Delirium and Dystopia: Looking at the Work of China’s Most Important Artist

Film still from Cao Fei, Asia One (2018) depicting a large inflatable octopus at a package sorting line.

Cao Fei (b. 1976) is a multimedia artist born in Guangzhou. Characterised by Fine Art Multiple as an enfant terrible due to the eccentricity of her work, she is at the forefront of China’s booming contemporary art scene. Having been named by Artsy China’s most important artist, much of her work is owned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. She has exhibited solo in more than fifteen cities. 

Cao Fei’s work deals primarily with worldbuilding and utopian visions. In a recent exhibition at Hyde Park’s Serpentine Gallery, she made use of virtual reality to transport us into a China of several decades prior. The room The Eternal Wave (2020) was situated in reflected her studio – the lobby of a building that was formerly Beijing’s Hongxia Theatre. Entering the double doors of the exhibition, one was ironically presented with the theatre’s original front desk, complete with worn mahogany front panels, and a tacky sign in Mandarin plastered to the wall behind. A touch of surrealism was used to invert the theme of the exhibition space. With their pristine white walls and bare floors, exhibition spaces usually try to shrink their presence away from the eye, and make the objects displayed within them appear uncontextualized. Instead, Fei invited you to explore a space that gives deep context to her work – it was both her studio, and an architectural manifestation of the era in which she grew up. The studio was also filled with books, documents, and pamphlets that referenced the emergence of the electronics industry after the Cultural Revolution, an event that occurred during her childhood. There was a distinct homeliness to this collection – it would feel natural to pick up the books and leaf through them. However, kept closed and sheltered behind glass, their generic titles offered little information about the era they were supposed to portray. 

Film still from Cao Fei, Asia One (2018), in which a woman has her head on a cluttered desk with a anthropomorphic robot behind her

The bulk of Fei’s work involves video and photography; the former is her forte. Asia One (2018) is an installation that features films about a fictional building complex of the same name. “Asia One” is purportedly ‘Asia’s first fully automated warehouse’ and is based on an actual site in China. The warehouse hosts two employees for system maintenance. They appear to be father and daughter, and the latter spends most of her time being looked after by a mother-like robot. Like RMB city (2008), a virtual place built in the online world of Second Life, Asia One dwells on the dichotomy of utopia and dystopia. Cao shows its dehumanising extremes by giving us silence where there would otherwise be language: the two-member family exchanges not a single word during the days or months of unmeasured time captured inside the warehouse. At one point, the father finds momentary relief from his continuous work schedule and stands beside the half-estranged daughter, smoking a cigarette as she eats. Yet he regards her with the same observational eye as he does the surroundings. Cold and disengaged gazes are replicated throughout Fei’s photographic work. 

Cao Fei, Nova 18a, 2019, C-print: a man sits at a desk, separated by a wall from a person in an astronaut suit

To Fei, utopian visions don’t leave room for fulfilment. They exclude humans, treating them as parts of the broken systems that utopianism seeks to reform. In an augmented reality version (2020) of The Eternal Wave, developed in response to coronavirus restrictions, we meet another attention-deprived individual. A virtual boy asks if you’ve seen his father, as a half-smoked cigarette burns ominously in an ashtray on the table next to him. His father, as it turns out, is embarking on a mission across time and space to save him. Moving to another part of the exhibit, we see the man climbing out of the Hongxia theatre’s kitchen sink in a space suit. In the film Nova (2019), however, Cao reverses the dynamic. A computer programmer father, working on a secret international project to turn humans into digital objects, accidentally banishes his son to a spacetime dead zone when an experiment goes wrong. This prevents them from ever being able to see each other again. But whilst the boy yearns for reconciliation, the father continues through life seemingly unaffected. Regardless, the corporation financing the project goes bankrupt, and as such, the boy cannot be saved. He is a victim of market forces, but also utopian vision. Like the Great Leap Forward, the project’s vision put technological and social advancement ahead of responsibility towards human life.

To Fei, utopian visions don’t leave room for fulfilment. They exclude humans, treating them as parts of the broken systems that utopianism seeks to reform.

Economic themes crop up as by-products of Fei’s primary subject matter. Former president Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989) was able to co-opt Western capitalism in a way that grew China’s productive capabilities, without sacrificing Chinese Communist Party power. This success was built partly on a lopsided economic relationship with the West, in which China manufactured for and sold to the West but denied Western companies access to domestic markets. The automated warehouse of Asia One epitomises this: box after cardboard box is expelled from the warehouse, but nothing ever comes in. 

Film still from Cao Fei, La Town (2014) showing a traffic jam of miniature cars in a model town

The broad cultural critique that occupies much of Fei’s oeuvre is fleshed out in a way that seems to leave little room for hope. Yet the gloominess of her more powerful works is offset by a delirious playfulness in others. La Town (2014) is a comedic take on the Hollywood action movie, which uses static shots of dioramas to construct a narrative. These apocalyptic miniature scenes are accompanied by hyper-dramatized music and intentionally crude lighting effects, satirising the artlessness of big-budget films and the practice of building suspense. Haze and Fog (2013) also depicts zombies but goes further than La Town’s brain-eaters, depicting those of the emotionless, postmodern kind too. A woman sitting on a dining chair screams in pain from labour, whilst a man putts a golf ball around the bare room unconcerned. In another scene, a cyclist crosses an intersection and gets hit by a car. A man stands on the pavement adjacent, holding up an advertisement for a business. He looks back disinterestedly, and then ignores the injured cyclist. These almost comical instances of emotional disregard are reminiscent of the films of Yorgos Lanthimos (b. 1973), but Fei multiplies the absurdity through bizarre representations of artistic spontaneity – the woman that tangos passionately in a supermarket aisle whilst picking items off the shelves, or the garishly clad dancers that choreograph their way around the warehouse in some scenes of Asia One. Some of them, like the giant inflatable octopus that features in a couple of scenes from that warehouse, are hard to take seriously.

Cao Fei, Cosplayers Series: A Ming at Home (2004)

Only, we are meant to think that way: Cao utilises strangeness to emphasize the incongruity of radical artistic expression with the stoic and “serious” environments within which it occurs. Her desire to reveal a ‘magical reality’ brings her to film Cosplayers (2004), in which – you guessed it – extravagantly clad cosplayers pose in fairly ordinary places throughout Guangzhou. One brandishes a scythe in the middle of a normal street, whilst another lies on a grassy riverbank clad head to toe in purple. A mock fight on an empty commuter train, one of the few non-static scenes, is deliberately over-acted.

In one of her essays, the academic Frenchy Lunning argues that cosplay makes use of the same techniques of exaggeration, parody, and hypertrophied gender codes as campness does. Referencing the psychoanalytic theory of Félix Guattari, she gives the moniker “transversal moments” to the temporary dialectical stabilities that such techniques create. Transversal moments, Gary Genosko writes, are ‘autopoetic virtual[s]’, in which the subject is ‘freed from the impasse of interiority…towards collective identity beyond the bourgeois individual, family and workplace’. Such virtuals are what Cao needs for creativity to escape from the repressive conditions of modern life. Accordingly, her “grand commentary” on technology, which parallels Johann Fichte’s triadic idea of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, has three interlocking facets. One, the ideology of perfection that drives technological progress. Two, the resultant repression of the “natural” character of being (what the philosopher Heidegger might call dasein). Three, the instances of artistic expression that spring forth from this. Because of the conditions within which they are produced, this synthetic expression is spontaneous, artificial, and contains more than a touch of insanity. 

The humour with which she depicts the shifting divide between virtual and real, artificial and authentic, is refreshing; and evermore relevant as we enter the 2020s.

Cao Fei once called one of her pieces “a view of schizophrenia”. It would be hard to argue that her oeuvre is anything less than diverse, intense, and quite often puzzling. But although her visions may be bleak, they are also beautiful. The humour with which she depicts the shifting divide between virtual and real, artificial and authentic, is refreshing; and evermore relevant as we enter the 2020s. If she is emblematic of modern art is to come from China, then I am quite sure we have ourselves in for a treat.

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