Cao Fei (1978) is one of the most prominent young Chinese artists working predominantly in new media, performance, video and photography. Haze and Fog (2013) was produced by Eastside Projects in Birmingham, UK and Vitamin Creative Space, Beijing and is Cao Fei’s most ambitious feature-length film to date. It was premiered at Eastside Projects in September, screened at Tate Modern London and it is currently on show in the Chinese Centre for Contemporary Art in Manchester.
Cao Fei has exhibited widely around the world including Mobile M+, Hong Kong (2013),29thSao Paulo Biennale (2010), 15th & 17th Biennale of Sydney (2006/2010), Moscow Biennale(2005), Shanghai Biennale (2004), 50th Venice Biennale(2003), and was a nominee for Future Generation Art Prize in 2010, and Hugo Boss Prize 2010 at Guggenheim Museum, New York. In 2006 Cao Fei won “The Best Young Artist Award”by CCAA (Chinese Contemporary Art Award).
We met in Hyde Park to talk about anti-heroes, zombies, the Chinese middle class and the development of spaces for ‘new imagination’. Even though she acknowledges a newly developing class system, she doesn’t consider the appearance of ‘zombies’ in Haze and Fog a result of class tension, instead she emphasizes that her characters, even though from different social strata, as ‘having shared desires’, which are countered by the ‘haze’ settling over their minds; where differences in daily routines are underscored by the shared consumerist values, the boredom of mundane jobs and comfortable middle class life are reinforced by living under the same system.
Born in in Guangzhou in the Open Economic Zone a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, which severed links to tradition, the artist’s generation grew up with China opening to the world and its own culture having been replaced by what she calls ‘theatrical consumerism’. After ’ten lost years’ (1966- 1976) China turned away from the fervent political ideology of the previous generation to embrace the influence of western media and values. Cao Fei’s work reflects on the subjective experience of rapid urbanization, cultural appropriation, Chinese theatre and fantasy and their re-evaluation through new media.
Following RMB City, built in the Second Life as an interactive network, Haze and Fog is to an extent a departure from virtual worlds to a more traditional cinema genre. Set in Beijing’s extensive new urban developments, it unfolds with the sound of tango breaking the silence and isolation of contemporary middle class apartments, shopping malls and yoga classes where the supernatural and magic become a symbolic and conceptual device. Corridors and basements serve as feeders of central units where prostitutes, cleaners and delivery men engage in a petty theft and other distractions from their mechanized routine.
Invariably there seems to be a certain flatness to all the characters – they appear in the film in fairly regular patterns, carrying out their daily tasks as humans and later as zombies: while this accentuates the fate of the film’s almost robotically predetermined protagonists, it also puts the audience, with the artist, firmly in the role of the observer. The distance between camera and actors in each scene is kept among the characters themselves, even throughout the final scenes of the film where everyone comes together in nature. Although it can be suggested that nature is the clue to the haze and fog, characters are still lonely entities gazing around with hardly any interaction. The conflict is as minimal as the contact and then pushed to the extreme though the mutual consuming of one another. Cao Fei’s zombie is the final outcome of the privatized capitalist life, arguably imported to China with global capitalism.