Politics Of Intimacy – On Cao Fei’s Work

by Hou Hanru

Cao Fei’s work is spectacular, refreshing, brilliant, and ultimately joyful. Utilising various media - from video and photography to performance, etc. - over a decade, she has constructed a full body of vivid and powerful images, narratives and ac- tions that represent the most audacious and exciting aspects of the life and imagi- nation of her generation, a generation which is often called “New New Human Beings (Xin Xin Ren Lei)”.

Cao Fei is a kind of prodigy. She created her earliest works – including experi- mental theatre and a feature film – when she was still in her first years in art school before the age of 20. Her work attracted the attention of both the contem- porary art world and a larger urban audience very rapidly, and she gained wide- spread popularity amongst her contemporaries as well. Inspired by experimental art from both China and beyond, as well as pop cultures from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the West, she successfully blends various cultural and artistic references and everyday life experiences together to form up a highly personal lingo. It’s a lan- guage that constantly seeks to break down any established formulas in order to venture into new terrains, and reflect articulately and effectively the mutation of today’s Chinese urban life and the new social structure generated in the process of the nation’s “integration” into globalisation. Cao Fei and her contemporaries are certainly the most active embracers of this new way of life...

In other words, Cao Fei’s work is a manifesto of this generation’s spirit: one which strives to create and promote a new identity in an effort to produce its individual, original and innovative thoughts and way of life. Born in the late 1970s and there- after, they have grown up in a post-1989 Chinese society that has rapidly devel-oped into a totally pragmatic and materialistic world driven by urbanisation and consumerism. Culturally and artistically, they are absolutely open to all kinds of newness and inventions, without any inhibitions or taboos. On the one hand, they are systematically individualistic and egocentric types who lead alternative ways of life, transcending all kinds of social constraints and morality, especially those of their parents’. In addition, they even consider themselves totally different from the generation of their elder siblings, that of the China/Avant-Garde growing up in the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, which was the first period of opening up and reform in China, embodied by intense social, economic and cultural transforma- tion closely engaged with political and ideological struggles. On the other hand, they come together to conceptualise and create a new kind of alternative commu- nity unfettered by any established social classification. New media – electronic communication and pop cultural events, etc. – have provided them with the per- fect means to construct such an “underground” but limitless community. Mobile phones, emails, blogs and online games comprise their fundamental tools, while keeping up with global cultural fashions is the way they nurture their bodies and minds... By calling themselves “New New Human Beings”, they align themselves with completely new forms of living, believing and behaving. At the end, they never hesitate to merge themselves into the new globalised world driven by con- sumerism and technology, and thus declare a trans-national and ever-changing identity, a kind of multi-cultural and multi-functional identity that always evolves toward plurality and multiplicity.

This generation has their own “avant-garde” artists. They throw themselves into the flux of images and information of the current “global art world” and absorb all kinds of new inventions and fashions. They disregard the distinction between “high” and “low”, elitist and popular, low-tech and high-tech, intellectual and consumerist, “art” and “entertainment”, established and underground. It’s an alternative world distancing itself from the hegemonic and dominant power sys- tem. This distancing or transcendence is their most powerful form of political engagement. It is a form of social competition in this age of the global empire, one where there is no political opposition or utopia beyond these confines; it is a human condition of life in our times, as put forward by numerous scholars like Antonio Negri.

Cao Fei is without question one of those new “avant-gardes”. Born and brought up in Guangzhou – a city which is the very frontier of China’s opening towards the world and a major laboratory of modernisation and urbanisation - she has learnt to develop a highly individualistic view on life and art that knows no con- straints. The Cantonese region, situated in a remote area from the central China, has always been the most open and dynamic zone in permanent contact with the outside world. It is a kind of alternative country within the large Chinese empire that constantly plays the role of a double agent: the “betrayer” and pioneer of the National cause. Similarly, Cantonese language and culture are fundamentally products of cultural hybridism. As a result, they are the ideal channels to intro- duce fresh knowledge, ideas and actions from the outside, in order to stimulate new Chinese revolutions. In the last decades, Guangzhou and its surrounding area – the Pearl River Delta, thanks to its proximity with Hong Kong and Macau - have been transformed into the most important leading zone towards Chinese reform. Naturally it is also the best precinct for the breeding of “New New Hu- man Beings”. Taking these historic and contemporary conditions as her starting artistic points, Cao Fei’s work clearly demonstrates the intensity and strength of this fantastic cultural melting pot. By destiny, Cao Fei and her numerous friends have to cultivate a kind of identity that incorporates cultural mélange or multi- plicity. Hence, it is no surprise that Cao Fei’s works express her fascination with social and personal role changes, and like others, she transforms herself into cosplayers and Second Life avatars in them. It is also why works like her “Hip Hop” series, “Cosplayers” and Second Life projects are the most remarkable ones in her rich body of creations. Cao Fei has created and restaged in various parts of the world works whereby she turns people from different national, social and cul- tural backgrounds into Hip Hop dancers and cosplayers, and has also encouraged global participation in her Second Life projects for both the Chinese Pavilion in Venice Biennale 2007 and RMB City at the 10th Istanbul Biennial, Cao Fei’s ever- evolving and multiplicity of identities, all given the new moniker of China Tracy, is now becoming a kind of global brand that efficiently, effectively and enthusi- astically influences the remaking of our concept of identity in this exciting but contradictory time of global cultural wars. All of these are beautiful, playful, in- novative, and seriously political.
Therefore, it is impossible to deny or overlook the political and social significance of Cao Fei’s work. Indeed, behind the masks and costumes of cosplayers and on- line avatars, her work is deeply engaged with the current social reality of intense and radical changes. It is extremely important to remember and understand that Cao Fei’s work has always been related to, conditioned and inspired by and ad- dressing the economic, social, cultural and political evolutions in China today. These in turn are intrinsically linked with the process of globalisation. However,
instead of proclaiming any grand political discourses, Cao Fei’s engagement always starts with and operates within the terrain of the everyday and even the intimate, while the outcomes are often ironic, satiric and amusing. It is a kind of laughter in the face of the unbearable lightness of being... It reveals a kind of schizophrenia of the new generation of Chinese facing the contradictory condi- tions of globalisation and their search for identity... Fundamentally, they live in an unsolvable dilemma: once they escape from the cruel reality to an imaginary, fantastic, “alternative” world, they still need to engage themselves directly with normal people and social reality. Interestingly, it is in negotiating this contradic- tion that Cao Fei, along with many of her generation, is pushed to a critical edge, and hence has to come up with creative and audacious solutions to overcome the crisis. Her art work is indeed an on-going materialisation of such a dynamic process. The freshness and allure of her work are generated precisely by the very tension between the seriousness of their hidden implications and the light-heart- edness of their expressions. This process always begins with the exploration of intimate experiences and ends by revealing some acerbic critiques and challenges facing some imminent essential social issues. One can call this a “strategy of poli- tics of intimacy”.

Cao Fei’s video/installation/performance project “Father” is the most evident example of this strategy of “politics of intimacy”. In 2004, she documented the process of her father Cao Chong’en (a renowned sculptor specialising in portraits of politicians and other official figures) in creating and installing a large statue of Deng Xiaoping. In the journey, she unveiled a variety of aspects where business intermingles with political and economic interests. She included these scenes in her affectively moving portraiture of her own father who, as an “official” artist in China today, incarnates these sorts of contradictions. She continued to develop the project in different exhibitions incorporating installations and performances with her father sculpting on the sites. What is remarkable is that she has man- aged to expand the narrative of an emotional story between father and daughter into a critical examination of various sociological and political issues involving crucial moments in China’s modern history, and thus links her father’s destiny with that of the nation symbolised by great figures like Deng Xiaoping and Sun Yat-sen.

The Second Guangzhou Triennial which Cao Fei participated in focused on the particular role of the Pearl River Delta in China’s move towards modernisation and globalisation. In the theatre project PRD Anti-Heros which she produced for the event, Cao Fei implements this strategy in a different but more critical way. She appropriates a popular and intimate form of mass media to reveal the comic and ironic side of society in the process of “internal globalisation” and ultimate moral, economic and political corruption. It lays bare the very fact that the world itself is dominated by the greed that powers global capitalism. In addition, she “celebrates” the resistance of those “unqualified” and “alternative” anti-heroes of society’s underbelly. This eventually brings us to question the validity of the established social hierarchy, values and justice, and hence the meaning of the relationship between the People and History, which is itself a core issue of any system of power.

Cao Fei’s strategy works by mobilising the most immediate life experiences of the everyday - both of her own and of others - to create processes of confronta- tion, mélange, and exchange, in order to share a kind of collective discourse on social topics. This kind of process can generate a real tension and dynamism to stimulate creativity and new social relationships and actions. As an artist, one crucial aspect of Cao Fei’s talent and power lies in her capacity to mobilise others in extremely dynamic and cooperative team work. Her work is hence turned into amazingly productive collective actions. In almost all of her work, collaborations with other creators, from various fields such as film, music, performance and so- cial activism, have taken an increasingly important if not core position. This is an exceptionally significant factor in the remaking of today’s social relationship and new dynamism of artistic activity. It is also particularly meaningful in the con- text of today’s China, where both public and private spaces are being constantly eroded by the assault of privatisation of matter and spirit.
“Whose Utopia?” is undoubtedly the most exemplary project in this sense. In the name of art, Cao Fei intimately penetrated the often isolated world of in- dustrial production, which is considered the very frontier of China’s rapid and often violent “integration” in the global production and economic system. She spent months in a Foshan-based factory producing light bulbs for the global firm Osram. Through her research of the factory life and dialogues with the workers, she organised cultural activities for the workers and assisted in their transforma- tion into temporary artists and utopian dreamers. She proposed to transform the factory’s motto from a production-centric one (TPM, Total Productive Manage- ment) into one of humanism and solidarity (TPM, Team, People, Motivation). She overturned the workplace hierarchy – often taken for granted – and set up a temporary new social order – a kind utopian order and dreamland. This is the temporary Utopia. But the temporal nature and fragility of this Utopian moment inevitably implies the ultimate destruction of the Utopia itself. When the question “whose utopia?” is posed, a real crisis of this newly acquired identity is exposed. It revealed itself to be a broken dream and an empty promise when everyone came back to the earthy ground of everyday labour and life, after those short mo- ments of euphoria and “liberation” of the self. Utopia is Dystopia itself. Neverthe- less, this project is not meant to relieve sadness or allow for nostalgia. Instead, it is really an investigation into what reality is, as well as the need to negotiate it by means of collective intelligence and collaboration.

This desire for collective sharing and creation is most vividly expressed in Cao Fei’s new series of work that ventures into the realm of virtual reality. Second Life, an online game which has become a veritable shift of global communication, action and transaction, attracted Cao Fei and offered her a totally new perspec- tive to develop her imagination and engagement.

Despite the professed commercial aims of the enterprise, Second Life has pro- vided us with a novel platform to deal with our lives through different and inno- vative relationships with reality. What is extraordinary is that this platform sig- nificantly facilitates communications and exchanges between communities across the globe, while the possibility of extending real social relationships and even economic and political activities in “First Life” into this virtually tangible “imagi- nary reality” becomes a collective obsession of the online world. Clearly, new forms of social mobilisation on individual, commercial and political levels are now on the agenda of many. Cao Fei also grasped this opportunity to extend the influence and engagement level of her artistic work with others via this platform. For the Chinese Pavilion in Venice Biennale 2007, she created a project “Cyber Epic – i. Mirror” surrounding her avatar China Tracy, whereby a connection be- tween Second Life and “First Life” was forged to form a trans-national, or border- less, “national pavilion”. China Tracy and a stranger who is a lover of the Chinese revolution met in the virtual world, and a romantic, intimate love story unfolded. A kind of revolution in the ideological, social and personal sense took place. What is especially exhilarating is that China Tracy invited everyone in the online community to contribute to her virtual Chinese Pavilion and attend the opening party. Overnight, hundreds of “foreigners” flooded in and became actors or artists to run the Pavilion. China Tracy was no longer one person but a multiplicity of existences, and the National Pavilion was transformed into a trans-national and truly global event. Both notions of individual and national identities are now put in question, deconstructed and immersed by the waves of a global sea...

In fact, for Cao Fei, venturing into the seemingly infinite world of Second Life is a way to continue her social, cultural and even political commitment. Second Life is actually firmly grounded in the “First Life”. From its launch, apart from its com- mercial goal, it has already been explored as a test-bed for and prolongation of eco- nomic investments, social communication, political investigation and discourse. Cao Fei understands this perfectly. Despite claiming Second Life as a virtual world, she is actually simultaneously engaging herself with the eternal questions of identity, reality and the manipulation of power systems in their formations. In her earlier works, especially in collaborations with Ou Ning and U-thèque Or- ganisation such as “San Yuan Li” and “Da Zha Lan”, Cao Fei has demonstrated a strong interest in investigating China’s urbanisation = its unique post-planning form of development and its impacts on social transformations. Second Life, in turn, offers her an even wider space to explore this field. China’s current wave of urbanisation appears to be her new focus. Her ongoing new project “RMB City – Online Urbanization” refers to this development as an ultimate fantasy and land of promise for many - from politicians to businessmen, from normal people to cultural elites. In the first phase of this project, she has constructed a kind of online city by placing some of the most emblematic facades of China’s urban prides (Tian’an Men, Oriental Pearl TV Tower, new CCTV headquarters, Olympic Stadium, National Grand Theatre, Bank of China, Three Gorges Reservoir) in a highly dense fashion, intertwined with run-down, dilapidated and disorganised old houses. In this spectacular, extravagant and vehement manner, coupled with a great sense of humour and irony, a new China Town is born. Conceived as a kind of fantasy that only exists in “lucid dreams” and mirage, or a kind of Calvi- no-style invisible city, it is nevertheless inseparable from reality in the First Life: it’s named after the Ren Min Bi, China’s national currency, and is for sale, with everyone welcome to invest his or her money for the purchase and collection of buildings in the name of art. The actual exhibition of the work functions as a real estate agency and sales are targeted at the “global art world”. The artist asserted, “China’s current obsession with land development in all its intensity will be ex- tended to Second Life. A rough hybrid of communism, socialism and capitalism, RMB City will be realised in a globalised digital sphere, combining over-abundant symbols of Chinese reality with cursory imaginings of the country’s future” [1].

[1] China Tracy « RMB City – Online Urbanization ». in “RMB City, Cao Fei /SL Avatar: China Tracy”, Vitamin Creative Space, 2007.

Second Life exists only on computer screens, which is our most intimate pos- session in life today. However, it is within this minimalist interface - so close to our senses but yet so uncertain and elusive - where some of the biggest political games are played out. It will irrevocably change our future. In some ways, this can be compared to the “utopian cellularities” in new, democratic transnational organisational forms, as described by Arjun Appadurai. Appadurai points out, “Here lies a vital resource that could counter the worldwide trend to ethnocide and ideocide and here too lies the answer, however incipient, obscure, and tenta- tive, to the strained relationship between peace and equity in the world we inhab- it. At any rate, let us hope that this utopian form of cellularity will be the theatre of our struggles. Otherwise, let us say goodbye both to civilians and to civility.”[2]
As an echo of this utopian proposal, Cao Fei’s strategy of politics of intimacy has probably found its best ground of implementation in Second Life.

                                                                                   San Francisco, 25th February 2008

[2] Arjun Appadurai: « Fear of Small Numbers, an essay on the geography of anger ». Public Planet Books, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2006. p 137.