Bigger than eBay and Amazon combined, Taobao marketplace is China’s largest consumer-to-consumer retail site, offering nearly 1 billion products to well over 500 million buyers. One of the world’s top 20 most visited websites (according to Alexa, the intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon), Taobao has inspired villagers throughout China to resist the trend of moving to big cities to make their livelihoods as migrant workers. Instead, they have launched cottage industries, marketing their locally produced goods online to consumers throughout the world. Artist duo Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho spent four months in China last year, studying the phenomenon of this e-commerce wonder and have brought back their findings in their current exhibition, Mother Holding Taobao Child, at 47 Canal.
Lien and Camacho have built their investigation around a single object, the “mother-child bed,” a bunk bed whose bottom platform is much larger than its upper half. This piece of self-assembled furniture became a viral sensation on Taobao, turning a village of pig farmers into nationally celebrated e-commerce entrepreneurs who sold this bed at rates rivaling the cheap furniture giant IKEA.
The first object encountered when entering the gallery is a full-scale bunk bed, bought by the artists on Taobao, decorated and outfitted to make a broader point. On the top, various household items and a pair of inflatable dolphins are packaged into two bundles wrapped in plastic like a couple of unwieldy children. Below, instead of a sheet or a blanket, there is a life-size drawing of a pregnant woman hugging a specially designed, u-shaped pillow. Nanny-cams (of the sort used to spy on children and their caretakers) connect the upper and lower platforms, and a video projector splashes images of the goods above onto the bed below. Altogether, the installation presents a disturbing view of the current state of the pressures applied to the mother-child relationship, which can lead to material goods taking the place of intimate interactions.
To underscore this idea, a video on an adjacent wall, titled “Mother Holding Taobao Child” (2017), demonstrates just how a family-run small business functions in an e-commerce village. In this work, two mothers coax two toddlers to perform for the camera, coaching him to “play” with several toys that the family is photographing so they can be marketed and sold online. Off-camera, we hear the father struggling to to direct the scene for his camera so he can post these playful moments as advertising for the products. We watch as the child fails to cooperate, attempting to actually play with the toys rather than standing still for the photograph. According to the artists, this scene is a perfect illustration of the “double-bind” situations described by the late British anthropologist and cybernetic theorist Gregory Bateson who wrote about how mixed messages conveyed from a mother to a child can cause schizophrenia.
That’s a lot to think about. Three sculptures, each titled “Orphaned,” complicate the artists’ messages even more. For these works, the artists isolated the staircases from the mother-child bunk beds and then inserted still images of the girl from the video in light boxes installed between each step. The child looks trapped within the piece of furniture, her needs subsumed to the greater goal of marketing a product. Walk around each staircase and on the other side, we discover contemporary black-and-white drawings by Lien and Camacho based on works by two other artists, Anicka Yi and Amy Yao. Like the child on view, these art works seem “orphaned,” detached from their creators and not yet embraced by potential future owners. Lien and Camacho seem to be drawing a parallel between e-commerce families and the lot of contemporary artists — both being commodified by a capitalist exchange system which alienates them from genuine connections and more rewarding relationships.
In the past three years, Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho have emerged as leaders among a group of young artists who are exploring the ways that identity is being reformed by globalization and transnationalism. Operating as both artists and curators, their projects are rooted in extensive research and often employ supplementary materials, as is the case with this current exhibition. The rewards are well worth the additional effort of reading these materials, because they bring to light the structure of a particular economy and the emotional ramifications of participating in this system. Perhaps the artists are also saying that we are all e-commerce entrepreneurs, hoping that our offerings go viral. Or perhaps, they are hoping we will see the shortcomings of this sort of dream and are inspired to search for alternatives to capitalist commodification.