Cao Fei (and me)

As her first museum show opens at MoMA PS1, New York, Doretta Lau navigates the worlds of the Beijing-based artist

By Doretta Lau

Cao Fei, RMB City: A Second Life City Planning 05 (detail), 2007, digital print, 120 × 160 cm. Courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou & Beijing

Once during grad school, a friend asked me, “Which director’s films would you want to live in?”

He was likely high at the time, but I took the query seriously. And after some deliberation I chose Wong Kar-wai. I could imagine myself whispering my secrets into a hole in Angkor Wat or eating cans of pineapple after a breakup.

I’ve since turned this question to contemporary art. In whose worlds would I like to reside? A decade ago I may have chosen the dark glamour of Nan Goldin or the whimsy of Marcel Dzama. I was younger then, more susceptible to a certain kind of drama. At the start of this year, I thought: might I consider the work of Beijing-based artist Cao Fei, whose art exhibits, in my opinion, the perfect ratio of funny to sad?

Cao Fei was born 1978 in Guangzhou, China. That was the year the country opened to international trade and Deng Xiaoping became its leader. Her parents are artists; her father is Cao Chong-en, who is known for his sculptures of movie star Bruce Lee and the Republic of China’s founding father, Sun Yat-sen. She graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2001, and two years later she exhibited at the Venice Biennale. In 2006 she won the Chinese Contemporary Art Award for Best Young Artist. By this time, her point of view was clear: it came with a sense of humour, a flair for the macabre, a propensity for the way in which new technologies could serve her art and a tremendous ability to create an emotional resonance when photographing people, no matter how absurd their comportment. In 2010 she became a finalist for the Guggenheim Museum Hugo Boss Prize. MoMA PS1 in New York is mounting Cao’s first solo exhibition in the United States, curated by Klaus Biesenbach with Jocelyn Miller, in April of this year.

When I started writing this essay I wanted to have my engagement with her art to remain mediated through the objects, not her words. So I chose not to interview the artist. Instead I hoped to replicate the distance created by an avatar, a game, a costume, an online platform, in order to retain the qualities of disconnection and loneliness I associate with the men and women who roam through her landscapes.

My first encounter with Cao’s work was her 2004 Cosplayers series, which consists of an eight-minute video and photographs featuring young people dressed like anime characters.

For me, the image from Cosplayers that best encapsulates her work is Ah Ming at Home: a girl dressed in a purple top and black pants bound with white fabric (a kind of futuristic turkey look) sits with her leg up in a modestly furnished living room. She is staring at a hand-held electronic device, likely a phone. Her costume begs for attention; it seems to say: look at me, please see me. Next to her, a shirtless man, presumably her father, reads a newspaper, oblivious to her presence. I can read this image as a personal tragedy: daughter and father cannot connect. Or I can posit that these two figures stand in for China new and old, wherein the new is styled as a shiny fantasy, unreal.

Perhaps when we can’t figure out who we are in the context of a society it is easier to invent new rules

Perhaps when we can’t figure out who we are in the context of a society it is easier to invent new rules rather than embrace a way of living that will soon be obsolete. As I think about this series, I wonder: is the isolation experienced by these youths a rite of passage found in every industrialised society over the last one hundred years (as captured in novels such as The Catcher in the Rye, Less Than Zero, Generation X and Shanghai Baby) or is it particular to this specific generation in China?

Cao continued to investigate contemporary communities in Whose Utopia (2006), i.Mirror (2007) and RMB City project (2007–11). Whose Utopia is a video shot at a factory in the Pearl River Delta, where workers share their dreams and fantasies from the production floor, while the latter two works are associated with the 3D virtual world Second Life.

Years ago, I tried playing Second Life but my computer was too old and my Internet connection too slow to spend any meaningful time in this online space. Cao did not have my tech problems. i. Mirror is a three-part documentary chronicling her engagement with the online community via her avatar, China Tracy, over the course of six months. All the landscapes seem desolate. I never imagined that a virtual space would have so many decrepit buildings and random fires – here, technology does not deliver perfect environments or lives.

After Cao exhausted her exploration of how the self operates in Second Life, she took on the challenge of building a city called RMB that includes elements of different Chinese locales. It’s the sort of place where a giant panda floats above temples and highrises. Tiananmen Square, with a panda portrait in the place of Mao, comes into view. Something is burning. There’s a rotating sign for a pawnshop that features prominently. What has been sold? What has been lost? In the distance a giant looms in the water. Day drifts into night. The video ends with fireworks over the city, a very Chinese way to mark the end of a momentous occasion.

It so happened that the museum where I work screened Cao Fei’s stop-motion film La Town (2014) while I was doing research for this essay. During the opening scene, a man and a woman speak to each other, off camera, in French. It reminded me of Marguerite Duras. (In the credits, Cao acknowledges the influence of the 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, whose screenplay is by Duras, on the dialogue of La Town.) There’s a postapocalyptic feel to the setting, which is composed of distressed toy models. Abandoned cars line the roads. Nearby, there is a camel. Blood-drenched creatures that may or may not be zombies haunt the streets and buildings. The man and the woman continue to talk. Giant sea monsters terrorise the survivors. In a crumbling building a couple has vigorous sex. Santa Claus, his reindeer and a sleigh cause a train crash. A museum that is pristine compared to all the wreckage has an exhibition on La Town. The spectacle is strange and mesmerising and brings together thematic concerns from previous works. The air of loneliness pervades.

Cao Fei as a world-maker. She’s like George R. R. Martin or George Lucas or, to add another George to the mix, George Saunders. In her work, she turns to fantasy to investigate the human condition. Life is hard, but if we glance at it through another lens and celebrate the idiosyncratic and strange, maybe it becomes bearable or more true.

On 31 January a picture of a woman I didn’t recognise appeared on my Facebook wall as a memory from eight years prior because she had tagged me. She is standing in front of Cao Chong-en’s Bruce Lee sculpture in Hong Kong, on the Avenue of Stars. Upon closer inspection, I realise the stranger is Elizabeth, whom I’ve never met in person – she used to read a blog I kept and we had exchanged emails for a time. Though I haven’t made a choice about the contemporary artist whose art I’d like to embody, perhaps in the case of Cao Fei’s work the decision has already been taken: for it becomes clear to me that via a confluence of chance and circumstance I already reside in her worlds. 


This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of ArtReview.