HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — On the one hand, it is fairly banal to acknowledge that the manmade objects around us didn’t just appear; they come from somewhere and were made by someone. On the other hand, we often don’t know very much about where, exactly, things are made and, more importantly, by whom. The average American consumer has no idea how much labor goes into an everyday object, even one as omnipresent as, say, a little black dress.
Enter Tsz Yan Ng, who can tell you the exact number of hands involved in the making of a certain little black sheath dress, produced and sold by Lafayette 148 New York — a vertically integrated garment manufacturing company which runs all aspects of production, from design to distribution, out of offices in both New York and a manufacturing facility in Shantou, China. Tsz Yan knows this company and its facility intimately; not only was her father the longtime manager of the cutting floor, she is the designer of record (in collaboration with Mehrdad Hadighi) for the current facility in Shantou. In 2013, Tsz Yan created an installation at 9338 Campau’s former location, 2739 Edwin, called Factory Setting: the space of Labor, wherein she painstakingly wove together two massive 20 ft. x 20 ft. photographs detailing aspects of the garment factory on a self-made loom. The composite image combined a wide shot of the factory cutting floor with a close-up of workers’ hands bunching textiles together.
Now Tsz Yan has returned for a second, deeper dive in The Visibility of Labor, also at 9338 Campau, by literally reconstructing every set of hands that contributed in any way to the production of a single garment in Lafayette 148 New York’s current line. The investigation took her all the way to Shantou, where she made casts of the factory workers’ hands and documented their working environment. The conditions might be surprising to some — the factory Tsz Yan has designed is modern, well-lit, clean, and full of extremely high-tech machines that do everything from cut complex patterns, to steam-press finished garments. But all along the way, they are supervised and supplemented by very hands-on human labor; all told, the hands of 17 people are party to the making of the dress in question, from designer and pattern-maker, to CNC knitting operator and thread cutter, to one of the factory’s most expert sewers, whose experience is critical to the execution of this complex design. Casts of these hands are mounted around the gallery, seeming to push through the walls like spirits from another plane. At the main gallery entrance hangs the “IE document for STYLE # MDR25R-2880 (Industrial Engineering)” — a roster which accompanies every item of clothing within the facility, breaking down the construction into the most exacting economic terms, reducing each task according to the associated labor.
At first, the gallery gives the impression of a horror house, with hands seeming to grasp at the viewer from all sides. But viewed more closely and individually, the hands are absolutely human, so finely detailed that an observant viewer could recognize some of the workers by their jewelry in a 20-minute video that moves through the various departments of the factory, pausing to focus on certain machines and workers. By placing the viewer more or less at the center of these reaching hands, the exhibit inherently implicates all who enter the space as the center of the hands’ labor. In the anteroom, a headless, but otherwise roughly human figure holds out a dress in a grim impersonation of a storefront mannequin. The hands here, distinguishable by her permanent jade bracelet, are Tsz Yan’s own.
Tsz Yan is quick to emphasize that the stereotypical ideas Americans might hold about Chinese factory labor are, in various ways, misinformed (although she concedes that the conditions faced by factory workers in this particular facility are not, perhaps, representative of the norm). Indeed, the workers in the video seem to be reasonably comfortable in their workplace, and willingly participated in the project once it was explained to them. It’s rare enough that we consumers consider the source of labor that shapes our coveted objects — and even rarer that we associate such labor with a sense of professional pride on the part of the worker. The point, in part, seems to be that we simply don’t know much of what goes into the objects that surround us, and subsequently miss the material connections to real people. Here in Hamtramck — a city built on auto manufacturing — in an art gallery that was once a clothing store, there is perhaps a kind of latent understanding of the labor that informs Tsz Yan’s art. But whether she faces a receptive or unsuspecting audience, it seems that her true calling is the work of revealing the human subtext in objects so easily taken for granted as to render their makers largely invisible.
The Visibility of Labor continues at 9338 Campau (9338 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck, Mich.) through November 14.