With pieces in Tate London and the Guggenheim, New York, renowned Chinese artist Cao Fei captures the essence of China's rapidly evolving landscape in her thought-provoking artworks. Her mediums range from film and photography to virtual reality installations, exploring themes of memory, globalization and the human condition. 

These pieces offer poignant reflections on the complexities of contemporary Chinese society. They are films that are brought to life by very human characters to allow viewers to empathize with them. Their goals include shedding light on Chinese industrialization that is done at the cost of worker’s rights and anti-Asian racism that Chinese people face across the world. This makes her pieces relevant to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Reduced Inequalities and Responsible Consumption and Production.

Cao's artworks especially culminate in her 2021 exhibition, Staging the Era, at the Ullen’s Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. This exhibition marks the artist’s homecoming, after years of international acclaim and working outside of China. It showcases Cao's multi-layered works as a testament to her ability to navigate the intersection of social and technological change in China. Though the exhibit showcases a combination of photography, video, and virtual reality works by the artist, her video works are especially engaging. They invite viewers to delve into the intricacies of modern Chinese society, one whose identity as a communist state is evolving in a rapidly changing world.

Still from Nova by Cao Fei. Image courtesy of Sprüth Magers.

One of the exhibited pieces, Nova, is a film that explores the intertwining of memory, love and progress in a fictional town where Sino-Soviet space collaboration has shaped the trajectory of its inhabitants. Coincidentally, the heart of Cao's artistic practice lies in Nova’s deep engagement with the concept of memory and its relationship to history and technology. In Nova, this is done through the film’s narrative, which follows a love story between two computer scientists – one Chinese and one Russian.

Nova’s blend of retro-futurism and social commentary delves into the complexities of human relationships in an age of technological advancement. It does this by exploring the regrets of an aging Chinese computer engineer who chose not to pursue his Russian love interest due to socio-political tensions between the two countries. This offers a poignant reflection on the ephemeral nature of love amidst China’s relentless march for progress. 

Nova asks viewers to stop and think about how, behind political and social happenings, there are also real-life humans who feel and love much like they do. This notion breaks down today’s prejudices that may lead to anti-Asian racism.

Still from Nova by Cao Fei. Image courtesy of Frieze Magazine.

Central to Cao's exploration of memory and history is also her critique of globalization and its impact on urban spaces and cultural identities. In her other film piece, Whose Utopia, Cao examines globalization through the lives of Chinese factory workers in the Pearl River Delta. The piece probes into the alienation and disorientation wrought by rapid industrialization, which dehumanizes factory workers in the name of progress.

To show the humans behind China’s large factories, Cao uses a blend of documentary-style footage and spontaneously dancing factory workers. This allows Cao to capture the essence of a generation grappling with the complexities of modernity and the loss of traditional ways of life. Here, Whose Utopia reminds viewers of the real people who exist behind made-in-China consumer goods, encouraging her viewers to question how their consumerist behaviours affect the livelihoods of the factory workers she has depicted.

Still from Whose Utopia by Cao Fei. Image courtesy of Tate Modern.

As the world grapples with the challenges of a post-pandemic reality, Cao Fei's work takes on renewed significance in its exploration of memory, technology and human connection. In a world increasingly defined by virtual interactions and digital landscapes, Cao's art serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving collective memory and fostering meaningful connections in an age of rapid change.

Still from Whose Utopia by Cao Fei. Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Through her evocative imagery and thought-provoking narratives, Cao Fei invites viewers to contemplate the complexities of modern Chinese society and the urgent need for equality. As we navigate an uncertain future, Cao's art serves as a beacon of hope and a reminder of the power of art to provoke thought, inspire change and foster empathy in an ever-changing world.

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