Ni Haifeng’s exhibition “Para-Production” at Beijing’s Joy Art Space, was another addition to the long list of contemporary installations inspired by China’s emergence as a manufacturing center. Ni’s massive textile work, comprised of ribbons of torn fabric piled high next to antique sewing machines along with a 20-foot-tall woven tapestry of similarly discarded fabric, extended the discussion to encompass communities of laborers, shedding light upon the individual’s role within global cycles of production and consumption.
Organized by independent curator and writer Pauline Yao, the multi-part “Para-Production” revisited the Amsterdam-based artist’s Return of the Shreds (2007). Installed at the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Return of the Shreds consisted of several tons of fabric shreds from China heaped onto the museum’s main exhibition hall beneath photographs of Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Das Kapital. By putting viewers in direct contact with scraps from the world’s factory floor, Ni challenged audiences to consider the immensity of manufacturing in China and the world’s consumption of commercial goods.
Discussions about production, consumption and the “Made in China” craze remained central to “Para-Production,” in which Ni extended his examination to the social environment created during the production process. Because “Para-Production” is materially similar to Return of the Shreds, the production process of the installation took on an added significance. During the seven-day installation period, Joy Art Space’s cavernous main exhibition hall was transformed into a temporary factory. Using 16 antique pedal-pump sewing machines, 15 tons of fabric shreds from clothing factories in neighboring Hebei Province were sewn into an immense wall-hanging by a team of the artist’s friends and colleagues. The clack of sewing machines and the idle chatter of the collaborators were recorded and, later, became an integral part of the show.
Though there is little novelty in a Chinese artist presenting a work about industrial manufacturing—artists such as Zhang Peili and Zheng Guogu have explored the same topic with similar visual mechanisms as recently as 2008—“Para-Production” distinguished itself for the unique emphasis it placed on the communities of laborers formed in the production process. Ni did not glorify the role of workers. Instead, he pointed to the individuals’ inconsequence within the global market.
These ideas were brought to the fore in Joy Art’s second, neighboring space. There, Ni’s photograph, Commodities and Money (2007), depicting a faded copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, was exhibited on adjacent walls papered with thousands of HS commodity codes, the numeric identifications for all transportable goods. These codes were printed in stark black font alongside their associated products, which include everything from umbrellas (electric, extendable, plastic) to perishable foodstuffs, livestock and even human excrement. The efficiency with which objects, living and inanimate, are reduced to sterile numeric code represents extreme commoditization, and was juxtaposed with the sound installation revisiting the tapestry’s production process. These sounds reminded viewers of the individual’s role in the creation of the objects on view, as Ni hinted at workers’ ever-diminishing fingerprint on produced goods. But, more clearly, he presented a powerful dialogue between the HS Codes and the benefits of socialism espoused in Das Kapital, highlighting the failure of Marxist ideology in today’s consumerist, globalized world.
In a concurrent exhibition at another Beijing art space, Arrow Factory, Ni explored this division in the project “Vive La Différence” (2008). Here Ni took a different approach, using fabric scraps to produce couture pieces. Viewed along with “Para-Production,” it was clear that this artist is far from finished with this particular idea.