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Cao Fei’s retrospective exhibition in Beijing explores how China’s rapid social and economic changes affect ordinary people

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

A scene from short film Asia One

A scene from Nova

A scene from Whose Utopia

Cao Fei, an artist who has gained international recognition for her surreal depictions of China’s social changes, held her first solo show in her home country. Titled Staging the Era, the exhibition, which ran from March 12 to June 6 at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, is the 43-year-old artist’s largest retrospective, displaying all her major works over the past two decades across mediums from video and drama to installation art and virtual reality.  

The exhibition is presented like parallel universes where the past, present and future coexist and cultures mix, presenting the complex landscape of social change in China. Through her work, the artist examines China’s industrial, urban and technological development while peering into the future.  

Since garnering international attention as a 21-year-old art student with her first video piece Imbalance 257 (1999), Cao has broadened her palette in recording China’s changes and how they affect ordinary people.  

“What Cao’s works express is closely linked with China’s development. They become a valuable window for observing contemporary China. That’s why she managed to gain global attention so early,” said Guo Xi, director of exhibitions at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art.  

Human Touch 
The venue is alive with loud voices, palm trees and roadside food stands. Filtering between the flashing neon lights are visitors: young fans, amateur photographers, couples with kids in tow, and of course livestreamers.  

The resulting scene is more like a bustling narrow street in southern China than an art show. Unlike most retrospectives, Cao’s work is not presented chronologically. This allows visitors to begin Cao’s story wherever they want.  

Cao hopes to make her work more accessible and is interested in what people from all backgrounds can extract from it. Individual experience and perception is a reoccurring theme in Cao’s works, such as the dreamed romance of a milkman (Milkman, 2005), changes in the lives of people living in an urban village (San Yuan Li, 2003) or the everyday lives and dreams of factory workers (Whose Utopia, 2006).  

Cao was born in 1978 to artist parents who taught at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (GAFA). The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) had just ended, along with its previous restrictions on art. Feeling unfettered, artists like Cao’s parents plunged into creating and teaching art. The couple spent a lot of time touring the countryside, seeking inspiration from the lives of ordinary people. 

Cao often traveled with her parents to install her father’s sculptures. Wherever they went, the family lived with locals and learned their dialects. Among these places, a small fishing village in Guangdong Province stands out, Cao said. Her mother had lived there when she was younger and went back with young Cao after she became an art teacher. Her mother kept in contact over the years, making sketches for the villagers and exchanging letters after returning to Guangzhou.  

As an adult, Cao returned to the same village to paint, and learned that a young woman whom her mother sketched had become a grandmother. “We built relationships that span generations,” Cao told NewsChina.  

At the entrance of her latest exhibition, viewers enter the Artist’s Room, a small exhibition displaying Cao’s belongings, photos and paintings from her early years that tell the beginnings of her career and her artistic progression.  

Cao told NewsChina that she grew up watching her father, Cao Chongen, sculpt statues of famous figures in modern Chinese history such as Sun Yat-sen, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. Instead of toys, her mother gave her drawing pads. Her two elder sisters liked sketching, but Cao preferred telling stories through short graphic novels.  

But as a child, Cao felt her parents’ mediums were out of fashion. In the 1980s and 90s, Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop culture were all the rage in the Chinese mainland, and the southern city of Guangzhou, which was visibly benefiting from China’s reform and opening-up, was at the forefront of this cultural influx. At a time when the majority of Chinese mainlanders had never seen a fashion magazine, 13-year-old Cao was already a regular reader of teen Hong Kong magazines like Yes! and Sister’s Pictorial.  

She drew comic strips of TV stars in the margins of her school workbooks and spent the money her parents gave her on breakdancing classes. She practiced the moves with friends and taught her classmates, and then organized a performance at her school. She recorded all these fun moments, first on film, then digitally. These were Cao’s first serious attempts at art. Unlike her parents, she chose mediums such as hip-hop dance, photography and video, all new arrivals to China’s thriving market economy.  

Recording Reality 
In 1999, Cao Fei, then a sophomore at GAFA, shot her first serious video work, Imbalance 257. The stream-of-consciousness piece depicts a group of art students who are at a loss about their future after graduation. Chen Tong, a teacher at GAFA and founder of noted independent bookstore Borges Libreria in Guangzhou, passed the short film to Hou Hanru, a Guangzhou art curator who was living in France. Hou invited her to put on a show in Spain, Cao said, which launched her international art career.  

At that time, many Chinese artists born in the 1950s and 1960s, including Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun, had already won international recognition for their politically charged works. But Cao brought a strong sense of individuality and playfulness to contemporary Chinese art. At a seminar Chen Tong held for Imbalance 257 in 1999, some artists and critics said that Cao’s work marked a clear divergence from the previous generation of artists and employed a postmodern application of historical symbols.  

The art community was taking her work seriously, something the 21-year-old Cao found extremely flattering, she told NewsChina.  

In 2000, Cao’s video work Chain Reaction, which takes inspiration from medical science shows yet presents operating room scenes in a menacing way, was acquired by Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China and one of the most influential collectors of Chinese contemporary art. That same year, she participated in a controversial avant-garde art exhibition in Shanghai curated by artist Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi that ran alongside the Third Shanghai Biennale (2000). The show challenged the art establishment and authorities while stressing the independent and critical roles of artists. From there, invitations for shows came pouring in from home and abroad that allowed her to make a living from art.  

In the late 1990s, market-oriented print media was thriving, and reports on people’s livelihoods and everyday experiences helped Cao see a new side to Guangzhou, the place she grew up. She shifted her focus from the bewilderment and restlessness of young people to include a wider swath of social concerns. Guangzhou became the source of her inspiration.  

In 2003, Cao collaborated with established poet and curator Ou Ning on experimental documentary San Yuan Li. The film recorded the changes in a village in northern Guangzhou of the same name during the intense urbanization of the area, exploring the conflicts between modernization and traditional cultures.  

Turning her lens to the factories of the Pearl River Delta, Cao went to a light bulb factory in Foshan, Guangdong Province in 2005. She stayed for six months, living with the workers in their dorm. Seeking to explore how China’s economic transition had influenced individuals, she filmed the workers’ lives and documented their dreams. The result was short film Whose Utopia (2006), which highlighted the sharp contrasts between reality and the dreams of people living at the bottom rungs of society. Memorable scenes include a middle-aged factory worker moonwalking past assembly lines, and a young woman who gave up on her dreams to put her brother through school, twirling in the warehouse in a peacock-print dance skirt.  

These concerns also saw her focus on the lives of delivery workers and couriers during China’s e-commerce and industrial automation boom. In short film Asia One (2018), which is part of a greater art project of the same name, Cao tells the romantic story between a young man and woman who are the only human workers in a vast warehouse run by intelligent machines.  

Time Travel 
After Whose Utopia, Cao moved her studio to Beijing, which was teeming with artists from around the country in the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games.  

In 2007, Cao was invited to the 52nd Venice Biennale to show i.Mirror, her documentary about the experiences of her virtual identity on Second Life, an online virtual world popular at the time.  

Playing the character “China Tracy,” Cao built a virtual city named RMB City full of landmark architecture such as the Bird’s Nest and CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, and Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower. Her expansive RMB City reflected the surge in land development and real estate around 2008. Cao spent years curating her virtual city in Second Life, on which she based a series of work. 

Cao said that her ongoing virtual project accurately reflects how people live today. “Now we spend so much time online, communicating, shopping and reading that our online lives may have become our ‘first life’ while real life is our ‘second life,’” Cao told NewsChina.  

After becoming a mother in 2009, Cao said she began seeing the world from a broader perspective. Her recent works blur the lines between past, present and future and the boundaries between reality and illusion. “It might be the best way to view time, not taking the present as the present or taking the future as the future,” Cao said. “In this way, people will not get too obsessed about a thing and feel more detached about many problems.”  

In her short film Haze & Fog (2013), which she calls a “zombie flick,” Cao tells of the dark struggles of people in society who are hidden in plain sight: a sex-starved security guard, a young man who fails to achieve his dreams and idles away his time, a janitor who does yoga in high heels stolen from her employer. While they ultimately turn into zombies, Cao’s work suggests that the characters may have been dead inside from the start.  

She continues these explorations in retro sci-fi short film Nova (2019). Set in the fictional town of Nova, the film follows a computer scientist working on a secret project – turning humans into a digital medium that can intercept and collect data. Eager to make a breakthrough, the scientist experiments on his own son. It ends in disaster – his son becomes trapped in cyberspace desperately trying to connect with human existence.  

The film makes the main body of Cao’s HX project featuring Hongxia Theater, a former factory-owned venue in Beijing’s Jiuxianqiao community, the cradle of China’s computer industry. Built in 1958, Hongxia Theater was closed in 2008 and once served as Cao’s studio space in 2015. Besides Nova, HX includes a documentary of the same name and displays the history of the community’s computer labs and State-owned power plants that closed in the early 1990s. “HX allows people to see hope while making them feel wistful about history,” Cao said.  

While she focuses on the plights of ordinary people, Cao is not beholden to a particular school of thought or adverse to commercial opportunity. She has worked with brands like BMW and Prada and has collaborated with pop idols like Cai Xukun (aka KUN). She employs the symbolism and cultural elements of the previous generation of artists with the pop culture awareness of artists born in the 1980s.  

Cao sees herself as belonging to neither generation. She shies away from grand narratives and spotlights the isolated experiences of individuals with work that is both critical and playful. “It was neither school nor contemporary art but her sense of time that has brought her such success, said Chen Tong at the opening ceremony of Staging the Era. 

Cao Fei