A spotlight was briefly cast earlier this year on the southern city of Dongguan, China’s so-called Sin City, when the Chinese government instigated a major crackdown to clean up vice in the area. Aside from its red-light district, however, Dongguan is primarily known for being a manufacturing hub, one of China’s triad of cities (along with Shenzhen and Guangzhou) that make up what’s called “the world’s factory.” Every year hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers flock to the region, piecing together consumer goods for international markets for miniscule wages.
It is around the manufacturing industry that Li Jinghu (b. 1972), hailing from Dongguan himself, has centered his practice (in more ways than one; besides making art, Li also litigates labor disputes for factory workers). Li’s art gestures to the lives of the city’s populace, often by way of the material goods they’re surrounded by and produce. Beginning this past June, Beijing gallery Magician Space held a two-part exhibition of the artist’s work. The first half, titled “Efficiency Is Life,” consisted of older large-scale installations, while the second, “Time Is Money,” presented brand-new commissions. (The names referenced 1980s Chinese billboards that sloganeered for the economic reform that led to China’s—and Dongguan’s—position as a top industrial power.)
“Efficiency Is Life” saw Li restage his 2011 installation Prisoner, carving renderings of barbed wire-topped fences directly into Magician Space’s walls. Symbolizing the lack of opportunities for most in Dongguan beyond factory work (including for artists, since the city is so far from the cultural centers of Shanghai and Beijing), Li’s action upon the gallery’s physical confines seemed like a poetic attempt to negate this entrapment. In the middle of the room stood Rainbow (2009), a long table covered with an assortment of multihued everyday objects produced in Dongguan—detergent bottles, washbasins, rubber toys—fastidiously arranged by color like a rainbow. By giving formal order to the endless sea of objects that flows out of the city, Li created a (somewhat hokey) symbol of hope for the workers whose livelihood they constitute.
In “Time Is Money,” two new works commissioned by Magician Space focused on ephemeral phenomena both historical and naturalistic. In the first room, Today’s Screening (2014) restaged a recreational “video hall” of the sort that used to be set up for workers at night in alleys that neighbor factories; Li projected films shown at such halls onto a screen of locally produced rhinestones, dispersing the images into glittering, fractured spectacles. In the next room were several works from the series “Moonlight” (2014), which consists of geometrically shaped canvases with white-on-white impasto. Taking inspiration from moonlight as refracted through the cracks and crevices of industrial buildings, the paintings evoke the cratered surface of the moon, giving the often-overlooked and quotidian architectural patterns a weighty sense of permanence.
Within China, there have been criticisms of tokenism regarding the reception of Li’s work, arguing that the artist’s recognition rests too heavily on his being based in Dongguan. This geographic specificity may not be a bad thing, however—the works at Magician Space, so deeply committed to the city’s history and aesthetic forms, showed that out of “the world’s factory” flows more than just consumer goods.