Female artists featured in Prestel’s 2009 text, Young Chinese Artists: The Next Generation — Part II: Cao Fei
Cao Fei offers an exemplary character study for the possibilities open to young female artists. She has made high waves in international and domestic circles since earning her BFA from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2001. Her work is often credited as being some of the best that the post-1975 generation has produced, as well as representational of the creative strengths of contemporary Chinese art in general. She has had influential supporters, such as super-star curators Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich-Obrist, even before she finished school. Take for example, this quote from an article entitled The World According to Cao Fei:
…the curator Hans Ulrich-Obrist says the young supergirl ‘has developed an expansive oeuvre of theatrical performance, photography, writing, sound pieces, short film and even a feature length production” that reminds him of a young Robert Rauschenberg.’
The editors of Young Chinese Artists describe the varied mediums and socially conscious viewpoint that have made up her work in the last decade, as well as the dark, introspective piece, Room 807 (2002), which they rightly point out is seldom included in surveys of her work.
Unfortunately, there is no interview included in their portrait of Cao, so the editors include quotes from other interviews with the artist. Still, the interviews they include are notable (e.g. a 2007 interview with curator Hou Hanru). It would have been interesting to see what this poster child of generational talent would say in a body of work full of the words and works of her generation, especially since she often has a critical eye on the construction of realities among the techno-centric youth of China’s rapidly altered urban environments.
The editors sum up her work clearly and concisely (something which is sometimes lacking in the flourishes of art criticism):
Cao Fei’s art has become increasingly challenging, demanding, and socially engaging over the past ten years of her career. Her playful joggling of realistic fantasies and fantastic realities makes her work most pertinent to actual life experiences in contemporary China, something often lost in the staggering numbers of economic growth and the cant governmental promises of an Utopian future where everyone’s life will be better the next day.
This afternoon, I saw Cao’s video triptych, Whose Utopia at the Henry Art Gallery. The twenty minute piece is incredibly moving (also great to sit in a dark air-conditioned room during the heatwave that has been raging in Seattle). I watched it twice, and not just for the free a/c. The first part, Imagination is Product, is visually interesting, but topically numbing, which is an appropriate portrait of the mechanical repitition required in professional factory life. Countless identical light bulbs get produced largely by machines. Then the human workers–mostly young, mostly female–take over to perform those tasks that are not well suited to machines. The central aspect of this labor seems to be quality control. One worker pushes bulb after bulb onto a conduit to test them. Cao shows her face lit up over and over again, as the woman stares into the light. One can only imagine the headaches that this induces. The sequence title is fitting since it was imagination that resulted in machinized labor, and it was imagination that led Deng Xiaoping to open China to commercial possibilities and to build large factories on which the world would come to rely. In the end, imagination turned into products, in this case lightbulbs, sent abroad by the boatload to light homes, businesses, and cars. These young workers traded rigid tradition and parental supervision, for a lonely sort of freedom as cogs inside of concrete buildings. Cao was born in Guangzhou, the capital city of the province in which the OSRAM lighting factory sits. This area had one of the first of China’s national economic developments zones: the Guangzhou Economic and Technological Development Zone. As such, this city and the surrounding towns are intimately connected to the social instability that accompanies China’s rapid economic growth. Cao has rythmically portrayed the disconnect between the dreams of youth looking to factory jobs for economic and social freedom, and the true quality of life that these workers experience.
I must also make a note particular to the Henry set-up: the designers chose two facing galleries to present Cao’s video and that of her co-artist in this exhibit, Yang Fudong. This layout is ideal since the co-curators of the exhibit, Heather Lineberry and Marylin Zeitlin, chose the two partly because the artists are different enough in style, age, and gender to represent the spectrum of contemporary Chinese art. However, the speakers in both galleries were placed just inside the door so that sounds from the opposing gallery constantly leaked into the other, and could be heard even when one was not near the entrance. This may have been caused by differences between what Henry staff wanted to accomplish, and what building and budget conditions enabled them to accomplish, and I am not meaning to criticise without some understanding. It really is a shame, however, because the simple presentation of the videos–one screen, one bench, no text inside the room–was perfect, and perfectly spoiled by the noise pollution.