What a difference a few months have made in how we look at that little MADE IN CHINA label. In late June, when Cao Fei's show "Whose Utopia?" opened at the Orange County Museum of Art, the pet-food-recall scandal was still fresh in our minds, but it seemed like a ghastly aberration in a system that otherwise ran fairly smoothly. China was where everything was manufactured, after all. So a few heartless sons of bitches poisoned our puppies and kitties. We could hate those specific companies for it, but it was no reason to stop buying other stuff from China. Was it?
But then came the endless reports of more potentially deadly Chinese imports. Baby toys covered with toxic paint; necklaces made of lead; boom boxes that burst into flames; electric blankets that spring to life during the night, strangling you with their cords, and then burning down your house, their tiny, microchip brains programmed to kill, kill, kill!
Well, maybe we just imagined the blanket thing, but it's gotten so bad that sometimes you can't help thinking China's manufacturers must just freaking hate us or something. It's almost like they're trying to finish us all off, one tainted tube of toothpaste at a time. One is reminded, perhaps inevitably, of the old Saturday Night Live sketches with Dan Ackroyd as Irwin Mainway, the cheerfully sinister manufacturer of the Invisible Pedestrian Halloween costume, the Bag o' Glass and other kiddie toys that now seem only slightly more ridiculous than some of the stuff that's really been for sale recently at Wal-Mart.
Cao put her show together before all of the Chinese-import hysteria hit, so it doesn't really address such concerns. But it does put a human face on China's unimaginably vast and complex manufacturing operations. The Chinese-born Cao spent six months getting to know the workers at the OSRAM China Lighting bulb factory in the Pearl River Delta industrial region, and she came back with some fascinating material.
In video, photos and print, Cao captures the day-to-day, almost Metropolis-like drudgery of working in a Chinese mega-factory. The average age of the workers is 25, and many of these kids have relocated from rural China, leaving their loved ones behind to find work. Cao explores the workdays and humble aspirations of the employees (even owning a computer can be a luxury), and she also delves into their rich inner lives, including their secret and endearingly strange fantasy worlds. We see one girl dancing through the factory in an angel costume; she's a sad, lonesome woman and a giddy little kid, all at once.
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In the midst of all this panic about Chinese-made products, we may run the risk of slipping into actual xenophobia, of thinking that the Chinese public—rather than a handful of sleazy corporate bosses—are bad people, that they actively mean us harm. Cao's show reminds us that this is a nation of more than 1.3 billion individuals, each one just getting by, watching the clock and waiting to go home, like the rest of us.
We can look at the life of a Chinese factory worker, and maybe it seems unimaginably awful to us. But the weird thing about awful situations is that they're not awful to every person who experiences them. If you grow up with anything, if it's the norm to you, you can be fine with it, you can even thrive within it. A few years back, Huell Howser aired some scratchy footage of kids at the Japanese interment camps of the '40s. Some tragic Schindler's List music was laid over it, but watching the stuff, it was distressingly hard to escape how . . . happy the kids looked. They were riding on swings and playing patty-cake; there was a lot of mugging for the camera and giggling. Make no mistake, the interment camps were truly a blight on our nation's history. But for some of the kids who grew up in them, who chased one another and sang little songs within those barbed-wire fences, it was the only reality they'd ever known. It must have felt like home.
Cao's show made me think of those kids. You look at these people's lives, and your first impulse is to feel sorry for them. But then you wonder about your own co-workers and if they dream of dancing around the office after-hours while dressed like little angels.
"CAO FEI: WHOSE UTOPIA?" AT THE ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. THROUGH SEPT. 2.