Li Liao's Foxconn uniform (Image courtesy

Li Liao’s Foxconn uniform (Image courtesy

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 Liao, “Spring Breeze” (Image courtesy LEAP magazine)

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.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

4 replies on “Chinese Artist Goes Undercover at Foxconn … to Buy an iPad”

  1. An added dimension of disconnect: if I wanted to buy an ipad here in Chengdu, it would cost me twice or three times what it costs in the United States. What gives, China?

  2. People that buy apple products are FUCKING pathetic. You know, just like in the german adventure, you may not have been a nazi, but by supporting them and waving that German flag you pretty much were in the end.
    Here’s a REAL added dimension of disconnect: Woman reads article by man who worked at foxconn factory, admitted it was a horrible job, the whole world knows they employ children and that hundreds of starving employees have thrown themselves to their suicided off the building, and yet she only wants to complain of price discrepencies between countries with different currency exchanges.
    I rest my case, 90% of the human beings on this planet are shit-eating morons with puke sacks for brains.

    1. All luxury goods here cost more, regardless of whether or not factory conditions are poor. Cars, high-end electronics, and designer clothes require more of an investment here than in the United States (and this has nothing to do with exchange rates–it’s real purchasing power). Anyway, I don’t want an ipad. My students do, though. They stand in a weirdly precarious place; most of them represent the growing group of the ambitious middle class whose parents are hinging everything on their college success. They have employment expectations, but also consumption expectations. They resent the fact that the Chinese government spends so much time protecting its trade relationship with the United States and enriching its leaders at the expense of people like themselves. They want what we have. They want ipads, and find it ironic that they should produce them and we should get them. Beijing has the air quality of 19th century London, but my students want ipads. It is, of course, a minor complaint, but one that I found both confusing and amusing.

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