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”