HANS-ULRICH OBRIST ON CAO FEI
CAO FEI IS A KEY MEMBER of
the vibrant new generation of Chinese artists emerging in the early
twenty-first century, a time marked by widespread optimism similar to that
which existed In the US in the 1950s and ’60s. As curator Hou Hanru has
remarked, most of them came of age in a world of electronic advertising and
imported entertainment ranging from Taiwanese television to American rap.
Although Influenced in their embrace of a variety of media by Chinese artists
in exile, such as Huang Yong Ping in
Born in 1978 in Guangzhou,
where she resides today, Cao Fei has developed an expansive oeuvre of
theatrical performance, photography, writing, sound pieces, short film, and
even a feature-length production. Indeed, the multiplicity of her practice
recalls that of the young Robert Rauschenberg—a model of the artist as both an
Inventor and explorer who with infinite curiosity act: as a witness of his or
her time. But a more apt comparison might be with Miranda July, who emerged
Cao Fei uses
More synthetic In scope than these previous works, the eight-minute video COSPlayers, 2004, (along with a related series of photographs) is both critical and spectacular, using pop culture as a bridge rather than as a simple reference In the ubiquitous orgy of appropriation and revival. The title refers to the subculture of costume play in which young men and women dress as Japanese anime characters and behave as their chosen avatars. Cloaked in black capes and metallic suits and wielding menacing weapons, which are supposed to give them magical powers, Cao Fei’s “COSPlayers” chase each other across the fields outside Guangzhou and stalk anonymous urban spaces. Along the way, the camera takes in enormous construction sites and herds of livestock, in an attempt to grasp the marvelous and strange contrasts in the heart of the real city.
Characterized by a temporal telescoping borrowed from the theater, the disjointed narrative is left suspended, and the film ends with the unlikely heroes returned to their homes, where, like ordinary teenagers, they eat and nap in the vicinity of their distracted parents. With COSPlayers, the fairy tale finds an ultra-contemporary aesthetic In Cao Fei’s experimental cinema, a world where anime flaneurs roam a fascinating and alienating environment of urban mutation.
Though rooted in daily
life, Cao Fei’s work evokes countless possibilities for social transformation.
This sociopolitical edge is particularly evident in the Da Zha Lan Project, a
research initiative undertaken by a loose collective of photographers, filmmakers,
and other volunteers, co-organized by Cao Fei. Examining one of the poorest
HANS-ULRICH OBRIST IS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR OF ARTFORUM