By Pauline J. Yao
To a rationalized, expansionist and at the same time centralized, spectacular production corresponds another kind of production, called 'consumption'. The latter is devious, it is dispersed, but it insinuates itself everywhere, silently and almost invisibly, because it does not manifest itself through its own products but rather through its ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order.
Ni Haifeng’s practice stems from an interest in cultural systems of return, exchange, language and production. Through mediums of photography, video and installations, Ni explores the simultaneous creation and obliteration of meaning while drawing attention to the cyclical movements of people, products and goods that are often reflective of patterns of colonialism and globalization. Aims to subvert the status quo and counteract preconceived notions of art are, in Ni’s words, an effort towards reaching a ‘zero degree of meaning’. The concept of uselessness, seen in the desire to offset ‘the production of the useful’ that is central to the operative conditions of consumerism and the ‘dominant economic order’, plays a key role within Ni’s practice, lending his works a distinct political and social dimension.
After graduating from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) in Hangzhou in 1986, Ni joined Red 70%, Black 25% and White 5% - a group of artists working with conceptual art and nonsense text. These early works focused on acts of writing, re-appropriations and deconstructed forms of language. What first began on two dimensional surfaces later moved to outdoor locations, notably with experimentations on his hometown island of Zhoushan in Zhejiang province. Covering the landscape with handwritten numerals, symbols and characters, Ni’s temporary acts can be seen as subversive attempts to undermine systematic ways of looking and perception. The nonsensical words and symbols scrawled across stones, walls and external surfaces were a way of destabilizing landscape and connecting it to notions of endlessness and infinity.
In the mid 1990s, after emigrating to Europe, Ni created a series of installations that featured objects and tableaus suspended from knotted ropes. Precariousness and instability are dominant factors in these works, as is the persistent sense of weight, balance and feeling of danger elicited in the viewer. The Angle (1995) features a set of white bedroom furniture on a platform that appears to be suspended from the ceiling by a medley of heavy ropes but is in fact counter balanced by a group of massive boulders. Every visible surface is covered with hand-written numerals and symbols in red and black paint. The use of ropes and knots contains biographical significance as they are linked with Ni’s upbringing on the seafaring locale of Zhoushan Island, but for Ni ‘A knot is a metaphor. It can be an end or a beginning.’2 Starting down the path of a new cultural identity—as a Chinese artist living abroad—the acts of tying and knotting symbolize an newfound exploration of junction points, nodes where places, identities and cultures merge, intertwine and fasten themselves to one another.
Perhaps the most important work in Ni’s repertoire is his series Unfinished Self-Portrait (2003-ongoing). The conceptual starting point for this work is a digital passport photo of the artist’s face which has been deconstructed or broken-down into a sequence of symbols and digital code. Ni uses this data to paint in situ on walls, doors, windows and/or floors of exhibition spaces creating a wallpaper-like effect. The near endless sequence of information that makes up Unfinished Self-Portrait is infinitely repeatable and scalable to different environments, and yet in each case viewers are witness to an image that is neither whole nor even visually legible. Translating his own visage as a stream of continuous code, Ni himself becomes a cipher, the very image of meaninglessness and void distributed across disparate and unlikely environments. Given Ni’s personal identity as a Chinese artist living and working in Europe, the work captures the feeling of living in a state of constant translation—in between languages and cultures—and the efforts to mitigate this condition through a process of literal grafting or inscribing oneself to a physical space.
In the last several years, overt and covert references to manufacturing and production have formed recurring themes within Ni’s artistic practice. Of the Departure and the Arrival (2005) is a project Ni undertook in the Dutch city of Delft, a place that has long been synonymous for its porcelain industry owing to its history in the import/export trade with China during the 17th and 18th centuries (it was the former site of the VOC or Dutch East Indies Trading Company). Utilizing everyday objects donated by the citizens of Delft, Ni contracted with a factory in Jingdezhen to make molds and produce porcelain copies of the items in blue-and-white underglaze style characteristic of Delftware. These objects were subsequently packed and transported back to Delft via ocean liner and exhibited in a sprawling display that included their shipping cartons and in later installations, wooden shipping pallets. Ni’s project in Delft rests on a variety of trajectories, from histories of trade and import/export between Europe and China, to porcelain ceramics as signifiers of Chinese heritage, to the contemporary elucidation of movement, exchange and the circulation of goods in the global economy. His involvement with the community of Delft is yet another dimension, one that brings in aspects of collectivity and interactions from participants-viewers.
Return of the Shreds (2007) is a work that Ni first exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, The Netherlands. The work centers upon global systems of manufacture and trade, in particular the symbolic return of unwanted materials resulting from mass production in China. Several tons of shreds of discarded fabric from garment factories—byproducts of the 'Made in China' phenomenon—were shipped from Zhejiang to Leiden for the exhibition. The venue itself carries its own connection to garment production, being a former blanket factory before being converted to a museum for contemporary art. A large woven wall hanging made out of leftover scraps of fabric was displayed alongside piles of shreds and other imported items like porcelain shards, tea leaves and spices. The complicated customs procedures—customs permits, obtaining codes, shipping and transport—involved in bringing mass quantities of these materials to Leiden is an important aspect of the work itself, illustrating the symbolic systems that govern the movement of certain goods across international borders.
When it comes to art production, attention to process rather than product—to means rather than ends—remains curiously absent from most contemporary art criticism both inside and outside of China. It would seem that capitalism’s predilection for ‘products’ has enabled concerns about meaning, expression and representation to take precedence over the particulars of how a given artwork was made or produced. Perhaps in effort to correct this tendency, we have seen recent international infatuations with socially engaged art, community-based art, and participatory or relational art—all of which stress the process and space of inter-subjectivity over the concrete production of an art object. Yet these practices by and large have found few expressions in the Chinese context. Perhaps China’s surging forces of capitalism, its rhetoric in regard to the ‘knowledge economy’ and its rigid societal structures are all less than conducive to an environment in which the inter-human relations connected to production are seen as credible components of an artistic process which values, among other things, an openness to unscripted or collaborative components.
‘Production’ has long been an operative word in contemporary China, and increasingly in the realm of contemporary art. It infects how art is made and how it is received, with a growing number of contemporary artists in China drawing upon various overt and covert modes of ‘production’ in their work. The references to industrial mass production happening on the factory floor are matched by artists themselves employing semi-industrial methods in the creation of their own art. From the factory lines of Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia (2006-2007) or Zheng Guogu’s Processing Factory (2008) to Liu Ding’s Products (2005) or more recent endeavors by Wang Du and Zhang Peili; the specter of ‘production’ in art looms large, signifying an era obsessed with industrial manufacturing and producing whose counterpoint is the unseen labor that brings it all to life.
With Para-Production, Ni addresses the form of alienated labor that accompanies mass production in context of their opposite number, namely participation. The call to participation that surrounds much international contemporary art practice today is part of a larger dialogue centered on the social dimension of collaborative, participatory, or collectively produced art that arguably situates itself within a history of avant-garde and dematerialized art forms.3 Though participatory art is not strictly the same as relational or interactive art, it shares many of their theoretical underpinnings, as well as a philosophy which holds the sphere of human relations and social situations as a fruitful departure point for artistic production. If we consider the notion of production or producing as constituting a bringing forth, or in Ranciere’s words, ‘the act of defining a new relationship between making and seeing,’ then the act of aesthetic production unites terms that are traditionally opposed: the activity of manufacturing and visibility.4 Rendering visible the processes of making and collective creation, and destabilizing the predictable individual authorial presence are key components to Para-Production. In Brechtian terms, the production is thus no longer solely about what is presented on the stage, but about the entire apparatus, including the slippage between audience and participant.
As discarded scraps are woven into a giant cloth through the collective effort of various individuals within the community – local students, gallery employees, the artist’s friends - the exhibition site is transformed into a place of ‘para-production’ whereby the goal is not efficiency and output as one finds with standard commercial production but instead the social relations produced within this collective process. Piles of shreds, a gigantic piece of sewn cloth, and an array of sewing machines are positioned to create a workshop environment that is not only collective and participatory but moves in opposition to the creation of a constructive product. The remnants of production are embodied within the material volume of the shreds and the presence of the sewing machines utilized to create the oversized hanging that is at once a product of labor and a symbol of futility and uselessness. Here, in the context of social interactions, the concepts of weaving and woven become symbolically tied to visibility and the social dimension of artistic production. Para-Production refers to a mode of making that is related to, yet somewhat outside of, officially sanctioned modes of production, i.e. modes of commercial or industrial production motivated by economic return and profit. There is an element of parody that surrounds the concept of Para-Production, a sense that the sanctioned modes of production are being subverted and undermined in favor of something far less productive. The movement away from the idea of producing the useful, an alternative to the traditionalist capitalist structure is not only presented but actively pursued. The notion of Para-Production espoused by Ni instead yields uncharacteristic results; it meets not the demands of a market but the needs of a human context where individual connections and interactions become a form of social currency. The notion of ‘producing’ is thus posed in a political light where the question is not one of ‘representation’ but of what is being produced.
Continuing into the smaller exhibition room Ni presents a sound installation intended to evoke the visible and invisible narratives of aesthetic production. On three walls are plastered HS codes – standardized customs codes that turn all objects and goods into a series of commoditized and depersonalized numbers – and the fourth contains a photograph of a dusty page from Marx’s Das Kapital. The HS codes are part of a internationally recognized numbering system that assigns a number and category to all commodifiable objects, thereby reducing the ephemera of our daily lives—food, clothing and household items—into a complex system of signification and codification. As with Ni’s other text based works, words become the outlet or product of silent histories, here reflective of the counterpoint of production: consumption. Commodities and Money (2007), a photograph of Marx’s Das Kapital left open in a dusty area for 80 days, seems to suggest the feeble effect of Marxist critique in the face of all-out commodification that permeates our everyday existence. Penetrating the space is a sound piece with material drawn from the several days of sorting, cutting and sewing the shreds to produce the large wall hanging. Bursts of loud sounds—scissors cutting, machines humming—are interspersed with moments of stillness. Taken together, these elements provide an overriding context for Para-Production embedded in both a profound silence and its interruption, the trace of labor and its disappearance, the presence of an image and its history.