The Dancer at the Lightbulb Factory. The Art of working in a Lightbulb Factory. July 31, 2009Posted by Dr. Z Bulbs in Weird Bulb News, Light bulbs in pop culture, cfl.
Tags: Cao Fei, cfl, compact fluorescent, compact fluorescent light bulb, compact fluorescent shape, Energy saving, energy saving bulb, energy saving compact light bulb, energy saving light bulb, energy saving lighting, fluorescent, fluorescent light bulb, fluorescent lighting, fluorescent tube, incandescent light bulb, light, light bulb, Light Bulb Factory, light bulbs, lightbulb, spiral, spiral light bulb, strange light bulb, Technology of a light bulb, weird news, whose utopia
Have you ever seen a lightbulb being made? It is a long, fast dance of glittering, breakable parts: legs of glass and filament arms shuttled around shakily, doll versions of Charlie Chaplin in the gears, finally tested and transformed into dazzling, glowing, blinking landscapes thrown back at their heavy-metal creators. The ballet mecanique of the lightbulb can’t help but be nostalgic for an American audience. Where have our factories gone? To China, of course—where Cao Fei’s video Whose Utopia is set in a real lightbulb factory. The first part of the 20-minute video portrays the creation of a lightbulb from start to finish, and this abstract and gorgeous scenario lasts until about halfway through, when hopelessly soft human parts appear: slender female fingers pricked while sorting through tiny heaps of sharp metal bits, shoulders slumped, eyesight going. The bulb bodies take their toll on the flesh ones—an old story—but that’s not the end of it. The flesh fights back. Cao directed real workers to express themselves inside the factory: a ballerina twirling slowly within a canyon of boxes stacked to the factory ceiling, a man soft-shoeing under a sky of fluorescents, a dancer wearing angel wings working alongside everyone else at the long assembly bench. Each moment is a little protest by a still-hopeful member of China’s rapidly developing economy in the Pearl River Delta region, where Cao was commissioned by Siemens to create this video at the Osram factory—a subsidiary of Siemens. Whose Utopia is an unusually direct yet poetic study of the interlock of art and economics in contemporary China, where Cao’s father is a sculptor for the state and Cao’s awareness of her censors, both governmental and corporate, is built into her process from the start. My Future Is Not a Dream is the name of a rock band formed by a handful of the young workers, individuals who have left their hometowns and come to this industrial zone with big dreams. Their lyrics accompany the final section of Whose Utopia, in which the factory moves while individual workers stand still for portraits in work clothes, as in August Sander’s early-20th-century photographs of German workers. “Part of your life had waned and waned,” their song goes in slightly broken English. “And to whom do you beautifully belong?” Cao enlisted the workers as coauthors instead of mere subjects to empower them: “The conditions that these workers live under is generally highly invisible to a broader public,” she told the Vancouver, B.C.–based magazine Fillip. “What this project does is release the workers from a standardized notion of productivity. What we are doing is production, but a type of production that connects back to the personal. I am like a social worker. They don’t regard me as an artist. They think I’m an event organizer.” Maybe so, but what makes the video so moving is its hopelessness to those of us on the other end of rapid industrialization. This is not going to work out, we think. And the art is, in some sense, playing along by offering the carrot of a fleeting transcendence. Resistance is futile—or fatal. This is the China in which so-called “cutting-edge” contemporary artists (such as Cai Guo-Qiang of the “exploding cars” at Seattle Art Museum) produce Olympics spectacles. This is China, post–Tiananmen Square. And without being too nationalistic, it is necessary to point out that we helped to create it. In February 1989, just months before the government executed a still-unknown number of student protesters at Tiananmen Square, a large exhibition called China/Avant-Garde opened at the National Gallery in Beijing. Authorities shut it down shortly after it opened (because of a performance including gunshots), then allowed it to reopen and shut it down again, twice. It ran for only two weeks, but it marked the culmination of a movement that had been taking place throughout the 1980s in China, informed as much by Mao’s Cultural Revolution as by Russian kitsch art and American Pop. Early Pop was really invented by two fountainheads: Robert Rauschenberg, whose ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, pronounced “Rocky” after his pet turtle) Project visited and influenced Beijing in 1985, and Jasper Johns, whose 20 years of depicting the lightbulb (1957–76) is the subject of a small exhibition on the floor below Cao’s video at the Henry Art Gallery. Jasper Johns: Light Bulb, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, is a nerdacious little universe of experimentation you could disappear into—but its coincidental appearance here with Cao’s study of a lightbulb factory pulls it into a broader context of economic and social history. Cao, born in 1978, is a generation beyond what Art in America termed the “Children of Mao and Coca-Cola,” and maybe not even aware of Johns’s lightbulb works, but the connections are natural. Both Cao and Johns undercut the cliché that art is something that appears magically, like a lightbulb above the head. Cao depicts light as nothing more than a commercial product (and key to a surveillance system); Johns’s lightbulbs are simply devoid of light. Made in bronze, plaster, or lead, Johns’s lightbulbs are heavy, dark, and solid: the anti-lightbulbs. In lithographs, they cast shadows rather than light. They wear the stamps of their manufacturers rather than the artist’s signature, in the classic Pop move of replacing the artist with the machine. Just as light is the product of certain systems, so are artistic ideas. The artist is a manufacturer, too; now: of what? And Johns is also a case of the co-opted critique. The most laconic of the Pop artists, his work is nevertheless today affordable only to the extremely rich. His idea-objects have been elevated to the status of the magical and the rare, an ultimate reversal of the multiple and the banal nature of his subjects: lightbulbs, maps, flags, targets, numbers. Every lightbulb has its price.