Cao Fei builds gorgeous nightmares. In an imaginary city gripped by apocalyptic transformation, a school band blows a silent march a boy on a camel surveys acres of destruction from his hilltop perch a dying squid leaks blood all more than an abandoned factory floor. Guangzhou, the artist’s true house town, also becomes a forum of fantasy. Equipped with a camera and a gothic sensibility, she navigates the city’s wasted edges, its massive apartment complexes, and drastically reconfigured landscapes. She wades into ugliness and emerges with dystopic trophies.
The 37-year-old artist commands a pithy and profound retrospective at PS1, a distillation of her nevertheless-evolving career. Born just after the Cultural Revolution, Cao Fei is the daughter of the realist sculptor Cao Chong’en, who famously glorified Communist heroes like Deng Xiaoping in bronze. His ideal-recognized operate is a monument of Bruce Lee that presides over Hong Kong’s harbour. Cao Fei has adapted her father’s realism and fondness for icons. In place of his obligatory optimism, she gives scorching assessments of modern China, shot by way of with wistfulness. Mining pop culture’s techno vein, she inserts avatars, zombies and anime characters into artworks that mingle romanticism and dejection.
Her most touching function, the video “Whose Utopia?” came out of a six-month residency at the Osram lighting factory in Foshan, sponsored by the Siemens Art Program. Cao started her tenure by polling workers. “How do you really feel about the factory?” she asked in a lengthy questionnaire. “Why did you leave your house and go to the [Pearl] river delta?” What do you hope to achieve in the future?” The answers gave Cao a way to measure the distance between her subjects’ dreams and the lives they really lead. She zoomed by stages into her subjects’ imaginations, lingering on the workplace, then the perform and ultimately the workers themselves.
First she filmed the empty factory, focusing on the aesthetics of the industrial procedure. It is a tradition that goes back to Charles Sheeler, whose 1920s photographs of the Ford Motor Company’s plant near Detroit arranged ladle hook cranes, stamping presses and blast furnaces into sophisticated, semi-abstract compositions. If Sheeler’s machines were both functional and totemic, Cao’s have a weirdly human good quality they jerk along, handling fragile bulbs with endearing and unexpected grace.
In the second element of “Whose Utopia?” it’s the humans who behave like a synchronised apparatus, laying their individuality aside to sort filaments and assemble boxes. Abruptly, as in a mass hallucination, those identical labourers take turns acting out their innermost desires, surrounded by the humdrum efficiency of the factory and the corps of oblivious colleagues. A girl in a tutu balances en pointe and stretches her arms skyward, while white wings attached to her back flutter in the stultifying air. Yet another, in a long white shift, mimics the agonies of a dying swan. Three or 4 youngsters strum electric guitars while an older man sidles along the aisles in a routine that mixes Michael Jackson, Marcel Marceau, and Chinese folk dance. The triteness of their fantasies — how a lot of girls all over the planet aspire to endless pirouettes, or boys to rock stardom? — render them all the a lot more poignant. The film’s third section residences in their faces, every 1 static and distinctive.
There’s nothing new about this reminder that workers are folks also. Lewis Hine perfected each the form and the message a lot more than one hundred years ago. But in a nation that glorified heroic labour throughout most of its current past and now relegates workers to the boiler space of China’s industrial miracle, the photos take on a patina of bitter nostalgia.
So, also, does the monumental “La Town,” a cease-action film that conveys urban malaise in gloomy vignettes. Cao fashioned a cast of tiny figures and distributed them about an imaginary urban landscape, an Everycity fallen into moral and physical dereliction. In La Town, sex is bought and sold or permeated by apathy. Zombie mobs menace the concourses of supermarkets and sidewalks, even though passers-by appear on with dumb indifference. Santa Claus’s sleigh has slammed into a higher-speed train, and a reindeer carcass hangs from the wires above the tracks. A neon sign advertises Gone with the Wind in an abandoned theatre, memorialising a once-vibrant civilisation. Cao adapts the pretentious, nonsensical dialogue from Hiroshima Mon Amour, and it’s not clear regardless of whether she intends it as irony or homage.
In either case, “La Town” howls at the encroachment of western commercialism and the violent transformation of Chinese cities. Is that “La” just the French feminine write-up, a sign of specious chic? Or perhaps it is a reference to Los Angeles, the dream factory that sucks in the fallen and the lost, then spits their generic fantasies back out into the globe. In the previous couple of decades, Chinese cities have been bulldozed and rebuilt to accommodate a labour force of migrating millions. A tightly wound culture has steadily unfurled, opening itself to worldwide influences. Cao finds wealthy fishing grounds in that unfathomable transformation, in the urban century’s intertwined excitement and despair.
To August 31, momaps1.org
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