Tate Liverpool

With Asian and in particular, Chinese art currently at the forefront of contemporary arts, Tate Liverpool has put on an exhibition, The Real Thing, of works, including several newly commissioned pieces, created since the year 2000. As well as obvious reasons, it was an important time for China – joining the World Trade Organisation, giving its people far more access to outside influences. Around that time, it also won the Olympic 2008 bid for Beijing and with rapid economic expansion, China began to develop more quickly.

It’s no surprise then, that the majority of the pieces here are based around workmen and factories. All the artists present are thinking how they and China are represented in the rest of the world and what their place is.

The first piece you see inside the gallery is Factory Floor by Zhuang Hui, a hyper-realistic, life-size model of the factory the artist used to work at. Built out of polystyrene by the real workers at the factory, it contains a narrative about a friend who was injured by a falling sheet of metal. Full marks for impact upon entrance to the exhibition.

Follow the exhibition around and work by Wang Wei shows him to be the Chinese equivalent of Santiago Sierra. He uses real builders to build a room inside a building with the sole purpose to demolish it immediately. While it isn’t clear how much they are being paid for this menial task, the photos and accompanying video suggest that even though there is a lot of development at the moment, this doesn’t help everybody and there are some people who will do anything to get paid.

Wang Peng carried out a performance 10 years ago in New York in which a piece of string was tied to his back and the back of a car and he walked around the streets. As people encountered the string, their reactions differed greatly, from laughter to utter confusion. For The Real Thing, Peng was asked to repeat the performance in Beijing, a place where these types of performances were rare. Watching back, the reactions were so much stronger (the police were even called) – it is almost as if their world has just stopped moving. They cannot comprehend this piece of string in front of them. Nobody could ignore it, yet nobody seemed to think to cut it either.

The only piece in the exhibition created by a female artist, Cao Fei, is a beautifully crafted video entitled Whose Utopia in response to a residency at a Siemens light bulb factory in rural China. Over three parts, we learn and feel for the workers. We watch them enact their dreams inside the factory, whether it’s a ballet dancer, rock God, an angel or a martial arts master. In the final part My Future is not a Dream it puts the workers back into their jobs, back down to earth.

Are their dreams their futures or will they always work for the light bulb factory?

Samuel Mercer is an artist and film-maker based in the U.K.