Export — Cargo Transit


      “Garbage is not what we cast out, but the prime locus of meaning in our lives: we arrange our existences so as to make room for garbage.”  

–Don Delillo, Underworld


      According to the U.S.-basedClean Air Council,only two manmade structures on earth are large enough to be seen from outer space: the Great Wall of China and the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island,New York. These two structures, merely little grey impressions from a zillion miles away, are perhaps the oddball duo that has come to define an important aspect of our current global condition.


      It’s actually surprising that at the current worldwide rate of garbage production,the Fresh Kills Landfill is the only depository visible from the cosmos. In the U.S., the average person creates 4.39 pounds of trash per day and up tofifty-sixtons of trash per year.[1] China's city waste production is also increasing dramatically. According to statistics, current annual waste production in China is at150million tons and increasingeight to ten percenteach year. Thiscumulative waste storage would cover an area of over 300,000 acres,[2] and,certainly, like Fresh Kills,bebig enough to see from the heavens.


      The Fresh Kills Landfill closed in late 2001 after specialists looking for signs of human remains used it as a laboratory to sift through the charred ruins of the twin towers. The dump is now the resting place of all that was destroyed during the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster. Fresh Kills has been closed forseveralyears now, but the citizens of the U.S.continue to fill enough garbage trucks to form a line that would stretch from the earth halfway to the moon. It’s an image that recalls lower Manhattan in the months after 9/11, when monstrous trucks laden with torqued steel became the ultimate caravan, testimony to an insecure world thatlayahead and,behind,modernity,rotting. 


      It is here,in modernity’s final crescendo,that a new epic has begun, what president Bush calls the New World Order. It is a world that is reconfigured in terms of terrorism, the global market,and the emergence of new economic powers. Yet what we have seen in the wake after 9/11 seems like an endless cycle of diatribe, extremism, consumption, pollution, apathy, spectacle, etc. A world whose ideologies, once containing assorted pretenses to idealism, are now transparently mired in profit margins. China, quickly becoming the world’s largest economy, is at the epicentreof this debacle. A nationthathas hastily left its agricultural roots in the dust to join hyper-modernity and its discontents, China is the world’s last hope and biggest threat. It has triumphantly lifted millions out of poverty, entered the WorldTradeOrganization, and will host the upcoming Olympics,all in a remarkably short period of time. Yet many ruptures have been left in the course of China’s rise to stardom. Severe environmental pollution, precarious economics,and an increasingly tenuous class structure have come to plague China and influence its international relations. In the conundrum of globalism, where boundaries between nations are evaporating on the one hand and nationalism is building on the other, China will have to quickly define its aspirations in order to continue its rise. It is here, in China’s ill defined but rapidly changing set of global ambitions, that the artist Liu Jianhua makes his move. In his last two installation projects,Liu Jianhua hasconfrontedChina’s role in the global market head on.


      At the 2006 Shanghai Biennale, Liu lodged the backend of a big red shipping container into a wall of the gallery. At the other,open end, a landslide of whizzing plastic toys, tools, lights, and electronics pushed out onto the floor and washed up at the viewers’feet. Yiwu Investigation, as the piece was titled, simply presented the fruits of Yiwu, China’s largest commodity producer and exporter, enmasse to the viewer. Liu’s presentation, besidesbeing dazzling—the kind of brilliance that makes the supermarket far more exciting than any art space—was also very pointed. The city of Yiwu is the primary mass-manufacturing base of cheap goods on the planet. Overone thousandcontainers full of this hodgepodge are exported from Yiwu’s shores daily. They fill up dollar stores, flea markets, and,sooner than later, garbage dumps worldwide. However,Liu Jianhua’s argument is not (yet) about growing landfills. It’sabout the dynamic of the world market and,thus,Yiwu’s,as well asChina’s, position in it. 


      Thesix thousandplus foreign businessmenwholive in Yiwu testify to the root of this dynamic. Yiwu’s success is based on the outside world’s insatiable appetite for economical little plastic things. The market boats 320,000 varieties of goodsfrom1,502 categories.According to the Yiwu International Commodities Fair,[KS1] there are only 500,000 varieties of goods in the world.[3] So almost everything in the world is produced in Yiwu andthenexported to almost allpoints inthe world.Two hundred and twelvecountries receive regular shipments of plastic photo frames, lighting ware, hosiery, slippers, handy tools, imitation jewelry, make up, artificial hair,and dry flowers. The U.S.is one of the main recipients of these goods. Chinese-made products have become so ubiquitous in the U.S.that it is not only rare to find items made anywhere else,but it may be next to impossible for Americans to do without them. In Sara Bongiorni’s book A Year Without“Made in China”,” the author’s experiment of trying to live an entire year without any Chinese-made goods ends in near bankruptcy. China’s exportation of cheap products basically allows the poor in developed countries to continue their materialistic pursuits. This is not only an empowering positionfor Chinato be in,but also one that putsthe countryin a constant state of compromise. Ever since China joined the World Trade OrganizationWTOin 2001 and began its spectacular transformation into a trade superpower, the chorus of complaints about its low-priced goods has swelled. China has been blamed for everything from the massive loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S.,to using unfair trade practices to capture an ever-increasing share of the world market, to high levels of toxicity in Chinese-made Barbie dolls, Polly Pockets, and other playthings that eventually prompted the suicide of a Chinese factory owner. Not only does the world demand cheap goods,butit demandssafe and clean ones as well. This is China’s relationship to the rest of the world. It is a relationship mediated by the need for need: the need for economic growth and the need for cheap little plastic things that eventually fill up places like the Fresh Kills Landfill. 


      Liu’s gesture is one that swipes the manifold arrangements of an increasingly accelerated global market past our eyes. The avalanche of cheap,candy-coloured items that he puts before us comprises the kaleidoscope of consumption, trade imbalances, and late-capital activity that has defined thetwenty-firstcentury. It also poses questions of civilization in general;for example, how did we get to this point? How is it that global culture is caught up in a bunch of little, disposable, artificialities? In the Biennale’s exhibition catalogue, Liu’s endeavor as artist is equated to that of sociologist or anthropologist. He displays his fieldwork not as documentation but as artifact. The evidence of China’s increasingly powerful role in the global market bellows out as harvested treasures from a shipping container, anticipating their exported destiny. Liu does not make a complete argument with his work,but he poses an inquiry. What is China’s relationship with the rest of the world? How is this relationship defined?


      One man’sgarbageis another man’s treasure


      In September, 2007 when the international art world was descending on Shanghai for the prestigious SHContemporaryArtFair, Liu Jianhua was busy answering theabove-mentioned questions with more questions. Whereas Yiwu Investigation showed the front side of China’s exportation equation, Export—Cargo Transit, at the Shanghai Gallery of Art,shows the rear. 


      Not only does product go out of China, but once used, it often returns. In order to feed its forceful manufacturing sector,China’s recycling industries are some of the most competitive in the world, importing somefortymillion metric tons of scrap materials annually. It is part of asixty-fivebilliondollarindustry that employs 50,000 people.[4] To add another twist to international trade imbalances, the U.S.’s biggest export to China is scrap paper,which,reciprocally, often goes back in the form of shoe boxes and other product packaging. It is not unreasonable to assume that many of the products in Yiwu are made with recyclable materials imported from abroad. While there are many benefits to a vibrant recycling industry, with a developing market and vigorous competition come dangerous loopholes that often produce harmful results. In the waste trade lies another complicated global dynamic that echoes colonial exploits of yesteryear. It is here, with site-specific poignancy, that Liu aims to catch our attention.  


      In an elegant,post-Renaissancebuilding along the historic Bund sitsthe Shanghai Gallery of Art. Erected in 1916, during the heyday of capitalist expansionism into thefarEast, the building originally housed international banks. Today, the building embodies Shanghai’s new-found extravagance, a situation often considered a sequel to that turn-of-the-century jazz age. Recently renovated by Michael Graves, Bund No.3 hosts such luxury stores as ArmaniandHugo Boss,as well asJean Georges Restaurant. On its third floor, in the exalted halls of Three on the Bund’s gallery,Liu Jianhua has installed over ten tons of recyclable foreign waste. Bound in stacks, scattered along the floors, piled under the windows,and pushed tightly into Plexiglas cases that line the atrium, this imported garbage is literally everywhere. Field recordings of shipyards and processing plants play from overhead speakers. A dysfunctional compactor rises from the mess. Plastic medicine bottles, shiny foils,fibres, abstract packaging material, shredded resins, and adhesive backings all congeal to produce one extraordinary allover composition.Asin Yiwu Investigation’s wholesale market aesthetic, Liu once again, through the captivating qualities of industrial debris, achieves the dazzle that the fictional domain of the art space usually doesn’t allow for.

      In news quotes printed on the walls,another type of garbage is addressed:

      “Most of the world's electronic trash, especially old computers, is dumped in China, causing severe environmental problems and illnesses among residents...” [5]

      “Britain is shipping a record 1.9million tons of rubbisheight thousandmiles across the world to be dumped in China.. . .Campaigners fear vast amounts of the waste, including potentially lethal chemicals, are ending up in illegal landfill sites instead of being recycled.”[6]

      The quotes go on to paint a sinister picture of the electronic trash trade wherein developed countries dump lethal goods on developing countries,wreaking environmental havoc and irreversible health problems:

      “Because processing this e-waste tends to employ very basic technology, large amounts of dangerous materials end up getting released into the environment. Environmental inspections have shown that the town of Guiyu has no potable water. More thaneightypercent of the town's children are suffering from lead poisoning.. . . .”[7]

      The quotes are nauseating. Not only is this waste coming from so-called developed nations, but these are nations that have all signed the Basel Convention—a pact of wealthier nations that agrees to stop exporting garbage to poorer nations.[8] The conventionis proving difficult to enforce. “The waste is illegal,but somehow,” the artist fumes,“it evades customs agents on both sides.”[9]

      In his introductory essay,curator Cao Weijun equates the situation with a form of neo-colonialization. “Liu’s use of foreign rubbish has everything to do with the literal translation of‘foreign,’which[in Chinese]suggests colonialization and Chinese history.”[10] This aspect is surely heightened by the site of the gallery itself, a structure that once banked the profits ofWestern businessesin Asia and that today represents the pinnacle of luxuryàla Western name brands. The fact thatsouthernGuangdong, where much of the trash trade occurs (and where the installation materials originate), is the same territory that once hosted the Opium Wars also helps to embellish the colonial picture. But to portray this situation entirely as a return of past exploits is denying China’s own tenuous struggle with economic development. Cao goes on to expound the dilemma as a cause for self-reflection. “While investigating the colonizer’s crime, to what extent is it necessary to review ourselves? From being colonized to self-colonization, from feeling the pain of the lack of our own spirit and cultural identity to deriving pleasure by consuming the colonizer’s food and money, this has been the spiritual journey for the individuals and also the whole nation”[11] According to government statistics, China itself disposes of at leastfivemillion television sets,fivemillion computers, and tens of millions of cell phones every year.[12] Many of these, like foreign rubbish, once stripped of valuable materials, are discarded along riverbanks, polluting the earth and groundwater. While the global market for foreign scrap is dominated by China, it is in China that businesses looking to increase earnings violate safety regulations at the expense of their own country’s environment and health. But no one escapes this dilemma free of blame. Complicity stretches to both sides of the global divide. While Liu’s gesture is an open platform for co-existing debates, it once again raises the same fundamental questions. How did we get here, besieged by all this garbage?

      Liu’s action is based in a world of art. But does such a discourse, in an arena of luxury and fiction, have any real capacity to affect change, and to what extent? Garbage, as political provocateur, has often found its way into the art world. As early asPabloPicasso andGeorgesBraque,it has served as an avant-garde destabilizer of the fine arts,bridging low culture with high culture andconstitutingone of the fundamental tenets of postmodernity.MarcelDuchamp was of course the main instigator, presenting trash with negligible transformation to a bewildered public.RobertRauschenberg exploited its beauty as a means of formal expression. Arman sliced it, diced it, and sometimes bronzed it as a way to demonstrate against the useless waste of "unfashionable" items in theconsumption-driven society of the1960sand70s. Allan Kaprow had his used tire installations,andDavid Hammons had his bottle caps, which copied folk artists from all over the world whose only materialswererecycled ones. 

      Certainly throughout Export—Cargo Transit, one cannot help but be reminded of Barry LeVa’s early scatter pieces. But perhaps more aligned with where this article is going is “The Social Mirror,” atwelve-ton,twenty-eight-foot longNew York CityDepartment of Sanitation collection truck reconfigured with mirrored panels. This piece,by Mierle Laderman Ukeles,was a highlight of the inaugural New York City Art Parade in 1983, and is a permanent, mobile publicart work that continues to mirror ourgarbage-spewing society.

      But for Liu Jianhua’s garbage,the most interesting thing that ties itself back to the art world is its newly contextualized status as a consumable luxury item. In containers marked Art Export, the stuffed trash prepares itself for repatriation back to itsWesternorigins. This is part of Liu’s program, to see this foreign refuse re-enter the global market as a Chinese high-art commodity. Like much ofChina’strade balance with the rest of the world,the country’scontemporary art market has been, almost exclusively, an export business. Since the early1980’s,theprimarypatronage for Chinese avant-garde art has been from collectors and venues outside of China. This has of course affected itsthedevelopmentof Chinese contemporary artin many ways. Countless accusations have been made that wWestern patronage and palates helped to produce work that catered to Western tastes. Today,record Chinese art market performances have bewildered even the most seasoned of speculators. Some attribute this market phenomenonto a growing Chinese collectorship. Here, in this erratic market transformation, Liu also takes a stab.  He aims to tie the market of “foreign trash” to the market for valuable, Chinese high-art collectables,therefore adding one more loop to the cycles of global commerce. His exhibition couldn’t have come at a better time. SHContemporary Art fFair brought collectors and gallerists from across the globe to Shanghai, willing to consume, some times, it seems, blindly, the next mainland craze; in this instance, piles of trash. 

Mathieu Borysevicz

[1] Clean Air Council, “Waste Facts and Figures,”http://www.cleanair.org/Waste/wasteFacts.html.

[2] Sino-Italian Cooperation Program for Environmental Protection, “Training program in Italy helps China advance  environmental policy and technology,”http://www.sinoitaenvironment.org/ReadNewsex.asp?NewsID=1519.

[3] China Yiwu International Commodities Fair Introduction,(http://www.chinafairs.org/intro/en/yiwuguide/yiwuguide_market-c.asp.[If you want to attribute this statement to the UN(you say“according to the UN”), you should provide a UN citation. This is a source related to Yiwu businessand may not reliably indicate what the UN has said.])  I forfeit – I can’t find the statistic amongst the reams of UN website material.

[4]Daniel Gross,“The Tao of Junk: PunditsBemoan Our TradeDeficitwith China. Butthose Container Ships Aren't Heading Home Empty,”Slate, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2007,http://www.slate.com/id/2173594/fr/rss.

[5]“China a Global Dumping Ground for Electronics”, ABC News, December 3, 2003 http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2003/12/01/1001169.htm   (printed on the gallery wall)

[6] “Britian Ships Rubbish to China”, Sunday Mirror, January 21, 2007   (printed on the gallery wall)

[7] “Overseas Rubbish Threat Looms Large,”China Daily,January 23, 2007.[Was this citation also printed on the wall in the gallery?YES]

[8] SeeBasel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal,http://www.basel.int.

[9]  Liu Jianhua in conversation with the author,Three on the Bund, Shanghai, September 12, 2007.

[10]Cao Weijun,Export—Cargo Transit,Shanghai Gallery of Art, September 2007.

[11]Cao Weijun Export—Cargo Transit,  Shanghai Gallery of Art,  September 2007.

[12] “Million Tons of Electronic Waste Dumped every Year,”  Xinhua News Agency,September 23, 2005.http://www.10thnpc.org.cn/english/environment/143262.htm

[KS1]A UN citation is needed here if you want to attribute this statement to the UN.