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Art Review: Crabs and Chocolate

A look at Shanghai-based visual artist Li Xiaofei's exploration of the crushing, dehumanizing machinery of industry and globalization...
2014-02-25 12:41:11
There’s a whirring in the air over at Moganshan Lu’s OV Gallery. Interspersed with inspiring scenes of natural landscapes and complex, all-too-human tales of migration and opportunity, the mechanical clunks and clangs come courtesy of Li Xiaofei’s impressive solo, Crabs and Chocolate.

The name is a reference to just two of the stories chronicled by Li in beautifully captured but deceptively simple films shot in Norway and New Zealand. There as part of his ongoing Assembly Line series, the project sees the Hunan-born, Shanghai-based artist visit factories engaged in the manufacturing of consumer goods of all kinds. Inside, he directs his lens to the insistent rhythms of industrial looms, conveyer belts and drums, crafting their pounding monotony into images that are strangely mesmeric.

Amid these noisy landscapes of metal, rubber and springs Li seeks out the human stories behind the machines’ bewildering efficiency. Here they include an older Chinese man, working away inside a New Zealand light switch factory. As it plays out against a hammering gray industrial backdrop, we see the personal challenges this particular employee faces in adapting to a new culture and language.

Representing the other side of this exchange, you’ve got A Production Manager, describing the experiences of a German plant manager recently relocated to China. Very different in style from other pieces on show, this one is fluid, calm and even poetic in tone: a worker clad in white hazmat overalls points his spray gun onto some clunky metal object, effortlessly — and almost gracefully — covering it in bright pink paint. The German-accented voiceover clearly doesn’t belong to the anonymous employee at the center of the film, which might be a subtle nod to similarly global issues of inequality.

The real star of the show, though, is A King Crab, shot in Kirkenes, Norway. It’s a placid place of expansive skies and an almost unnerving stillness near the Russian border. Massive ships gate-crash the bleak beauty, cutting through surrounding grey waters in front of ugly, clumsy factories.

When fish stocks ran dry in the 1980s, the nearby village of Bugøynes launched a lucrative PR campaign to persuade some wealthy individual to buy the settlement. In the end, though, the villagers’ savior was the sudden arrival of a thriving population of king crabs. We see the unwieldy creatures being tossed into bins destined for the Middle East, Asia and beyond, the odd claw here and there in a final, futile reach for freedom.

Despite its change in fortune, Bugøynes’ future is far from certain. Li’s narrator discusses the very real threat to livelihood (both the crabs’ and the villagers’) posed by the proposed opening-up of the Northeast Passage. Raising all sorts of questions surrounding the environment, the fragility of ecosystems and challenges of sustainability, it effortlessly balances poignancy, relevance and surprising beauty.

What makes these recent, international additions to the Assembly Line series so different from his earlier offerings is Li’s attention to the mountains, greenery and seascapes that surround his focal point of factories. Exhibition curator Rebecca Catching explains that for Li, the physical proximity between industrial and rural settings found in Europe was a revelation that he was keen to capture on film.

To that end, there’s a stunning Swedish vista of snow-capped mountains reflected in a lake; and some friendly-looking cows, chewing the cud amid luscious, green hills. Though strikingly beautiful, the latter in particular describes no less valid an Assembly Line, proffering an insight into how man’s insatiable appetites and demands drive the food industry at all levels.

Clearly the power of this exhibition derives from seemingly incongruous juxtapositions. Outdoorsy, natural wonders are positioned between the hypnotic chugging of a cigarette factory – oh, the irony! – and the focused concentration of a young Guangzhou factory worker. One of the shortest films on show, the ceaseless monotony of her task is belied by an expression of sharp focus, her steely eyes shining through the work’s deliberately dull lighting.

This succinct little show is not to be missed. Travel has undeniably broadened Li’s perspectives. At OV Gallery, the poignant, untold tales of globalization unfold, with impacts human, environmental and personal brought to the fore.

Crabs and Chocolate continues through 26 March and for full details, click here. Listings for all ongoing and upcoming art exhibitions in Shanghai right here.