Chinese artist Li Liao’s latest project is equal parts conceptual and journalistic. He did something Mike Daisey never quite accomplished: Li got a job at one of the Foxconn plants in Shenzhen that manufacturers most of Apple’s products and worked there for 45 days, undercover, inspecting circuit boards. With the wages he earned, he bought the product of his labor — an iPad.
Li’s final artwork, which is on display in the Beijing Ullens Center for Contemporary Art’s current exhibition of emerging artists, ON | OFF, consists of the iPad on a pedestal installed next to his uniform, security badges, and contract from the Foxconn factory — the artifacts that remain from his labor. It’s both a compelling sculpture and the document of a provocative performance.
In an interview with The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos, Li explains that it wasn’t difficult to get the job: “As long as you’re literate with no significant physical problems, you get hired,” he said. The work itself was more difficult than he expected, with schedules that stretched to 12 hours a day. The artist seems ambivalent about the experience: “Foxconn didn’t know I was making art. I don’t have anything to say to them. I will never go back to the factory to work.”
The piece is a circular commentary on production and consumption, a demonstration of how disconnected the factory workers are from the goods they make. “The products in this world actually have nothing to do with the workers who made them,” Li explains. “To most of the workers there, Apple was just a name, a logo.” The artist connects this gap by using his pay to own the object of his labor, and the result is sad. It’s also a little cynical but not particularly angry, more world-weary, underlining a truth that everyone knows exists but that no one seems willing to fix.
Li’s other work, recently reviewed in LEAP magazine, consists of performances that question the idea of urban space and the politics of the individual body in society: he has documented himself falling asleep in public and locked himself outside of office buildings.