Cao Fei

Shadow Life
Chinese, born 1978

10:00 min., b&w, sound
Courtesy of Cao Fei and Vitamin Creative Space

Beijing-based multimedia artist Cao Fei often explores ways to escape the difficulties of everyday life and enter a fantasy world. However, in her video Shadow Life (2011) Cao created fantastical imagery to explore life’s challenges, particularly those experienced in a rapidly changing China. Inspired by her childhood memory of the televised Chinese Spring Festival Gala, Shadow Life comprises three chapters of stark, black-and-white imagery performed by shadow puppets. The segments combine to present a playful yet profound reflection on the simultaneous development and dehumanization of modern China.

The first vignette, “A Rock,” shows a small object being passed between animals that imagine it to be their favorite food until a hunter abruptly shoots and ends the exchange. The hunter sees the object as a piece of gold and gives it to a blind man who offers it to the Bodhisattva in exchange for sight. He then sees that the object is merely a rock. The following segment, “The Dictator,” opens with an enthusiastic, but ominous, political rally that leads to the strangling of animals and flattening of trees. Waving flags are erected and a series of dictatorial quotes scroll down the screen. Finally, in “Transmigration,” we see animals and people dislocated by excavating equipment. Villagers wander through barren landscapes searching for each other until they and the animals reunite in the final scene.

In addition to shadow puppetry, Cao Fei’s practice includes video, photography, performance, installation, and internet-based art. Born in 1978 in Guangzhou, China, she received a BFA from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2001. In 2006, Cao moved to Beijing where she lives with her husband, Singaporean artist Lim Tzay Chuen, and their two children. Being in a new city with few familiar faces, Cao started to focus on her own and others’ exploration of desires and perception of themselves, especially in relation to everyday realities.

Previously, she produced Rabid Dogs (2002), a video that skewers the growing consumerism in China. In it, business people dressed in Burberry’s tartan plaid crawl on all fours behaving like dogs as they reenact a hysteric day in the office. The video COSPlayers (2004) also reflects on costumed actors, but in a much more compassionate manner. It features young men and women who engage in COSPlay (a Japanese subculture, and short for Costume Play) and dress like their favorite manga and anime characters. Cao shows them at play in mock battles as well as at home with their families still in costume, thereby demonstrating the degrees of difference between generations and within families in China as well as the intense desire of many young adults to escape from reality and immerse themselves in fantasies.

Whose Utopia? (2006) also investigates the playing out of fantasies in a lighting manufacturing plant in China’s Pearl River Delta. The video shows employees performing their dreams of being a ballerina, rock star, or break-dancer on the factory floor as their co-workers continue their routine tasks. Whose Utopia? appears hopeful and inspiring just as it affirms the stark contrast of the performers’ dreams from their realities. Similarly, the videos made upon Cao’s arrival in Beijing suggest her own need to escape everyday life.

In 2007, she extended her art to the virtual world Second Life, where she created the avatar China Tracy. Soon Tracy became romantically involved with another avatar, Hug Yue, the experience of which Cao Fei documented in her 2007 video i.Mirror. She also represented the building and development of an elaborate urban virtual city and all the challenges such an endeavor entails in RMB City (2007), which opened to the public in 2009. While echoing China’s explosive property market, RMB City also functions “like an artist’s residency in the virtual world” according to Cao, who has created videos, games, and performances there.

Recently, Cao has explored another aspect of youth culture—that of children, through iconic toys and cartoon imagery. Her East Wind video from 2011 takes a Chinese-manufactured Dong Feng truck (literally "East Wind" truck) used to deliver refuse from construction sites to garbage dumps and superimposes the smile of Thomas, the British cartoon train engine, on its grill. Adults and children alike stare or smile at it and share their observations of the grinning dump truck throughout its journey for the day. Although Mao once claimed, “East wind prevails over west wind,” Cao suggests that today the power relationship is uncertain and perhaps irrelevant in the everyday lives and entertainments of Chinese citizens. The PostGarden photographic series (2011) also is based on another popular British program, “In the Night Garden,” a surreal, Teletubby-like adventure show. Cao takes the CBeebies of the BBC out of their garden paradise and follows their search for a new world. However, they wind up in much less magical surroundings, and even figure as a band of derelicts living under a bridge. Thus, to both entertaining and sobering effect, Cao continues to employ popular cultural forms to encourage us to confront the reality of our fantasies. Kanitra Fletcher