Cao Fei, Nova, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 109 minutes 53 seconds.

Cao Fei, Nova, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 109 minutes 53 seconds.

Cao Fei

Recently asked what the world would look like in 2050, Cao Fei answered: “A democratic China presides over its global hegemony, as flights from New York to Beijing take thirty-nine minutes. Aliens have made first and friendly contact. I gladly sign a confidential agreement to participate in Hans Ulrich Obrist’s last project, which will send my remains to Mars.” Despite the Mars flight and aliens, this vision is hardly science fiction. In fact, Cao is putting a Chinese spin on a well-worn formula, one where state power cloaks itself in the language of democracy: the Washington Consensus.

In what ways can “Cao Fei: Staging the Era” be said to have accomplished the epochal aims of its title? The answer, of course, depends on how one understands the act of staging: Is it the dramatization of a mythic national history à la Richard Wagner? If so, then Cao is one of China’s most compelling dramaturges. But if staging means something more Brechtian—the sowing of doubts and ironies—then Cao falters. Apparently, she would rather not risk offending viewers from the country she documents.

Consider, for example, that the artist’s best-known film, Whose Utopia, 2006, vividly imagines factory workers’ psychic lives—a young girl on the assembly line transforms midway into a winged ballerina—but fails to link this humanizing gesture to a history of dehumanizing labor conditions in China, where construction workers sometimes leap off cranes to protest their unpaid wages. Consider also that Asia One, 2018, an Adam, Eve, and HAL 9000 parable of the last remaining beings in a fully automated world, fails to account for underclasses on which most “automated” settings depend for their smooth functioning (the sleek shared bikes that appear magically for professionals to use are actually carried there, off hours, by crews of migrant laborers). Notice that the giant inflatable octopus in this film comes across less as a nod to Frank Norris’s century-old symbol for monopoly capitalism than as a cute face for a contemporary version of the same phenomenon.

Some films from Cao’s early to middle career do seem eerily relevant to our current moment. In particular, Haze and Fog, 2013, is a highbrow version of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies genre of deadpan horror satire. In Cao’s film, a decadent middle class must confront the monstrous reality on which their privileged lives depend (colonialism for Regency-era England, class betrayal for postsocialist China). But these films are miscellaneous, never quite forming a more cohesive story. This dissimilarity is, of course, not a bad thing; a series of vignettes might be just as effective as a long novel. But the curatorial team, in collaboration with the artist, subsumed this earlier, scrappy, and off-kilter aesthetic into a high-budget installation that might as well have been called “Cao Fei: Cinematic Universe,” in which various props from Cao’s movies (the octopus from Asia One, delivery boxes from Whose Utopia, plastic watermelons from Haze and Fog) appeared in the exhibition space, the greater part of which had been transformed into a 1990s Cantonese night market, complete with palm trees and outdoor cafés.

Nova, 2019, is the artist’s highest-budget production to date. When Soviet funding for a time-travel project dries up, Chinese scientists are forced to use increasingly unethical means to continue their research. A father, one of the lead researchers, uses his son as a test subject, throwing the boy into a kind of wormhole to a different dimension, whose outer space he travels in an astronaut suit. He has forty years, the length of China’s postsocialist transition, to discover a way back; if he fails, the wormhole will close forever, trapping him. This is Cao’s foray into hauntology—apt, given widespread anxiety around China’s declining profit margins, slowing birth rates, and sense of impending deceleration. To understand such fears, however, one does not need a big-budget IMAX experience; one only needs to scroll through the comments on a Chinese web forum, resolutely pessimistic despite the high-flown official stories.