The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos talks to artist Li Liao about his piece Consumption, currently on display in Beijing in an exhibition of 50 young, post-Mao Chinese artists. The work consists of objects from Li’s 45-day stint at Foxconn’s Longhua plant in Shenzhen, and the iPad mini he bought with his earnings. The interview also includes Li’s comments on the recruitment process, work and living conditions at Foxconn. He does not plan to go back.
The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing has an intriguing new take on China’s place in the debate over Apple, iPhones, and the people who make them. While Americans hash out the moral ups and downs of having our electronics produced by Chinese factory hands, a young performance artist named Li Liao decided to jump into the middle of it. He got an assembly-line job making iPads, and forty-five days later he used his wages to buy one. As an exhibit, he put the iPad on a pedestal, tacked up his uniform and badges, and framed his contract. The effect, on a white gallery wall, is a strangely addictive ready-made tableau about the intersection of money, aspiration, and technology. I watched two young men separately linger over it for very different reasons: one was a hip Chinese gallerygoer in chunky glasses and a camel-hair coat, taking it all in; the other was a gallery security guard in a borrowed suit and white gloves. He was studying the details of the contract.
Did the experience change your perceptions of Apple one way or the other?
I worked at Foxconn for forty-five days. Before that, I was already an Apple consumer. I don’t think this experience changed my perception of the products; it only made one thing clearer: many of the products in this world actually have nothing to do with the workers who made them. To most of the workers there, Apple was just a name, a logo.