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Your Phone is Haunted

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Person stands looking at phone, text below reads "2: Be formless, shapeless, like water."
A still from Jen Liu’s ‘PINK SLIME CAESAR SHIFT: GOLD LOOP,’ 2020–2021; Single-channel HD video with sound, 27:58 minutes on infinite loop. (Courtesy of the artist; Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong; Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam)

Distance doesn’t really make the heart grow fonder. It makes it colder and harder. We can calculate that distance by our waning attention on events in faraway places, or our lack of curiosity about them. It’s present in our relationship to the objects that surround us, all of which have come from somewhere and been made by someone, but which we regard with indifference, as if they blipped into existence just for our use.

It’s this distance that artist Jen Liu is trying to bridge — through video work, sculpture, painting, augmented reality and dance — by summoning the ghostly presence of South China’s labor activists and female electronics workers. “If you don’t see the labor, they don’t exist,” she said at a recent screening at California College of the Arts. “And then they don’t suffer and you don’t have to fight for them.”

White gallery with large painting, sculptures in back and freestanding wall with embedded video screen
Installation view of ‘Jen Liu: GHOST__WORLD’ at / (Slash) in San Francisco. (Courtesy of the artist; Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong; Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam)

Liu’s newest body of work, GHOST__WORLD, has arrived in San Francisco as a Tanya Zimbardo-curated solo show at / (Slash) and two upcoming nights of dance performances at The Lab. Informing each are Liu’s primary sources: first-hand interviews with electronics and e-waste workers, and a mixture of articles and documents, like “Precious Metals Investment Terms A to Z” and “Health Consequences of Exposure to E-Waste: A Systematic Review.”

If this all sounds heavy, well, it is. But Liu also skillfully deploys tactics of humor and beauty. The / show, for instance, is filled with frogs. Last summer, people wearing inflatable “frog mother” costumes began appearing in the streets of China, selling frog balloons, issuing crisp military salutes and performing Buster Keaton-esque acts of physical comedy, both for the benefit of in-person audiences and viral online shares.

Designed by an artist frustrated with her job prospects, the frog costume appealed to Liu as a way of tying together multiple interests: the trend of “lying flat,” China’s youth opting out of over-work and ambition; the precarity of economic prospects outside of factory work; and previous incarnations of political performance art.

L: Image of hand holding phone in front of QR code, showing video on screen; R: blown glass on pedestal connected to glass on floor through black tube
L: Jen Liu, ‘GHOST__WORLD: AUGMENTED REALITY,’ 2024; R: Jen Liu, ‘GHOST__WORLD: FROGS,’ 2024. (Courtesy of the artist; Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong; Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam)

QR codes on the show’s walls activate “embedded” videos with found social media footage of the frog mothers. (You may find yourself developing a different relationship to your phone during this show.) On the exhibition’s largest screen, a looping video cycles through several days in a CG marshland, frogs bobbing between air and water, one jumping onto the back of a plane before it flies off. Large-scale, wonderfully textured and loopily cartoonish paintings on paper merge all the imagery of the show into surreal depictions of frog eyes, an unfortunate Clippy, office-appropriate pumps and manicured nails.


In the back of the gallery, blown glass blobs resembling frog heads are linked with tubes that release atomized scents (“marshy swamp, popcorn, green apple, chainsaw, exhaust, etc.”). While I didn’t catch a whiff during my opening night visit, the gently steaming arrangement did suggest a science lab gone wrong. It’s an off-kilter tone that carries through to the show’s central work, the half-hour video PINK SLIME CAESAR SHIFT: GOLD LOOP.

Made with a combination of CG animation and live action, GOLD LOOP was filmed in futuristic settings in Dishui, China (about an hour outside of Shanghai), and Birmingham, UK. “In my head, they became like sister cities,” Liu says. “Again, development for who? For what? Beautiful geometric structures down to perfectly circular lakes, circular economies and circular design. But then it’s serving a kind of ghost population and creating all this toxicity for the real people.”

The video is haunted by circles and spheres. Chemicals depicted as gold balls are pulled out of mouths; other, larger spheres roll eerily across emptied-out architectural spaces. A woman lectures fellow workers about “circular economics” as they spin their pens. Throughout, heightened sound effects and pop songs lend the entire video a jokey edge that keeps viewers entranced, chuckling with both delight and discomfort.

Two hands with green nails hold open a book against red surface
‘A BETTER LIFE FOR THE WORKERS (I),’ 2021. The book is a translation of Hong Kong-based NGO Worker Empowerment’s publication of the same title. Proceeds from sales go to Chinese labor organizers and activists. (Courtesy of the artist; Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong; Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam)

My advice for all of the above is to block off a solid hour to spend looking at, listening to and thinking about GHOST__WORLD. Be sure not to miss a shiny pink-covered copy of A Better Life for the Workers (1), a translated 2013 text that came out of discussions in a workers’ center in Shenzhen.

Then, you’ll be well-primed for The Lab on either April 27 or 28, when GHOST__WORLD: a performance for 4 dancers, featuring Tracey Lindsay Chan, SanSan Kwan, Miche Wong and Áine Dorman, takes place. The performance touches on Chinese Lion Dance, the frog mothers’ synchronized routines, worker interviews and (wildcard!) those Apple versus PC ads from the mid-2000s.

Liu says the choreography, which she developed with the dancers, is driven by the sense that the body is missing from every stage of technology’s creation, production and use. “The body has been deeply sidelined, which leaves it open to exploitation,” she says. “These languages never leave the body. It’s just deeply repressed.”

GHOST__WORLD asks: Once that repression creates enough distance, how do our hearts react?

Jen Liu: GHOST__WORLD’ is on view at / (Slash, 1150 25th St., Building B, San Francisco) through Aug. 24, 2024. ‘GHOST__WORLD: a performance for 4 dancers’ takes place at The Lab (2948 16th St., San Francisco) on April 27 at 7 p.m. and April 28 at 5 p.m.

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