Cao Fei – Retrospective @MoMA PS1

Portrait of Cao Fei by Deng Xixun. Photo courtesy of MoMA PS1
RMB City: A Second Life City Planning, 2007. Digital print, 120 × 160 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space. “Cao Fei” at MoMA PS1, Long Island City
Cao Fei, Cosplayers Series – Tussle, 2004. From the series Cosplayers, c-print, 75 × 100 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space. “Cao Fei” at MoMA PS1, Long Island City
Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006. C-print, 120 × 150 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space
Cao Fei, La Town: Airport, 2014. C-print, 80 × 120 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space. “Cao Fei” at MoMA PS1, Long Island City
Cao Fei, Still from Haze and Fog, 2013. Still from Haze and Fog, 2013, 0:46:00. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space.
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For nearly twenty years, Cao Fei (b. 1978, Guangzhou) has been mining the dream-life and fantasies of Chinese citizens, trying to pin down the hopes and fears of a generation buffeted by global change.  But Cao Fei is no documentarian.   Taking surreal liberties with her subject matter, this artist throws viewers into the center of the whirlwind of influences and psychic states circulating in present-day China, saying more about social issues than a newspaper report can cover.


TEXT : Barbara Pollack
IMAGES : Courtesy of the artist and the museum

 

RMB City: A Second Life City Planning, 2007. Digital print, 120 × 160 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space. "Cao Fei" at MoMA PS1, Long Island City
RMB City: A Second Life City Planning, 2007. Digital print, 120 × 160 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space. “Cao Fei” at MoMA PS1, Long Island City

 

Now, at the still-young age of 37, Cao Fei is having her first museum retrospective in the United States at MoMA PS1.  The exhibition covers her trajectory from her first videos, made while still a student at the Guangzhou Art Academy, through her latest film, La Town, featured at the 2015 Venice Biennale.   Ordinary folks performing hip hop moves, post-adolescents dressed as Japanese manga characters, factory workers in the throws of daydreams, her Second Life avatar China Tracy – they are all here, against a backdrop of hi rises, factories and polluted skies.

Born in Guangzhou in 1978 to a family of artists – her father is a famous realist sculptor and her mother is a printmaker – Cao Fei was nabbed out of art school by renowned curator Hou Hanru for her early video, Imbalance 257.  Though prescient and precocious, this video is still very much a student work, enlisting performances from her fellow classmates to enact the malaise and hopelessness of a young generation of wannabe artists.   This work is on view in the first room of the exhibition which introduces the early video works of the artist, including Rabid Dogs (2002), in which yuppies behave like wild animals within an office setting, and Hip Hop: Guangzhou (2003), where Cao Fei enticed pedestrians to stop and dance to hip hop beats on public streets.

 

Cao Fei, Cosplayers Series - Tussle, 2004. From the series Cosplayers, c-print, 75 × 100 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space. "Cao Fei" at MoMA PS1, Long Island City
Cao Fei, Cosplayers Series – Tussle, 2004. From the series Cosplayers, c-print, 75 × 100 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space. “Cao Fei” at MoMA PS1, Long Island City

 

But Cao Fei’s breakout work is her series of photographs and a video, Cosplayers, created in 2004.  Here, the artist joined a troupe of twenty-somethings who, rather than give in to the pressure to become upwardly mobile office workers, don costumes of Japanese anime figures and act out incongruously in Guangzhou’s urban center.  Never quite able to escape their reality, these young adults seem worlds away from their parents, who are depicted living ordinary lives – cooking, eating and watching television–without a clue to what their children are up to.

 

Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006. C-print, 120 × 150 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space
Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006. C-print, 120 × 150 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space

 

Whose Utopia?,  2006,  is an exploration of the lives and daydreams of workers in a light bulb factory run by an international company.  The result of a commission from the Siemens Corporation, Cao Fei spent six months interviewing workers and distributing questionnaires to find 20 who wound up performing in this video.  At one moment, a ballerina pirouettes among the machinery; later, a young man rocks out on an imaginary guitar.  Alternatively, funny and sad, the video touches on the exploitative circumstance in which many Chinese make a living without didactically pointing a finger at the oppressors.

 

 

Indeed, for Cao Fei, globalization is a mixed-bag, neither source of all of China’s problems nor the solution to these woes.  It is clear that she relishes the wave of influences that flooded China with the Open Door Policy as much as she sees the alienation and drab working conditions that came with it.  In order to fully explore the dynamics of globalization, Cao Fei created her own site, RMB City, 2007, in the online virtual reality website, Second Life, an amalgam of Shanghai’s Pearl TV Tower, Beijing’s CCTV headquarters, Mao statues and shopping malls, where participants could buy and sell real estate and dabble in other investments.    Exploring the downside of Second Life, i.Mirror recounts a virtual affair between Cao Fei’s avatar, China Tracy,  and a romantic heartthrob,  who only later is revealed a much older man with a troubled past.

“RMB CITY”
6mins/2007/3D Animation
Director: China Tracy

 

” i.Mirror”
28mins/2007/SL film
Director by SL avatar China Tracy

 

Fully immersing herself in another form of fantasy, namely horror films, Cao Fei made the zombie apocalypse film, Haze and Fog (2013).  Set in the vast housing projects of Beijing, the film pokes fun at the burgeoning real estate industry, while prospective buyers meet undead predators in empty apartments.  La Town (2014), her latest project, takes on a society after an unnamed disaster, enacted with figurines and architectural models in a stop motion animation.  While Haze and Fog skewers society on a number of levels, La Town is a bit too serious and self-important, taking cues from the French New Wave classic, Hiroshima Mon Amor.  Cao Fei is at her best when her vision collides with conditions in the real world, a frisson lacking in La Town.

 

Cao Fei, La Town: Airport, 2014. C-print, 80 × 120 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space. "Cao Fei" at MoMA PS1, Long Island City
Cao Fei, La Town: Airport, 2014. C-print, 80 × 120 cm. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space. “Cao Fei” at MoMA PS1, Long Island City

 

For an American audience, ever looking for a didactic critique of the Chinese government, the show may be something of a surprise in that here is a Chinese artist, working without the threat of censorship who clearly is aware of the most pressing social issues in her society.  On the other hand, the work falls far short of a damning critique of her home country and its society.  This lack of specific political point of view, however, makes for much better art, allowing viewers to enter this world and make up their minds for themselves.

 

Cao Fei_Haze and Fog
Cao Fei, Still from Haze and Fog, 2013. Still from Haze and Fog, 2013, 0:46:00. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space.

 

ABOUT THE ARTIST
Cao Fei (b. 1978, Guangzhou) recently had a solo exhibition at Secession Museum, Vienna (2015). Her work La Town (2014) was on display in the Arsenale Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, as part of All the World’s Future. Whose Utopia? (2006) was screened in Poetry and Dream, Tate Modern. Her online project RMB City(2008–11) has been exhibited in Deutsche Guggenheim (2010); Shiseido Gallery, Tokyo, Japan (2009); Serpentine Gallery, London (2008); and the Yokohama Triennale (2008). She also exhibited video works at the Guggenheim Museum, the International Center of Photography, MoMA, MoMA PS1 (New York) and Palais de Tokyo (Paris). Cao Fei was a nominee for the Future Generation Art Prize 2010, a finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize 2010, and winner of the 2006 Best Young Artist from the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA).

 

Cao Fei

 April 3–August 31, 2016
MoMA PS1
New York


Barbara Pollack

Since 1994,  Barbara Pollack has written on contemporary art for such publications as The New York Times,  the Village Voice,  Art in America,  Vanity Fair and of course,  Artnews,  among many others.   She is the author of the book,  The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China and has written dozens of catalogue essays for a wide range of international artists.  In addition to writing,  Pollack is an independent curator who organized the exhibition,  We Chat: A Dialogue in Contemporary Chinese Art,  currently at Asia Society Texas and she is a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She has been awarded two grants from the Asian Cultural Council as well as receiving the prestigious Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writer Grant.

 
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