How Napping Chinese Construction Workers Became Art
Artist Harrell Fletcher has exhibited at SF MoMA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and The Drawing Center in New York City, as well as at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and many other places around the world. His 2002 participatory website with Miranda July, Learning to Love You More, was groundbreaking and beloved. He is currently teaching in the Department of Art at Portland State University, Oregon. He sat down to tell us about his latest work for the Shanghai Biennial, in China.
"As a multidisciplinary contemporary artist, I was invited to participate in the Shanghai Biennial, which runs from October 2, 2012 to March 31, 2013. I work in various mediums, from writing to photography to video—whatever is most appropriate for the situation. I’ve always been interested in making aspects of life that are all around us, but that are often overlooked, more visible. As a kid I was very shy and didn’t interact with people very much, but I was very observant and was always thinking about the systems that determine various social dynamics.
The big announcement for this biennial is that they are renovating an old thermal power plant into the Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum, which would open with the biennial exhibition. As I was following a few leads for a possible project, I was given a tour of the museum while it was being remodeled. I happened to go there during lunch break for the construction workers, and they were taking naps on the floor of the construction site. It was really hot in the building, and I’m sure the work was very hard, so it made sense that the construction workers took naps, but it also was visually arresting to see these bodies lying around amongst the construction materials. I took several photographs of these napping scenes. As they started getting up to begin doing more work, I wanted to know what their thoughts were on the museum. From that point, I just thought about ways of involving the workers in what would become their finished piece—the museum building and all of its functions.
It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about before—the role that workers have in a finished consumer product, everything from clothes and appliances to cars and buildings. Being a worker who makes a product is something I’m very familiar with. After getting an MFA in interdisciplinary art, I went back to school to study organic farming at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and then worked on a few different CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms in California and Oregon. I was considering trying to become a farmer and not an artist, but what happened instead is that farming ended up affecting what I did as an artist in that it made me reconsider my relationship to the public, participation, functionality, and distribution. The farm work I did has sensitized me to workers in general, so I was immediately able to recognize and appreciate the situation that these Chinese construction workers were in.
The existence of workers is often concealed from the general public by capitalism. In sales, you just make the final product available to consumers; you never show what goes on behind the scenes to make those products possible, unless somehow the process has been cleaned up in a way so as not to draw attention to any worker or environmental issues. It felt significant to do this project in China, where the relationships between the worker and the collective consciousness seems to be drawn closer due to a Communist mindset.
My project for the biennial consists of a life-sized projection of photographs I took in the construction site of the napping workers; a list of names of all of the workers who worked on the remodel, which was over a hundred people; and a video of several construction workers on site answering questions about what it was like to work on the building, what their thoughts are on art, what they dreamed about while taking naps at the site, and how they felt about being included in the project.
One response I got from talking with a construction worker at the museum was that art was not a part of his life, but that he liked it when he did come across it. With my project I want to try to point out that he and his colleagues have taken part in an art project through the work they have done on the museum. A few workers didn’t even know that the building they were working on was going to be a museum, so I was curious to learn more about their thoughts when they had been informed about that. I also found out that the workers weren’t invited to the biennial, so I had special invitations made for all of the workers thanking them for their contribution to the biennial and inviting them to the opening reception. An example of one of the invitations will be shown as part of my project as well.
Whether it’s a museum gallery or with your new Macbook, it’s important to remember these finished products are the result of workers putting the pieces together. Workers put in long hours in difficult conditions to build and fix everything we use in contemporary society, and hopefully someday the visibility of those workers won’t be so obscured and instead will be appreciated and acknowledged."
Photographs courtesy of Harrell Fletcher