It is fitting that Cao Fei’s studio is housed in an abandoned 1970s Beijing movie theater slated for demolition. Upon entering, one is greeted by musty light and a long hallway mirror emblazoned in bold red characters, the favored typography for official slogans: “The arts are the torch of the national spirit [and] the bugle of advancement of our times.” The outmoded socialist banner somehow jibes with the spirit of a Contemporary artist whose works look relentlessly forward as much as they look sharply inward. Cao’s oeuvre is saturated with dreams and anxieties, whether of marginalized youth living on the outskirts of a city, Internet users who live second lives online, or alienated workers. Each multimedia piece envelops the viewer in a fantastical world, recognizable by way of cultural symbols and landmarks but operating in its own alternative logic. Cao Fei’s newest, hugely ambitious work “Asia One” (2018) is set in a futuristic packing warehouse, where human workers find themselves in cyclical ecstasy, bewilderment, numbness and despair. Commissioned for the group exhibition “One Hand Clapping” at the Guggenheim in New York, “Asia One” is an immersive meditation on what is gained and lost in the changing landscape of technology and labor.
Cao was born in 1978 in Guangzhou, one of China’s earliest international port cities. Her father, Cao Chong’en, was a working artist known for sculpting busts of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Under Deng’s economic reforms, which began when Cao Fei was still a toddler, Cao’s hometown saw a manufacturing boom as hundreds of factories sprang from farmland to produce everything from shoes to toys to, eventually, iPhones. As a young artist in 2006, Cao was given access by the German multinational Siemens to a light bulb factory in nearby Dongguan. She spent six months running art workshops — as well as slurping instant ramen noodles and singing karaoke — with factory workers. By the end of her time there, Cao collaborated with the workers to produce the video installation “Whose Utopia (2006),” a “factory fairytale” in which Cao invited workers to act out their dreams to the backdrop of their assembly lines. A dancer tiptoes across a floor of clicking machines, a bespectacled boy plucks at the bass guitar. At the end, the workers declare, “My future is not a dream.” Whimsical and earnest, and humming with longing, the piece ultimately illuminated a sense of humanity on the factory’s whirring floors.
When I mentioned “Whose Utopia” in a recent interview, Cao’s face brightened. She said that for the 10- year anniversary of the exhibition in 2016, one of the female protagonists, the dancer, was interviewed by the press. The woman cried when she recognized her 18-year-old self in the old video. “She told the press that our project had opened a window beyond these four walls, the closed universe of the factory,” said Cao. After the project ended, the girl left to go to college, study English, became a translator, and gradually worked her way up to become a CEO. “After hearing this, I felt that this work is alive,” Cao said. While Cao has her personal stake in social issues, she takes great pains to distinguish herself from an activist or documentarian: “Sometimes I also make art that is abstract, or self-centered,” she said, adding: “What sets an artist apart from a socially conscious public intellectual is that the latter must be total and accurate in reflection of societal events.”
“For me,” Cao continued, “my positions are born from a private language. Their goal is to open a window, a hole; perhaps they stir a public issue, but I still want to approach the topic as an artist. As an artist, your language is free.” I met Cao at the Guggenheim, where the group exhibition of five Chinese artists “One Hand Clapping” is on view until October 21. Forty years old this year, with two young children, Cao has matured to tackle issues with increasing complexity and nuance. She has an affinity for black hoodies and colorful scarves. When she meets me, she wears asymmetrical earrings: one a circular disk, another long rectangular prism. Despite having given countless interviews, she puts on no airs, speaking plainly yet passionately.
“Asia One (2018),” her multimedia installation at the show, immediately harkens back to “Whose Utopia” as its conceptual predecessor. This time, the Siemens light bulb factory is swapped out for the packaging warehouse of the Chinese online shopping company Jingdong. Once again, Cao has convinced a behemoth business to open its doors to her artistic blend of surrealistic storytelling in real-world places. “To invent a fake company, anybody could do that. But to implant yourself into a real company, that is challenging,” said Cao. Jingdong, virtually unknown to those outside China, completed 1.6 billion orders in 2016, earning a place in the Fortune Global 500 with $55.7 billion in revenue in 2017. Jingdong is also beginning a partnership with the social media giant Tencent, combining users’ consumer behavior data with social media data for complete shopper profiles. It is also testing the world’s largest-scale drone delivery network. None of this has escaped Cao’s shrewd eye for science-fiction-like plotlines. “Asia One” can be conceptually divided into two parts, built on dramatic contradictions. The first is between the joys of earning money for one’s family and the joy of spending time with them, the two of which are always at odds for the migrant worker. This tug-of-war of desire is manifested in the objects of labor overlaid with memorabilia from home and conflicting motivational slogans. The second contradiction, chronicled in the video installation, is of the macroscopic relationship between humans and technology in the near future.
Walking into the room, one is greeted immediately by real artefacts: a real Jingdong delivery motorcycle alongside real motorcycle helmets, packing tape, and the ID badge of a worker. On the wall, a banner reads, “Do you have nothing to do at work?” Beneath it, banners goad workers to in turn “think when you last sent your parents money,” “think about your rent,” and “think about the people you love.” The final banner reads, “Now do you have things to do?” Inside the delivery motorcycle hangs a red velvet Santa Claus suit, perhaps one of the most co-opted symbols of global consumerism. “Our country has come a long way since socialist times, when you got the same paycheck regardless of how many hours you work,” said Cao. “These migrant laborers who come to the city to deliver for Jingdong push themselves to work around the clock.” She added “They live in tiny boxes because they come to the city to save up money, but they can earn 8,000 RMB per month doing deliveries, as much as a college professor!”
The floor-to-ceiling screen plays a video, over an hour long, on loop, lending the room an eerie yet grandiose soundtrack. The video is set inside Jingdong’s real packaging plant, in which humans are few amidst whirring conveyor belts, robotic arms, and beeping robots. A hanging red banner declares: “Man and machine go hand in hand and create miracles.” Cao assures me that the slogans are from the real factory, not props she has created. In one scene, electronic music plays to swooping footage of deliverers with motorcycle helmets running in slow motion through a dry field like action heroes. In another, a worker with a VR headset sees himself ascending an Escherian staircase of packages into the sky, as if toward heaven.
Cao eschews the idea that the work is utopic or dystopic: “While I show the dangers of technology on one hand, on the other it brings entrancement and attraction. In the film, a young woman is comforted by a robot — she hugs it, feeds it food, enjoys its company, so in some circumstances, the robot is depicted as very warm and loving. Suddenly, there’s a day that she is annoyed by the robot, throws it out, breaks up with it — in a moment of skepticism and suspicion, she realizes that it’s not human.” She added: “We love technology, as well as have an indescribable anxiety of separation from it, and at the same time, are rightfully suspicious of it.”
Like “Whose Utopia,” Cao’s “Asia One” is a piece that is poignantly contemporary. When looked back upon, it will be a portrait of a specific moment in China’s history, the way “Whose Utopia” offered an eternal window into dreams and anxieties belonging to the first decade of this century. Today, packaging plants are largely automated and migrant workers delivering packages in the city can afford to buy their own cars. This is the moment of “Asia One.” Wherever the story of China’s development unfolds, Cao Fei will be observing with an eye for absurdity and heart for difficult yet compassionate questions. “My artworks perhaps contain elements of fiction, or of the absurd, but they are still heavily influenced by reality,” she said. “If you follow my process through different periods and transformations, they are meant to tell a story of their times. That’s what pulls me.”
This article appears in the July edition of Modern Painters.
Founder: Louise Blouin