Cao Fei

Hong Kong Tatler - - Features -

The artist greets us in the lobby of her or­nate, quirky stu­dio, an aban­doned 1960s cinema in one of Bei­jing’s outer sub­urbs. You’d be for­given for think­ing you’d stepped onto the set of a Wes An­der­son film—ev­ery inch cries out to be pho­tographed. Cao Fei and her team painstak­ingly re­stored the space, de­tail­ing and paint­ing the walls in mint green and pink, and restor­ing the kitchen in a kitschy throw­back to a ’60s home cat­a­logue. The 37-year-old mul­ti­me­dia artist ex­plains, “This build­ing will be de­mol­ished soon—the whole area will be de­mol­ished to make room, to make more money. I wanted to pro­duce some­thing here be­fore they do that.” Her space echoes a sim­i­lar aes­thetic in her video works; a com­bi­na­tion of the mun­dane and the cin­e­matic gives it a po­etic, nos­tal­gic qual­ity.

Cao is ac­knowl­edged as one of the key artists of a new gen­er­a­tion emerg­ing in China. Her work has long dealt with is­sues of ur­ban mod­erni­sa­tion and its im­pli­ca­tions, both so­cially and on the in­di­vid­ual. She mixes so­cial com­men­tary with ref­er­ences from pop cul­ture and art his­tory to re­flect on the rapid changes oc­cur­ring in Chi­nese so­ci­ety to­day. “A lot of my works have to do with im­por­tant junc­tures in time and are a way of record­ing life,” she ex­plains. “All the films show some­thing of what is hap­pen­ing now with glob­al­i­sa­tion and the in­ter­net, the changes brought about by th­ese things and how China is in­ter­act­ing with the world.”

The dis­con­nect be­tween re­al­ity and fan­tasy fea­tures heav­ily in Cao’s work. Her 2006 film Whose Utopia? de­picts the monotony of the lives of as­sem­bly-line work­ers in a light­ing fac­tory in the Pearl River Delta con­trasted with their as­pi­ra­tions and dreams. Sim­i­larly, Cos­play (2004), shot in her home­town of Guangzhou, fea­tures a group of teenagers dress­ing up in anime cos­tumes, tak­ing on the spe­cial su­per­pow­ers of their char­ac­ters in a world of their own cre­ation. This is set against scenes of their home lives, where they are lonely and dis­tant from their fam­i­lies, im­pris­oned in the mun­dane re­al­ity of claus­tro­pho­bic ur­ban life.

“THIS BUILD­ING WILL BE DE­MOL­ISHED SOON TO MAKE MORE ROOM, TO MAKE MORE MONEY. I WANT TO PRO­DUCE SOME­THING HERE BE­FORE THEY DO THAT”

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