Someone was telling me 佛山 Foshan, the Fo meant fire, like in Cantonese, but duh! it actually means Buddha. Anyway, Foshan is where Ms Pixeldirt Justine has been holed up making art on and off for about as long as I’ve been in China. It’s also where Osram China have their factory to make lights, and show off various sorts of illumination with matching colour temperature cards in the lumens equivalent of soft porn.
So we got a bus out there, which went way far in one direction, past the Osram factory, turned at a hairpin under the freeway, went, way far back, turned into town, went down the road for a while, did a u-turn, back up, turned and then we were there. I guess that’s the direct route, and I enjoyed the tour of Foshan too. we got little visitor stickers and went into the afore-mentioned boudoir of lux … mmm … LED sheets … before the head of the China operation gave us a short talk on Osram and Siemans in the middle kingdom. Along with brochures filled with spec sheets for 240000lm lamps. And stuff about art. Which is what we were here for but I was thinking JD would be in a sugar-coma from all this.
And it got even better. We got a tour of the plant.
Making florescent strip-lights and other fun stuff, from glass tubes to light-sabres. I’m a bit of a slut for automated production lines, and this was just like watching a steam-punk Alpha Blue, lots of gas burners, dully glowing thickly molten glass, pin-prick white bursts of arc welding, and all manner of lamps flickering on and off, wrapped in a moist heat funk of industry and southern china spring.
Not that I’m a connoisseur of overseas factories in China, though through my daily RSS mainlining, there’s a couple of CSR sites that get jacked up, and really Osram looked pretty nice. Clean, safe (ear plugs ja!), the staff were young and looked happy… despite the high-speed monotony of making fiddly parts over and over that would send me completely deranged in half a day, it just looked like a manufacturing site in any other country I’ve been.
But we were here for Art (though the thought of regular employment and my own bed got me quite distracted). In particular, Siemens Arts Programme that has been going on all over China, and in Foshan it was COSplayer of the year,曹斐 Cao Fei with What Are You Doing Here?. My photos pretty much suck, though Emile video-king got it all, and it’s funny that the last show I saw in which the exhibition was better than the advertising was her 角色 COSplayers in Hong Kong. This project is in collaboration with the employees at Osram, the same ones who are making your lights right now, who spent five months in their spare time making installations, learning to sing and dance, and while maybe they’re not going to go off to the 广州美术学院 Guangzhou Academy of fine Arts where the bus left from, they are an unequivocal display of the innate creativity in people that usually gets stamped out by age 10.
What I noticed in COSplayers was Cao Fei’s lack of irony in working with her collaborators, and a sensitivity that makes it very hard to look at the people involved in the work and the art they make in a disparaging way. This is so far from the lazy, incipiently hateful and un-committing dross I’ve seen in Australia and Europe, and splattered across the cultural landscape of western inner-city urban art. For me, this seriousness is what makes her work so strong, and why I keep coming back to it.
Practically, each group worked with her on an installation made from Osram products, and combined that with a performance in it, spread out across the basketball courts of the factory’s apartments, the performances cycling through as dusk fell across a clear, cloud-streaked sky. In reality describing it does nothing to explain the sheer weirdness and trippy psychedelia of it, like watching white-gloved security guards body-popping like Missy Elliot’s backing dancers under a sea of primary-hued light.
Cao Fei is off to the Sydney Biennale soon, and I was thinking about how this would tour. My first impression was that I’d love to see the employees in Sydney, then I started to see problems with that, how an audience such as in Australia, so attuned to seeing art-as-irony, would not get it, and how easily it would be for the performers to become circus monkeys. Also, the site-specific part of it, the “what are they (you) doing here?” is tricky to transfer, as it applies both ways, towards the workers from us in why they are there, what it is they do in their jobs, and from them to us as outsiders, why have you come, why are they looking at us? This reversibility of the spectacle, and its questioning lends a power to the art that removed from the Osram factory would be difficult to – at best – reproduce. To document it though, and present that along with the installations I think would be far more effective, to see the audience both us as outsiders and the Osram employees – foreign and Chinese – makes it complete.
I think the Siemans Arts Program is something really awesome, and that it’s happening in China even more so. Cao Fei, her work and I guess, her working methodology to me seemed a very appropriate choice as artist. Also the people involved who work in the Foshan factory should feel very proud of what they’ve done.
(After we went to Sleepywood for Long Island Ice Teas, and the photograph of the pitcher full of it is for someone who asked me to have one for them… yes, the Sleepywood drinks mock tall buildings with their puny size.)