At first sight, it looks like something has exploded in Santa's grotto. Every centimetre of the 400 square feet of wall space at the John Batten Gallery in Central has been adorned with small plastic toys and figurines, creating a cornucopia of colours and shapes. Battle-ready robots, World Wrestling Foundation wrestlers, superheroes, Disney characters and muppets peer out from a collection of cheaply made, mass-produced objects that have been attached with magnets to sheet-metal-covered walls for this installation-cum-photography exhibition. The photographs, placed at strategic intervals along each wall and looking like they might be overrun by encroaching toys at any moment, are haunting portraits of toy-factory workers in China, where 75 per cent of the world's toys are made. In the middle of it all, like the Pied Piper of Toy Town, sits Hong Kong-based artist Michael Wolf. 'Everything we use is made by someone,' he says, 'and I think people tend to forget this. I wanted to say, 'Look, these things don't just appear and making them is a dull, repetitive job.' And to do that, I had to create this level of density with the toys.' The idea for the installation began as a surprise for his six-year-old son, Jasper, when he bought a sack of 600 second-hand toys to spread across his room. 'The effect was stunning,' says Wolf. 'We looked carefully at the toys and discovered each one was made in China. Jasper said to me, 'I thought Santa Claus and his helpers made toys!' and it was then that the idea came to me.' The result is striking: the portraits force the spectator to make the link between product and production, while the stark images of factory life sit uneasily with their gaily coloured neighbours. 'I very much wanted to do something that was entertaining,' he says. 'A lot of art can be very serious and highbrow, and if I'd only used the photographs, it would have been a very different exhibition. The added dimension of the toys lifts it to another sphere - people who don't normally go to galleries, I hope, will come because of the toys.' Entertaining it most certainly is. Part of the attraction is spotting familiar faces and characters amid the montage, as well as the mini-narratives Wolf has woven into his work: a George W. Bush doll faces off to Saddam Hussein across the room; Barbies leap in procession pursued by eager Kens; sharks and whales try to turn Power Rangers into Jonahs. To assemble the exhibition, Wolf embarked on a 30-day Californian odyssey, driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles earlier this year - visiting every thrift shop, flea market and jumble sale along the way - and buying as many plastic toys marked with the all-important 'Made in China' motto as he could. 'I'd worked out that to cover the amount of wall-space I wanted, I would need about 20,000 toys, so I had to buy around 700 a day,' he recalls. 'Some days I'd only get 200 and I started to have this nightmare idea that maybe someone else had the same plan and was turning up before me and buying all the toys!' Thankfully, such fears proved unfounded and he managed to acquire the requisite number with a few days to spare, before sorting them and having them shipped to Hong Kong. 'I liked the idea that these toys were going through this cycle,' he says. 'They get made in China, shipped to America, bought in shops, played with, given away to second-hand stores and then, finally, shipped back to Hong Kong. In preparing the toys [Wolf personally inspected and sanded down the backs of every toy, as well as attaching about half of the magnets], I felt I was mirroring the production process. It got so that I could do 200 an hour.' For Wolf, however, accumulating the toys was the easy part. The real difficulties began when he tried to get clearance to visit some of the mainland factories where his payload was produced. 'Most of them thought I was an undercover journalist doing an expose on working conditions and flatly refused,' he explains, 'but eventually I found five factories who understood what I was trying to do and I'm thankful to them.' Once inside the factories - which, although grim, were not the sweatshops of popular stereotype - Wolf found it hard convincing the workers to pose for him. 'It took me 10 or 15 minutes to do each portrait and, because they get paid per piece, that meant they would get two or three yuan less at the end of the day - but with a bit of effort I did get some volunteers,' he says. Wolf believes toys are an underrated barometer of popular culture. 'To understand the concerns of a society at a certain time, you don't look at the news - you look at the adverts. They reveal the hopes and aspirations and it's the same with toys,' he argues. 'They're about dreams and heroes, but they're also about teaching kids to be consumers and finding ways to keep them quiet for five minutes.' The plethora of Happy Meal-style toys and Ronald McDonald dolls staring out from the walls attests to this theory. 'Ultimately, all this plastic,' he says, gesturing towards the walls, 'is unnecessary.' Perhaps something for over-eager parents to bear in mind when doing their Christmas shopping. The Real Toy Story runs until November 27 at the John Batten Gallery, 64 Peel Street, Central. For information, check www.johnbattengallery.com .