The Real Toy Story
The Real Toy Story is an installation by artist Michael Wolf made from as many as 20,000 plastic toys and up to twenty photographic portraits of workers in southern Chinese toy factories. First produced in Hong Kong in 2004 following two years of conceptual development, the piece varies in scale and design depending upon its location. The conceptually charged installation prompts a consideration of the human presence behind mass-produced goods and provides visitors with a visceral, immersive experience.
Michael Wolf has lived and worked in Hong Kong for over ten years. In the spring of 2004, he made a trip to California, searching flea markets and thrift stores for figurative toys that were Made in China, collecting thousands of toys over a period of thirty days. These toys were then packed and shipped to Hong Kong, returning them to the geographic region of their original fabrication. Wolf sanded the back of each of the thousands of toys by hand so that they were flat enough to attach a magnet. When The Real Toy Story is installed, the walls of its exhibition space are lined with thin black metal sheets, to which the toys are affixed magnetically.
Simultaneous to the process of preparing the toys, Wolf produced a series of photographs of workers in toy factories in Southern China. These photographs capture the idiosyncratic environment of the factories. In one image, two women take a break from their labor, napping under a table piled high with plastic dolls. In another image, three women in matching white hair-covers sit stooped over innumerable tiny soccer balls, painting each ball by hand. While the images engage the concept of working conditions in China, they do not indict those conditions. Instead, they serve as a reminder of the people that drive the industry and expose the significant extent to which hand-crafted elements play a role in the process.
In the course of creating The Real Toy Story Wolf assumed a labor-intensive "factory process" of his own, as he systematically acquired the materials and prepared the individual toys for installation. This process is continued in the actual installation of the piece; when The Real Toy Story was initially installed in Hong Kong, Wolf worked with three assistants for ten hours daily for three days to mount the photographs and toys in a dense, overlapping arrangement across every inch of available wall space.
This installation first draws in visitors by encompassing them in the colossal scale of thousands of colorful toys. Then, as visitors inspect the particular toys, they find that many are familiar. The fact that each of the 20,000 toys was purchased secondhand is crucial to the overall effect of the installation, as the used toys potentially awaken specific memories in visitors. Thus, visitors gradually engage with their own role in consumer culture.
The Real Toy Story challenges ideas of collective experience, by way of the specific contexts of the toy industry and southern China. Throughout the past decade, Wolf has immersed himself in the urban environments of the region. His projects offer the viewer a sensation of what it is like to be in an environment of incredible material density. At the same time, much of the artist's oeuvre addresses with equal attention traces of individual lives within the anonymity and density of contemporary life. The Real Toy Story is large in scale and assertive in physical presence but also contains minute elements and visual details that speak to intimate, personal experience. As such, the installation continues Michael Wolf's investigation of the complex cultural and visual dynamics of Hong Kong and China.