PRINT January 2006

Cao Fei

CAO FEI IS A KEY MEMBER of the vibrant new generation of Chinese artists emerging in the early twenty-first century, a time marked by widespread optimism similar to that which existed in the US in the 1950s and ’60s. As curator Hou Hanru has remarked, most of them came of age in a world of electronic advertising and imported entertainment ranging from Taiwanese television to American rap. Although influenced in their embrace of a variety of media by Chinese artists in exile, such as Huang Yong Ping in Paris or Cai-Guo Qiang in New York, the members of the younger generation have chosen to remain at home, where they have capitalized on the new availability and ease of use of digital video technologies. Working outside the context of state-controlled TV and film, these figures (including Cao Fei, Yang Fudong, and Kan Xuan) have forged interdisciplinary and often collaborative projects to document and negotiate the new social realities of daily life.

Born in 1978 in Guangzhou, where she resides today, Cao Fei has developed an expansive oeuvre of theatrical performance, photography, writing, sound pieces, short film, and even a feature-length production. Indeed, the multiplicity of her practice recalls that of the young Robert Rauschenberg—a model of the artist as both an inventor and explorer who with infinite curiosity acts as a witness of his or her time. But a more apt comparison might be with Miranda July, who emerged simultaneously in Portland, Oregon. Like her, Cao Fei began writing plays in her teens, spurring what would become a complex, “postmedium” oscillation between different specialties. Both women espouse a DIY ethic and defy easy categorization, in contrast with the artists of the late 1980s and early ’90s who tended to be identified with specific artistic milieus. What is particularly fascinating about their two practices is the tight relationship between spoken word, fixed scene, and moving image, recalling Jacques Rancière’s desire to “criticize the vision of artistic modernity, which would say that everybody is in their own place with their own medium and their own language.”

Cao Fei uses Guangzhou as a nexus, or device, for organizing her interdisciplinary activities: With its dynamic structural changes, the city has acted as both a trigger and a backdrop for her work. In 2005, for example, she developed a new theater project for the second Guangzhou Triennale, a work she described as “a fluid drama” chronicling the ever-accelerating life on the Pearl River Delta. Her earlier video Oasis shows a man smiling at strangers amid the totally indifferent urban environment, while the more recent Hip Hop, 2003, captures construction workers and a policeman moving strangely to a steady rhythm (their awkwardness evoking the early days of MTV).

More synthetic in scope than these previous works, the eight-minute video COSPlayers, 2004, (along with a related series of photographs) is both critical and spectacular, using pop culture as a bridge rather than as a simple reference in the ubiquitous orgy of appropriation and revival. The title refers to the subculture of costume play in which young men and women dress as Japanese anime characters and behave as their chosen avatars. Cloaked in black capes and metallic suits and wielding menacing weapons, which are supposed to give them magical powers, Cao Fei’s “COSplayers” chase each other across the fields outside Guangzhou and stalk anonymous urban spaces. Along the way, the camera takes in enormous construction sites and herds of livestock, in an attempt to grasp the marvelous and strange contrasts in the heart of the real city. Characterized by a temporal telescoping borrowed from the theater, the disjointed narrative is left suspended, and the film ends with the unlikely heroes returned to their homes, where, like ordinary teenagers, they eat and nap in the vicinity of their distracted parents. With COSPlayers, the fairy tale finds an ultra-contemporary aesthetic in Cao Fei’s experimental cinema, a world where anime flaneurs roam a fascinating and alienating environment of urban mutation.

Though rooted in daily life, Cao Fei’s work evokes countless possibilities for social transformation. This sociopolitical edge is particularly evident in the Da Zha Lan Project, a research initiative undertaken by a loose collective of photographers, filmmakers, and other volunteers, co-organized by Cao Fei. Examining one of the poorest neighborhoods in Beijing, the group documents the evolving negotiations between traditional life and impending modernity in an area where the population density can reach a staggering forty-five thousand people per square kilometer. The project is part of a series of research and film works on the theme of Chinese urbanization and social organization, which originated with the San Yuan Li Project (shown in 2003 at the Venice Biennale) and which will culminate in 2006 with a new study in Shanghai. The group’s efforts will be showcased in May at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, providing yet another window onto Cao Fei’s protean shuttling among media—and on the complicated reciprocities between her documentary work and more fantastic modes.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist is a contributing editor of Artforum.