Cao Fei (b. 1978) is regarded as one of the foremost contemporary artists from mainland China, whose surprising and inviting works are exhibited in museums and galleries across the world. Her distinct visual imagery, typically full of theatrical effects, suggests an active observation of the relationship between the individual and the “system.”
The daughter of realist sculptor Cao Chong’en, one of the leading artists working under Communism, Cao experienced a childhood that was marked not only by a playful approach to art nurtured in her father's studio, but also by China's increasingly open attitude to the West and to capitalism. Almost by accident she stumbled into advertising, trying her hand both as an actor and a director. These early experiences with film production explain in part her seemingly intuitive grasp of the film medium. At the end of the 1990s it was also possible to procure pirated versions of European art-house films; French avant-garde films in particular seem to have influenced Cao's approach to film-making.
Her works often take the form of expansive conceptual projects exposing strange subcultures in Chinese society. One of the first projects to bring her international recognition grew out of her fascination with Chinese teenagers who had a passion for Japanese anime culture and who dressed up in elaborate costumes as their heroes and role models. Cao filmed these ‘cosplayers’ as they enacted fantastic battles in the city streets in full costume, and again in the kitchen at home in their everyday clothing, highlighting the sharp contrast between the fantasy of role-play and the emptiness of everyday life. Similar relationships were depicted in the film Whose Utopia (2006/7). Cao invited workers at a lightbulb factory in the Guangdong province to share with her their most fanciful dreams, and then she filmed them as they played out their fantasies, performing as rock stars, break dancers, and ballerinas on the factory floor.
The opportunity to escape from the difficulties of everyday life into a fantasy world is fully explored in her extensive art project created in and around the online virtual world Second Life. Cao spent a good deal of time building up her own virtual town in Second Life, RMB City, which was opened in 2009. The name is derived from renminbi, the official currency of China, and her city is designed to resemble China’s explosive property market. Through her avatar, China Tracy, Cao created videos, games, and performances in RMB City and explored the interaction between real and virtual life.
In more recent works, Cao has considered an even younger subculture. On becoming a mother she became aware of the massive industry pushing cultural products toward small children. Her film East Wind from 2011 follows the daily rounds of a Chinese truck that Cao has disguised as Thomas the Tank Engine. Along its route, Chinese children and parents recognize and welcome this character from the series of British children's books that was animated for the BBC in the 1980s and first shown in China in 2008. The truck is named Dong Feng (East Wind), and was introduced during the first wave of nationalistic industrialization, named after Mao's statement in 1957 that “the east wind is prevailing over the west wind.” The film was part of the exhibition Play Time, which also included a miniature skatepark and a classical Chinese shadow-puppet theatre. The exhibition highlighted the cultural and commercial influences impacting on new generations of consumers growing up in today's China. Traditionally, China manufactured the commercial products that Western children played with; in recent years Chinese society has opened itself up to the Western entertainment industry. In dressing up a Chinese-manufactured truck as a European TV figure, Cao comments on the consequences of commercial and cultural exchange.
Cao's original and engrossing art depicts a new form of dependency in the relationship between individual and society. She explores themes such as movement and transition, while capturing the similarities and differences between varying systems. Her works, ranging from documentary to fiction and fantasy, describe a China in flux.
(Photo: Li Guiming)