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Hard politics with a Sugar Sweet Coating

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I got a message in my mail today that the Serpentine Gallery is going to launch the project RMB City by Cao Fei.

Beijing-based artist Cao Fei (born 1978) is fusing fantasy with the contemporary Chinese city in her construction of RMB City, an experimental art community in the internet-based virtual world of Second Life.

Cao Fei, through the avatar she created called China Tracy, spent a year exploring the possibilities of Second Life.
Once she has completed the construction of RMB CIty 2008, the buildings of the virtual city will be occupied for two years by partners including institutions and individual collectors who will host exhibitions and cultural activities open to all Second Life users. The project explores the creative potential of an online art community, seeking to create the conditions for an expansive discourse about art, urbanism, economy, imagination and freedom.

Reflecting on China's recent urban and cultural explosion, the architecture of RMB City is an amalgam of Chinese icons, ancient and modern, from the panda to the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The installation in the Gallery's lobby presents two- and three-dimensional visualisations of RMB City as well as computer access to a virtual viewing platform over the construction site, which features video updates of the construction process.

Hard Politics with a Sugar Sweet Coating
Cao Fei

By Ingrid Commandeur

Ingrid Commandeur: When I last spook to you in Guangzhou in 2003 you had just finished the videos Hip Hop (2003) and Burners (2003). Can you tell in short how your work has developed since?

Cao Fei: ‘I am now more concerned about contemporary social phenomena and social problems in China. We need to pay attention to problems, to discover problems, to register them as well as to give them a voice. It is the craziest and most incredible age in China. I have gradually forgotten my identity as an artist and feel more and more as though I shall become a person with a sense of responsibility for our age. The reality is pressing us to give voice to those who have been ignored, instead of being silent. Art shall not be confined to just a means of self-fulfilment; in this country you have to utilize it as a tool to attack and to take risks. Whether it is a piece of work or not is no longer important as long as my actions go beyond the framework of art.’

In the exhibition Out of Sight in 2005 at De Appel in Amsterdam you presented the work Cosplayers. The work is about how young people dressed up as characters from popular games, take aspects from the popular game culture to create their own reality. What do you find fascinating about them?

CF: ‘Like cosplayers, I am trying to discuss many issues in the rapid development and expansion of Chinese cities under globalization, like the dilemma of individual existence, etc. The group of cosplayers are the youth growing up during the 20 years of Chinese rapid development. I try to approach the relationship between their attitude towards their family and the cities they live in. How do they deal with the urgent reality as alienated players? The view they created in the city is just the miniature of globalization in developing countries.’

Cosplayers is worked out in different media: a series of photographs, digital video and more theatrical settings, similar to the ones you made for Out of Sight. Why did you choose for an installation in De Appel?

CF: ‘The installation Cosplayers derives from the video Cosplayers. The video has been exhibited in many different places. Lately, I have had this wish that distinct versions of the work could be produced for different venues and in different countries. In Japan we set up a dressing room and made many cosplayer outfits for the audience to dress up in, thus providing a chance for the public to become cosplayers. For De Appel it became a theatrical setting including aspects of sex and desire. With these local changes, I’m trying to show that though it originates in Japan, cosplay is no longer confined to Japanese culture; it becomes a sub-cultural phenomenon among the youth all over the world.’

Sometimes you play the role of an art-director artificially staging the photos or videos in detail, using aspects from commercials, while other works have a more documentary character, for instance, in more recent videos like Father (2005) and Milkman (2005). Is this mixture of styles a reflection of the new multi-media generation in China?

CF: ‘I have never tried to summarize the style of new multi-media generation in China. I believe that media is an auxiliary means of expression at all times, and I oppose using multi-media for multi-media’s sake. For some of the Chinese artists multi-media has become the fashion and the sign of being different or standing out, but for me, I use it only when necessary. One must first respect the essence of what is expressed in one’s work. That is why I did not apply excessive means or forms in Father (2005) and Milkman (2005), but documented and narrated in a simple and truthful way. I want to say that even today, in this multi-media age, multi-media is still our tool instead of our aim, and it should not be the focus of all attention.’

Father is a film in which you interview your father, a sculptor who worked in a Socialist Realist style for many years. Your films reveal him as being part of the contradictory reality of China’s current transition; an ‘official’ sculptor taking advantage of the post-Communist tourist boom in China who has made sculptures of revolutionary leaders even more popular than before. What are you trying to express with this film?

CF: ‘My father’s art and his whole life are profoundly marked by the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. It shaped his belief, his fear as well as his skills. It’s interesting for me to find out whether I’m cynical or sympathetic or whether I oppose the once dominant form of art -“commissioned” art- which the state glamorizes. Father’s belief is naïve from my point of view because people of his generation are so powerless; they are the victims of politics. I grew up in the 1980s. My generation’s art is more about personal experiences and is more self-centred, it is not determined by others. We are impassive to politics because politics are out of our control. Today’s politics are overshadowed by the new economy. It is a political vacuum mixed up with ideological exuberance. We try to use sugar (art) to coat our bullet (our individual political opinion). My father’s past was governed by the idea that one is meant to serve politics and the community. Art was a communist product. Now art has become both a commercial and an official standpoint, where the people best benefiting are still my father and the government. For me, art is based upon my personal experiences, it is a form of individual expression of my values and, together with this, it is also a manifestation of the utopia of democracy.’

Did your film result in a better understanding between you and your father, both artists but part of two completely different traditions? Does he understand what you are trying to express as an artist?

CF: ‘The relationship between my father and me improved a lot after the film was shot. Indeed I have come to understand my father better and love him more deeply than I ever had. He is almost 73 years old and has gone through so many disasters, movements and pains in his life that some of his values are unshakable. We are artists of two generations with completely different ideologies, and I don’t wish for us to be able understand each other thoroughly on all levels, that would be impossibility. But I can understand my father, considering his background and key elements of his generation and I will love him more in the years to come. It does not bother me that he cannot understand my thoughts, my motives or my art, as long as he respects and tolerates my work.’

Can you say something about your exhibition in Het Domein?

CF: ‘The show is a survey of my work from the past five years. There are a number of older works on view, Father is installed this time as an installation, and I am showing work I developed for the Guangzhou Triennial 2005: a theatre project called PDR Anti-Heroes. PRD Anti-Heroes (PRD: Pearl River Delta) is a multi-media performance for the stage comprised of a series of interconnected scenes aimed at weaving together the unofficial history of local people, by using documentary style interviews, anecdotes, local legends culled on the internet, widely publicized press reports of goings-on in the Delta’s hot spots, and other first-person accounts of life in this sub-tropical urban sprawl. We have tried to construct a new and unique collage of the reality of the Pearl River Delta’s present-day geopolitics as well as its ancient history, so that we can study the situation of a society moving at a speed beyond local planners’ control and to depict development that moves in an alternative sequence and order. The reality of this rapid drive to urbanization permeates most aspects of every day life in the Pearl River Delta, and we try to reflect these on-going negotiations and compromises: The push and pull of conflicting interests between society’s haves and have-nots; the concern of resident manufacturers vs. those of the employees who have lost their jobs; the perspective of local people faced with an influx of floating populations from other regions in China. We have had all of these scenes in mind in producing this performance. Our vision is one of a unique place where a patchwork of interests has fuelled an abnormally rapid social growth. But PRD Anti-Heroes is not strictly speaking a play for the theatre. It is more akin to a local Cantonese theatrical performance or an additional program included as adjunct to a night of traditional festival productions. On our stage, we aim at truthfully and magically revealing local legends that have spun out of control. We try to depict a place that is well known and at the same time completely overloaded.’

Why did you call the project PRD Anti-Heroes?

CF: ‘If we say that “Heroes” are part of the “History” that is well known to all of us, then “Anti-Heroes” lie in that part of history that remains unknown and anonymous. Such “Heroes” are not necessarily all good citizens. Just as all “Anti-Heroes” are not necessarily bad persons. In the traditional opera performances of the Pearl River Delta, the anti-hero plays a ubiquitous role. Most productions include one anti-hero or another, as an all too familiar member of the cast in local productions. These anti-heroes are both ancient and modern; some are like knight errands while others appear in more down-and-out roles as drifters or disbanded soldiers. An anti-hero can take on a variety of roles and professions including that of beggar, gambler, hawker, garbage collector, tobacco seller, vendor of pirated CDs, shoe polisher, or repairer of pots and pans, mainly doing all of the undocumented jobs outside the reach of local government administration. These people who do not have a social system of their own to rely on, and who tend to be outside the mainstream’s line of vision, are rapidly spreading to all of society’s nooks and crannies, living a subterranean life that is both separate from and at the same time interdependent on the outside world. And as such, they unconsciously revive various longstanding interpersonal relationships and traditional social caste values. Their obstinate penetration into society is part of the reality that comprises the Pearl River Delta’s unprecedented vitality.’