gallimard, Le Seuil, 1980.

6.Roland Barthes, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, Seuil, 1953, vol.I, pp.217-218.

7. Rebecca Catching, "Global Meridians/ Assembly Lines," Li Xiaofei Assembly LIne (Crabs and Chocolate Exhibition Catalogue), 2014

8.Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, part 2,” “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, Éd. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992, p.386.