April 7th, 2015

Q. and A.: Cao Fei on Art, Motherhood and Walking the Political ‘Red Line’

By: Amy Qin       Source: The New York Times 7/4/2015

The artist Cao Fei at home in Beijing.

The artist Cao Fei at home in Beijing.Credit Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

Cao Fei was still a student at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2000 when she was discovered by the curator Hou Hanru, who introduced her to the international art world. Since then, Ms. Cao, 36, who is best known for her multimedia and video work, has exhibited widely, including at the Venice Biennale, the Serpentine Galleries in London, and the Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York. She was a finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize in 2010 and won the 2006 Chinese Contemporary Art Award in the best young artist category.

A constant theme in Ms. Cao’s work is the interplay between the real and imagined world in fast-changing China. In “COSPlayers” (2004), she followed young Chinese dressed as Japanese manga and anime characters as they rollicked around the intensely real city of Guangzhou, her hometown. For “RMB City” (2007), Ms. Cao, under the avatar China Tracy, spent several years developing a virtual city in the online role-playing game Second Life, combining “overabundant symbols of Chinese reality with cursory imaginings of the country’s future.” The result is a colorful playground of floating Mao statues, an upside-down China Central Television Headquarters building and aerial shopping malls. For a project commissioned by Siemens, she spent six months at a lighting manufacturing plant and produced “Whose Utopia?” (2006), a video work in which workers role-play their fantasies — dancing or playing guitar — within the humdrum factory environment. 

“La Town” (2014).

“La Town” (2014).Credit Courtesy of Cao Fei and Vitamin Creative Space

In 2006, Ms. Cao moved to Beijing where she lives with her husband, the Singaporean artist Lim Tzay Chuen, and their two children. Her most recent work includes “Haze and Fog” (2013), a zombie video set in Beijing that explores the spiritual malaise that has come with China’s pursuit of urban modernity, as well as “La Town” (2014), a video that features model figures and plastic buildings in an imagined post-apocalyptic metropolis. “La Town” will be featured at the main show of the Venice Biennale in May. In an interview, Ms. Cao reflected on her career, censorship and motherhood. 


You have been active in the art world now for about 15 years. How do you keep your work fresh?


I think the few years when I took a break to have children were very important. Before that, from 2000 to when I began “RMB City” in 2007, everything was happening very quickly. There was this demand for a “new, new human being” as the curator Hou Hanru says, this demand for young artists to represent the “New China.” I felt like a lot of people were pushing me into this role. But once I had children, it was kind of like a bubble popped. After I had children and before I made “Haze and Fog,” I went through a kind of cleansing. Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m no longer a young artist.


Why did you move to Beijing?


The biggest reason was because the landlady of my previous studio in Guangzhou, where I had been for three years, decided to sell the building. Since we had to change our studio anyway, we decided to give Beijing a try.

The fact that Beijing was a sort of hub for artists wasn’t that important to me. A lot of artists come to Beijing because they want more exposure and more opportunities. But I had already had a lot of big exhibitions, so I didn’t really need the platform Beijing offered. Actually, shortly after I came to Beijing, I had children and my personal life became my priority.

In the beginning I felt like I couldn’t connect to the city. A lot of artists from southern China have that feeling when they come here. Take, for example, my husband, who is a Singaporean artist. For him to come here, the whole history and context is different. It’s not that easy.

When I did the Siemens factory project in Guangzhou, I felt very in tune with my surroundings. But in Beijing, there’s a very strong sense of the city being the capital. It’s very political, it’s not very human centered and the city is inconvenient. So “RMB City” for me was in some ways an escape from this. I was creating this floating fictional city.

After I had children, I slowly began to feel like I had connected and then I made “Haze and Fog.” After seeing that, some critics who were familiar with my work said the film wouldn’t have had the same feeling if I had made it in the south. The coldness of the north, the ultra-sterile environment — you can only capture that feeling in Beijing.

“RMB City” (2007).

“RMB City” (2007).Credit Courtesy of Cao Fei and Vitamin Creative Space


Much of your work contains elements of social criticism. How do you stay in touch with Chinese society?


I would say it’s more commentary than criticism.

Most people live their lives between two places: home and work. But as an individual, as a mother, I go out and buy groceries, I go to meetings, I talk to taxi drivers, I go to the airport and see the world. I pick up my kids from school and talk to the other parents. I learn a lot from all the circles I live in. Even when I’m just walking down the sidewalk, there’s a lot of information.

That’s why “Haze and Fog” and “La Town” take my real-life surroundings as their departure point. Of course, “La Town” is more general — it’s about the whole world. That’s why it fits into Okwui [Enwezor]’s theme [for the Venice Biennale], “All the World’s Futures.”


When you get together with other artists, do you talk a lot about your work?


Many of us know each other, but the community is really divided by generations. Young artists like to associate with young artists. And then within the young artists, there are different groups. Among the older artists as well. There’s the Songzhuang group, Caochangdi, etc.

I’m kind of on my own, particularly since I’m from southern China and I haven’t been living here very long. I’ve always been pretty independent. A lot of people will ask why I don’t go out or go to karaoke. I’m just not used to going out. When we do hang out, we don’t really talk about art or our work.


Artists in China sometimes find themselves having to “walk the red line” of what is politically permissible. How do you gauge which topics are off limits?


I think every Chinese adult is very sensitive to where the limits are. Everyone knows where the red line is, they don’t need to discuss it.

But it’s not really relevant to a lot of younger Chinese artists. They’re not really interested in even going near the line. Many of the older artists will want to walk near the line. They want to walk right along it, but not cross it. They are testing the system. They’re constantly provoking it.

The younger artists are very far from the line. It’s not deliberate. It’s just that they don’t care. The younger artists feel like the older artists experienced politics, and so that’s why they want to engage with politics and provoke it. The younger artists would rather avoid politics. For them, politics is just textbook history.

They think: “What we’re interested in doesn’t have anything to do with ideology. We just want to talk about our individual experience of the world. We don’t want to talk about Iraq, we don’t want to talk about Japan, and we don’t want to talk about democracy. We just want to talk about aesthetics, we just want to talk about art.”

When I read the things they write, it’s a little difficult to understand because they have very particular interests. It’s not like the older generation, which had much grander ideas. For the older generation, the artist criticizes on behalf of society. The younger artists just want to pursue their own narrow interests.

For example, a lot of younger people like to take photos of succulent plants and post them on Instagram. That’s a sub-culture. Other people like to take photos of cats. Now it’s all about these small groups organized around very specific interests. They’re not interested in broader society.


Where do you see yourself in this?


I’m just an observer. I observe what young people are doing.


In order to continue working in China, many artists might censor themselves to some degree. Do you feel this pressure to self-censor? Isn’t there also pressure to meet the expectations that come with the label of “young Chinese artist” in the international art world?


I don’t actively think about these things, though they are kind of in the back of my mind. For example, when I made “La Town,” I didn’t calculate too much. But if there are certain images in my work, I might think, “Hmm, this image is very sensitive,” so when I’m editing, I might cut more of that. So in terms of self-censorship, I’ll make these kinds of considerations. When it comes to how the art world sees Chinese artists, that has its own effect but it’s more subconscious.


Most of the well-known Chinese artists are men. Is it difficult to be a female artist in China?


Yes. But some people might think it’s very easy. They say, “Since you’re a woman, if you make things that are above average, people will pay attention.” But I think a lot of my work is gender neutral. A lot of people can’t tell from my work if I am a man or a woman. My medium, including the materials that I use, is not very feminine. But the whole art world is difficult regardless of if you are a man or woman.