Cao Fei

A bridge between art and pop culture: that what I want to be

As China undergoes a process of rapid, radical urbanization and modernization, a young artist born and raised in the dynamic urban center of Guangzhou is building a stellar career on the international art scene. So what part have Cao Fei’s upbringing and environment played in developing a talent that has now propelled her all the way to the Venice Biennale?

Interview: Oyama Hitomi
Portrait: Tomita Satomi
Thanks to Tokyo Gallery + BTAP

– Last year was a busy one for you wasn’t it? You shifted your base to Beijing, but surely you can’t have spent much time there?

Indeed: Guangzhou, Taipei, Hong Kong, Korea, New York, the Netherlands…I’ve been all over the place, both in China and overseas.

Cosplayers: A Mirage, 2004, digital C-print.

– May we start today perhaps by hearing about your background, the kind of environment you were raised in, that sort of thing. 1978, the year you were born, is the year China started taking steps to reform and open up its economy. What were the first works of art you ever encountered?

Both my parents are sculptors, so I suppose the first art I encountered was their sculptures. My mother was an art school instructor, and we lived in a faculty apartment on campus. While I never received anything in the way of special art education from my parents, I did mix a lot with art students, and I guess you could say art has been a familiar part of life for me from a young age. Perhaps I was born with a feeling for it.

– What sort of things did you have around you apart from your parents’ sculptures?

When I was elementary school age, comics my parents bought for me, and on TV, I often watched Japanese cartoons.

– Do you remember the titles of any?

In comics it was things like Tintin, in cartoons the likes of Astro Boy and Dragon Ball. The cartoons I wanted to watch on TV clashed with the news, which my father wanted to watch, so we were always fighting (laughs).

Manga, anime and MTV influences

– What about later? Being in Guangzhou, you must have had access to a lot of news and information from Hong Kong, or from further afield via Hong Kong.

I started getting interested in pop culture at around age 12 or 13, I think. I was crazy about breakdancing, pop music and MTV, learned dancing from dancers behind my parents’ backs, would dress up to look 18, put on lipstick and take my sister’s ID card to get into discos. Of course my parents knew none of this.

– Knowing what you’re like now I can well imagine (laughs). What kind of pop music was popular in China back then?

Un-Cosplayers: Bunny’s World, 2006, photograph

Michael Jackson, Hong Kong pop idols, that sort of thing. Back then, while it wasn’t like these days, when we take being able to travel freely for granted, if you were prepared to pay a certain amount you could travel to Hong Kong for leisure. I went there a lot with my parents and two older sisters. There I used to watch MTV, which you couldn’t see on the mainland, at the homes of Hong Kong acquaintances.

– What did your parents think of their daughter’s obsession with pop culture?

People of my parents’ generation threw themselves into their work after the country started to open up, trying to claw back some of the time taken from them earlier by politics, so they were not especially bothered about me. Which means I pretty much did what I liked, without any parental interference.

– What sort of student were you at high school? I seem to remember that’s when you first became involved in theater.

Yes, I used to enter the school’s annual drama contest with some classmates, and because I was studying dance, I’d mix dance with all kinds of music and produce these comedy musical-type affairs with hardly any lines. For some reason these went down really well, and always had everyone in stitches (laughs). It was totally different in style to the traditional plays that had been presented previously, and we’d win every year.

– Now why doesn’t that surprise me… You then went to university, where you produced your first work on digital video. How did you become interested in filmic media?

Once I was at university, I started to encounter a lot more serious, real art. At first I was mad about Hong Kong independent cinema, and influenced by it in 1999 I shot the digital video Imbalance 257. At the time there were still few DV works in China, and I was just filming whatever took my fancy.

– What artists were you influenced by around that time?

Discovering the work of Terayama Shuji, still the artist-filmmaker I respect the most, was a big thing for me. I first saw one of his films in 1999, being presented with great fanfare at a Hong Kong art space. Throw Away Your Books, Go Out into the Streets!, Grass Labyrinth, Death in the Country (aka: “Pastoral Hide and Seek”), Farewell Ark…I just found them all utterly surreal. I was also impressed by the posters hedesigned, his poetry and such.

In terms of other Japanese artists, in Yoko Ono I sense status and courage as a woman, something tough and independent. Then there’s Kusama Yayoi, and her novels. When I finished Numa ni mayoite (Lost in Swampland) I think it was, I felt as if my whole body had been set free. Her writing is so sexual, so powerful and liberated. It stimulated me, motivated me as an artist.

Connecting completely different things

– When did you first meet Ou Ning?

That was also in ’99. Imbalance 257 was finished and there was a screening in a bookstore; I mentioned it to a friend of my sister’s, who said he had a friend who liked films so he’d invite him along. So Ou Ning, who was living in Shenzhen at the time, got on a train and came to see my work. He then went on to feature Imbalance 257 in a movie magazine he launched, and from 2000 to 2003, he ran a film society that we worked in together. I saw an awful lot of videos and films there: Chinese independent cinema, and Western films.

My Future is Not a Dream 02, 2006
Digital C-print (from the Siemens Art Project: What are you doing here?)

– Then you started actively collaborating didn’t you? On films like San Yuan Li (2003), The Dazhalan-Project and PRD Anti-Heroes (2005), all dealing chiefly with China’s cities and its people.

My interest in cities is probably largely due to working with Ou Ning. You could say Ou Ning taught me how to connect with real society through art. I too am very interested in people and social issues, for example the incredible upheaval developing nations undergo on the path to modernity. The kind of upheaval that China in particular is so obviously experiencing right now.

As part of the Siemens Arts Program, in which each year a different artist is commissioned for an art project, I ran a six-month project called What are you doing here? (2006), in which I teamed with workers at a lightbulb factory in Foshan, Guangdong Province. Up until then artists in the program had simply presented their work, and I’d always believed that did little to alter the relationship between art and the workers. If you’re going to embark on something like this, I figured, surely it makes sense to get the workers involved as well. First I got them to answer 50 questions, for example, “Do you like the work gear you wear now?” and “What makes life enjoyable to you?” Then I got them started by running workshops to help us get to know each other. I offered some ideas, but left them to do all the planning and the practical work.

Some built installations using the light-bulbs they made, while others who liked ballet for example or the peacock dance (a Chinese folk dance) gave performances next to the workbenches where they usually worked. After the project was finished, I was gratified when someone said to me, “Life itself is art, isn’t it?” The theme was “Your utopia is our utopia”, and the things they aspire to, are indeed the same things we all want.

– But some people look at Hip Hop and Cosplayers and see them as simply jumping on the latest bandwagon.

Un-Cosplayers: Housebreaker, 2006, photograph

For me art is not about forming an image of a thing and making that into an artwork, or producing something no one else has ever seen, but searching for connections in the gaps between things that are completely different. In Hip Hop for example, when ordinary people and pop music are connected, a sort of wondrous chemical reaction is generated. Artists on the whole tend to be introverted people whose work emerges from the “individual”. But I’m more of an extrovert. I want to see what happens when I connect with different pop culture all over the world. A bridge between art and pop culture: that’s what I want to be.

– In your Un-Cosplayers performance and photo series for the Beijing Tokyo Art Projects (BTAP) last year you connected the general public with cosplay.

The bodies of the public are ‘real’ but cosplay per se is ‘hyperreal’, so I suppose I connected reality and hyperreality. The word ‘cosplay’ itself is now internationally recognized, so I imagine people will think cosplay = anime = fad, but the desire to wear the clothing of someone totally different to oneself and take on that persona – whether it be a figure from mythology, or an imaginary character – is something humans have harbored throughout history. So cosplay in itself is not my objective.

Originally printed in ART iT 15 Spring/Summer 2007

Cao Fei
Born 1978 in Guangzhou Province. Graduated in 2001 with a BFA from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Shot the digital video Imbalance 257 in 1999, when there were still few DV works in China, thereafter producing a series of artistically masterful works that draw on pop culture as seen in Hip Hop (2003-06), Cosplayers (2004) and Un-Cosplayers (2006) in media ranging from video to photography and performance. Other works such as PRD Anti-Heroes (2005), produced for the Guangzhou Triennial, and What are you doing here? (2006) address problematic contradictions in China’s urbanization from a personal perspective at once poignant and lighthearted. In 2006, she received the Young Artist’s Prize in the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA), and moved her base from Guangzhou to Beijing. She presented work in the Chinese Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, at the 9th Lyon Biennale, and in ART LAN@ASIA at ZAIM in Yokohama.

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