Portrait of Cao Fei by Deng Xixun. Photo courtesy of MoMA PS1.
What’s worse: bored humans or flesh-eating zombies? Cao Fei’s 2013 film Haze and Fog, currently on view at The Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Tel Aviv, at first seems to pose such a question to the audience. Set against the menacing urban backdrop of a post-industrial city in China—which recalls the landscape of Cao’s hometown, Guangzhou—the 47-minute film depicts solitary, silent figures, apparently disenfranchised by the machinations of modern life. The slow rhythm of their tedious lives builds as their activities grow more deranged: A woman screams in an empty room as her companion putts a golf ball; a pregnant woman chopping carrots suddenly slams the knife down on her own finger; a sex worker performs an erotic dance as a man on TV talks about a better future for his sister.
The premise of Cao’s film, however, is not a moral one. Instead, it leads us to consider the relative strengths of being a human or a zombie in the post-apocalyptic, urban environment they inhabit. As the film progresses into a full-blown, comically grotesque, zombie movie, it seems the only thing that persists is creativity. The characters never speak, but they do sing, perform music, dance, or paint to express themselves in the various vignettes that make up the film’s narrative. Creativity is at the heart of the “magic reality”—as the artist refers to it—that Cao Fei is interested in revealing in her works.
Haze and Fog has a specific setting, but many of its allusions may elude the foreign viewer. “Although set in China’s modern megalopolis, I think this reality is hardly a ‘Chinese’ one, and it certainly tells us about our own,” says Sergio Edelsztein, Director of CCA, of his decision to show the film in Israel. He first encountered Haze and Fog in Vienna last year, having followed Cao Fei’s work for some time, and considered it the ideal work to present to the institution’s audiences. “From the chaotic ‘Chinese Art World’ information we receive in the West, Cao Fei emerges as a coherent, personal, and articulate voice. For us, this work is a great opportunity to reflect about our condition, enhanced by cultural distance.”
Cao is frequently cited as one of the most important Chinese artists to emerge after China’s Cultural Revolution. Cao was born in 1978, and her work consistently invokes the rapid and prolific changes she has seen in China during her lifetime. It’s easy to understand why those themes resonate so well outside her native country. The central paradoxes that her works hinge on are felt sharply all over the world: the general isolation caused by technological and economic development and the dissociative impact of increasingly “real” virtual worlds—as well as the ways individualism can be crushed by consumerism and globalization.
As another indication of the importance of Cao’s work, she’s been tapped (alongside John Baldessari and on the heels of Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson, and Jenny Holzer) to create an the next BMW Art Car. (She’s the youngest-ever recipient of the honor and first from China.) And, on April 3rd, New York’s MoMA PS1 will open the artist’s first solo museum presentation of her multimedia work in the U.S. “We wanted to give our audience a summary of her work to date, and also a sense of its trajectory, beginning with early performances and videos from the late ’90s, and moving through her most major projects in the 21st century, which all in one way or another deal with the way we, as people, cope with sudden and extreme change,” says Jocelyn Miller, co-curator of the exhibition alongside PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. “This could be change on a personal, human scale, or a more seismic shift that impacts the cultural, social, and political landscape.”
Her iconic video and photography piece COSPlayers (2004), set in Guangzhou, will be on view at PS1 as part of the exhibition. To create the work, Cao invited various Cosplay communities from China—members of a youth subculture that dress up as Japanese anime characters—to her city, where she stages them in their fantastical costumes against the grey tones of the industrial metropolis. “All of Cao Fei’s protagonists are engaged in role-playing games of one kind or another,” Miller says, “trying on different identities, and using these guises to escape or more fully enter their own personal versions of the real.”
The dystopian landscape of Guangzhou has also had a profound influence on Cao Fei, and provided the inspiration for another of her major works, La Town (2014). In the film noir-esque work, Cao uses the constructed environment of a mythical town and its architecture to comment on the life of its inhabitants and their interactions with each other. With the structures of their society literally dismantled, her miniature protagonists are destabilized and liberated at the same time. Exotic animals, floods, a dilapidated McDonald’s, wrecked cars, and rubble populate their tiny world. This time, “real” people are replaced by a pristine, beautifully rendered fiction that draws on cinematic tropes and the social network Second Life. In a further layer, the artist purchased figurines online and distressed them by hand—adding a quality of decay to something new to make the fiction believable.
There’s an impulse in Cao Fei’s work to access the invisible—desires, thoughts, fantasies, and feelings that are often repressed by individual fear, societal pressures, or government policy. She often returns to middlebrow culture and middle-class workers, whose lives are considered the most mundane: comfortable but controlled. For her acclaimed film Whose Utopia? (2006), Cao examined the lives of workers at a lighting factory, interviewing them and then collaborating with them on performances through which they acted out their own personal fantasies through dance or music. Once again, Cao suggests, in uncertain times, it’s poetry that survives—and that enables human survival.