One of the standout works at the 2006 Shanghai Biennale was a pile of cheap Chinese export products that flowed from an open shipping container grafted to a wall in the Shanghai Art Museum. “Yiwu Investigation,” as designed by Liu Jianhua, reflected upon the unsteady relationship between the developed world and China. By choosing products from Yiwu, a thriving manufacturing center in Zhejiang Province, Liu suggested that the developing world’s consumer tastes had a mediating role in China’s emergence. According to an essay on the Biennale’s website:
“Although these commodities are known for their low design, usefulness, popularity, low cost and high added labor, they resonate with China’s connection to the world and symbolize the transitional position of Chinese society.”
On Thursday, Liu’s follow-up work, “Export – Cargo Transit,” opened at the Shanghai Gallery of Art. The new installation is also a meditation on the relationship between the developed world and China as expressed via trade. But the new work differs in that it focuses the developed world’s trade with China, and specifically shipments of hazardous “foreign rubbish” to Guangdong Province. Liu’s point is not subtle: today’s foreign scrap exports to China are the moral and economic equivalent of the 19th century opium trade. Or, as the printed materials distributed at the opening put it: “…past opium is today’s ‘foreign’ rubbish.“
First, a description of the work.
Upon entering the gallery visitors confront several large bales of scrap plastics and foil-covered paper. Other bales of similar materials are scattered throughout the space. To the left, the wall is covered with excerpts from articles describing the devastation wrought by the large-scale trade and processing of smuggled electronic waste (computers, televisions, air conditioners, washing machines, and refrigeration equipment) in China, including articles published by Spero, China Daily, and the New York Times.
At the back of the room, and winding along the large windows overlooking the Huangpu River and Pudong, a haphazard pile of scrap plastics mixed with some scrap paper, is piled against the wall. Nearby, a scrap baler is frozen in the process of disgorging a bale of scrap plastics. Beside it, a clear plexiglass case labeled “Art Export,” contains a colorful variety of scrap plastics. Additional “Art Export” containers are scattered throughout the exhibition.
For Liu, the “Art Export” component of the exhibition is key:
First “export” means importing “foreign rubbish” into China from foreign countries. For outsiders, it is export. If this export is taken by a collector from the west, the artwork is then being re-exported from China.
In an essay composed to accompany the exhibition, Cao Weijun suggests that the export of “foreign rubbish” reveals a moral failing on the part of the developed world, alone:
… we realize clearly that developed countries consider their national interest as paramount, which in fact reflects different political viewpoints. From economy, finance, culture to art, no matter how the imperial powers vary themselves, they are always the one who gain at the end. At least, so the colonizer is hoping.
All of this is predicated upon the idea that the “foreign rubbish” exported to China is unwanted, hazardous, and non-recyclable. As Liu notes in an interview with Rebecca Catching of That’s Shanghai:
Most of the garbage imported to China has to be incinerated or buried in China – only a mere 20 per cent of it can be recycled, which poses a big problem for the environment. Western countries have done a good job at handling their own environments, but I can’t help but think that has something to do with China.
Unfortunately, none of the “foreign rubbish” that Liu has installed at the Shanghai Gallery of Art is prohibited under Chinese or international law. That is, none of it is e-scrap. In fact, 99% of it is highly recyclable scrap plastic that fetches strong prices on the open market in China and the developed world.
In a May 2007 speech delivered to the China International Recycling Conference in Tianjin, Tan Yiwu, Vice-President of the Plastics Recycling the China Plastics Processing Industry Association, explained that production of “virgin” plastics from petrochemicals produced far more pollution than production of recycled plastics, and thus the Chinese government was strongly encouraging the development of the recycled plastics industry. In fact, according to Tan, the Chinese recycled plastics industry comprises 40,000 – 60,000 “related industries” employing more than 10 million workers. In 2006, China recycled 5.86 million metric tons of imported plastics … and approximately 10 million metric tons of domestically-generated plastics.
Liu, however, doesn’t seem to know or want to acknowledge the scale of China’s recycling industries, nor the fact that there is significant value in the 40 million metric tons of scrap materials imported into China each year. The material in the gallery, for example, ranges in value from the hundreds to thousands of US dollars per metric ton. Some grades of imported scrap metal are worth more per ton than the selling price of Liu’s past works. If, as Liu incorrectly said to Rebecca Catching, only 20% of this material is recyclable, the economics of the importation business would not work, and there would have been no imported scrap plastic for Liu to purchase in Guangdong (though there would have been plenty of Chinese scrap plastic). That is to say, Liu has no idea that scrap/waste imports into China are largely driven by Chinese buyers and manufacturers that use imported waste as a raw material in lieu of virgin materials.
What he also doesn’t realize – and should – is that valuable commodities tend to have global markets. So, for example, the imported scrap plastics exhibited in the Shanghai Gallery of Art were not necessarily destined for China. Instead, they might very well have stayed in their countries of origin (best as I could tell, the United States and Germany) where local companies would have re-processed them. Indeed, in almost all cases, China competes with scrap processors in developed countries for the “foreign rubbish” that Liu assumes is being dumped in China as a means of colonial control. In recent years, in fact, several of those developed countries have either imposed (Russia) or proposed (the United States) export bans on scrap to protect local processors from the competition of Chinese processors.
Liu’s confusion is at least partly semantic in origin. Most governments, including China’s, tend to categorize imported and exported waste/recyclable materials – legal or not – into a single category called “waste.” So, for example, the United States Customs Service would classify much of the plastic in Liu’s show as “Waste, Pairings, and Scrap of Plastics; of Polymers of Ethylene” despite the fact that it is mostly recyclable and non-hazardous. As a result, genuine waste – say, a stripped computer circuit board – is often lumped into the same category as a clean bale of scrap plastics. Though officials in the United States, Europe, China and elsewhere have spent years trying to change the definitions, the psychological barrier is high: most people outside of the recycling industry have a hard time believing that a bale of scrap plastic has value or minimal environmental impact (for an excellent discussion of this issue, see the position paper of the US-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries).
I don’t want to minimize Liu’s concern for the negative environmental effects caused by the processing of imported and domestic e-scrap in China. At Shanghai Scrap, and elsewhere, I have been very critical of US and European shippers of e-scrap to China and other developing countries. Liu’s problem is that he confuses the relatively small amount of hazardous e-scrap currently being smuggled into China (likely, in the thousands of tons) with the tens of millions of tons of legal, non-hazardous recyclables. His exhibition, meanwhile, confuses viewers by conflating the hazardous e-waste described on the gallery walls with the non-hazardous totally legal scrap recyclables on the floor.
So let’s clarify.
Typically, e-scrap looks something like this:
But not like this:
As I’ve acknowledged, the environmental consequences of the improper processing of e-scrap – or any other kind of scrap – can be devastating. In an interview that accompanies the exhibition, Liu recalls the recycling towns of Guangdong:
I saw with my own eyes that the rivers [were] so black that it was impossible to see through the water and the workers, without any protection gears, were picking up rubbish along the river.
With all due respect to Liu, I have seen this and much, much worse. But unlike Liu, I don’t see an analogy between the environmental devastation caused by improper recycling processes, and the opium scourge of the 19th century. First, the environmental devastation caused by imported waste materials has nothing to do – implicitly – with the materials themselves. Instead, the pollution caused by these materials is entirely predicated upon how they are processed. What Liu fails to appreciate is that there are environmentally-sound methods of processing most types of scrap materials, and those methods are used in the developing world and – increasingly – in China (which produces much more e-scrap domestically – about 150 million individual pieces annually – than it imports). Where they are not used in China, the fault is not with the foreign exporters but with Chinese importers who choose to subject their workers and the environment to dangerous and unsafe practices. Equal blame, too, might be leveled at local Chinese governments that allow the flaunting of China’s industrial safety and environment laws. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Chinese recyclers could and should make the investments to make their plants environmentally safe. But most of them don’t. And that is not the fault of the developed world – colonialists or not.
The final conceptual errors in Liu’s show are the “Art Exports” that he plans to send back to the developed world via wealthy art buyers. Implicit in this act, I think, is Liu’s certainty that “foreign rubbish” sent to China makes a one-way trip, only. But this is so totally incorrect as to suggest that Liu has only the most tenuous grasp of how China’s economy has developed over the last two decades. As it happens, “foreign rubbish” prices are at record highs over the last five years largely due to China’s demand for raw materials to feed its manufacturing sector. And that manufacturing sector is focused on exports. For example, in the following photo a workers dismantle American scrap paper bundles at a state-owned recycling plant in Shandong Province:
That ugly bundle of garbage will ultimately be processed and manufactured into new paper products that will be sold to box manufacturers who supply containers to China’s exporters.
Similarly, in this photo workers in Shanghai sort shredded imported automobiles into constituent metals:
Later, the processed metal – now transformed into high-quality ingot – will be exported to Japanese automobile manufacturers.
Ironically, “Export-Cargo Transit” would have been rendered conceptually stronger if Liu had just installed his 2006 “Yiwu Investigation” into the Shanghai Gallery of Art instead of creating his silly “Art Export” containers. After all, many of the products manufactured in Yiwu contain parts and pieces manufactured from “foreign rubbish” imported into the nearby scrap markets of Taizhou and Ningbo. Cost-conscious art lovers unable to afford a Liu Jianhua Art Export, but still interested in taking a slap at colonialism, need only buy a Japanese manufactured aluminum Toyota car part.
Ultimately, “Export – Cargo Transit” fails as a work of conceptual art because – quite simply – Liu gets the conceptual foundations totally wrong. Likewise, it fails as a social commentary because the facts underlying the commentary are misrepresented and misunderstood. In the end, though, “Export – Cargo Transit” fails because Liu Jianhua committed himself to a political claim without being open to an honest assessment of its truth. And that approach is the essence of a diatribe, not art.