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China is the biggest toy exporter in the world – nearly 75% of all the world’s toys are made in the country – but the retail price of one high-quality toy in the western market is often more than six months’ salary for a Chinese toy factory worker. In order to depict the drudgery of mass toy production, photographer Michael Wolf made a large-scale installation where he attached 20,000 used plastic toys all made in China surrounding large sized photos of the workers who make them. Wolf called the project “The Real Toy Story”. The work portrays the human presence behind mass-produced goods and provides viewers with a visceral, immersive experience that evokes the sensation of density endemic to urban areas of the region.
The installation was first produced in Hong Kong in 2004. 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. It has been since recreated at a number of locations around the world.
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. 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.