Cao Fei (曹斐)
Once Again, We’re On the Road
“……Buried in the green hills, buried in the ocean, I really don’t know……”
That lass blew a cloud of cigarette smoke towards the Yunnan sky, as she replied to her friend’s dogged question:“Where would you like to be buried if you die?”
Her expression and tone of voice confirmed to me that we were friends on the road. Even though the manner in which we travel today no longer resembles that of Kerouac’s day, but once again, we need to be on the road.
I had previously wandered aimlessly around Second Life with her as my guide – gliding through the empty skies of sections of Kowloon Town, which was no longer regarded as a “malignant social tumour” but rather has morphed into a consumerist arena for one and all to spend their resources.
Perhaps this is the way that travelling is done these days – there is no need to brace yourself through wind and rain, but instead, your left hand must grasp hold of the mouse, your right ear pressed onto your cell phone; without moving one bit, your body has managed to scale through rivers and hills.
I am guessing that Cao Fei’s creative impetus stems from a deep sensitivity and empathy, as well as from some small personal secret hopes and ideals. Each sensitive young person would possess these same ideals as they travel through life. Every generation marks itself by rebelling against parents and education; by specific fashion statements and expensive pursuits; by its own direction towards a new mode of life; and by its tussles and confusions with love. However, not every sensitive youngster can consciously express these elements through creativity as a weapon to help fill up the gaps in his or her life. Not everyone can follow their inner callings and instincts in a similar manner to grasp the pulse of the times and contemporary living. Cao Fei’s works seem to have successfully merged the deep agony and unspoken feelings of this generation into a lucid expression of the mélange gradually. Nevertheless when I had first encountered her works, I felt somewhat ill as if I was seasick, and had an instant distaste for it. Amongst the reasons which had prevented me from entering her early works included this: I suspected that the performance in the video was overwrought and theatrically exaggerated, resulting in the ease in pigeonholing them as some sort of “spectacle” depicting the youth of New China. Stylistically, the shots in the video seemed to be influenced by the films of Shuji Terayama. These works certainly did not convince me to experience reality through the eyes of these artists of the new generation.
That was the case until I saw the video for Cosplayers. When I saw that young kid having dinner at home while he still was clad in armour, I suddenly felt a deep resonance with the creator of the work. This scene alone managed to melt away any opposition I had against the artist.
These young people of the world carry with them the same loneliness we possess; they – like us – are frail, lost, and yet so full of mesmerising imagination.
For me, that scene in Cosplayers showed that the performance was not superficial and externalised, but has become the artist’s inner theatre of the heart.
Cao Fei, Cosplayers, 2004, Video, 9 min 6 sec
Looking back at Cao Fei’s works of that period, once I extricated the deliberate gags and element of nonsense – akin to the antics of Stephen Chow  – in the cinematography, there is still evidence of a wildly vivid imagination and acute observation of ordinary life embedded within. It was a wonderful fusion of youthful hot-blooded enthusiasm and gritty personal struggles. With constant honing through the years, this amalgamation gradually coalesced its madness and rationale, and developed both a macro – and microscopic scrutiny of things. Slowly, she moved from the individual perspective of someone with her own struggle towards a more mature understanding and knowledge of her relationship with the world. From what I can see, her later works – which were her most exhilarating creations – were often full of intricacies about the mundane world, whilst embodying the sense of enchantment that an epic poem has. It was as if the coarse and vulgar world was preparing itself to become the inspiration and content of a new epic poem.
For instance, I·Mirror – a work based on her experience as her avatar “China Tracy” in Second Life – had its genesis in a universal sense of emptiness that was widespread. (Actually, this same feeling of the void was also present in her works Milkman and Cosplayers, but in I·Mirror, the virtual environment of Second Life emphasised this heady co-existence of wild beauty and desolation.) It inevitably led us to think of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland:
April is the cruellest month…
Huge plots of land are being flogged off whilst people are looking for love. These transactions could well be a manifestation of friendship as well.
China Tracy as an ethereal beauty was an extraordinary integration of some of Cao Fei’s earlier performance works. Yet this time, it is Cao Fei who watches her own persona performing instead.
Cao Fei/ China Tracy, I. Mirror, 2007, Video, 28 min
Second Life provided a stage to truly reveal one’s inner emotions through a performance.
Some of the incidents that had happened there bear a chilling resemblance to beautiful reproductions of love stories, but were instead true portrayals of emotions. That person who is called Cao Fei in her first life, and who goes by the moniker of China Tracy in Second Life conceals herself by day and emerges at night; She allows her youth to be consumed as she endeavours to forge relationships with people in a new world.
This is everyone’s path to self-discovery. A new world.
Back to the “first life”. One day in April 2006, four young men named Cao Fei, Ah Long, Tokill, and Fang Zheng took to the road together. Initially, this was meant to be part of the research for Cao Fei’s film on the province of Yunnan. However, due to various reasons, the film never got made. Nonetheless the photos she took later became part of a work entitled Nujiang River Project.
They took their digital camera and their sense of curiosity as travelers with them. However, they didn’t take with them a copy of On the Road, a classic now considered outdated. The timeless connection between those Americans and the four young men in different places made me think of that earlier – and excessively lauded – generation of Americans “on the road”. In my opinion, this link is based on the individual rather than a major cultural current. These young people did not come across any legendary characters while “on the road,” nor was it their intention to forge a legendary journey: they were simply seeking self-discovery and purification through looking and walking, each traveling whilst carrying with him his own difficulties and personal aspirations. The actual meaning of their journey was only brought up later.
Setting out from dusty, fogbound Canton they reached Yunnan, a city with its beautiful, legendary landscapes, yet also increasingly marked by its absorption with the consumerist society. Along the way, they chatted about what it’s like to smoke whilst making love, playing the guitar in churches; they listened to their driver talking about how to spot the local working girls; they played basketball with kids; they met some professional hikers who claimed to have spotted extraterrestrials. And all of a sudden, they found themselves talking about what happens after death.
They also went looking for the mysterious Lake Ting Ming, traveled in disguise on mountain roads, swam in rivulet, went wild with delight at Nujiang River’s majestic “first bend” and were annoyed to see the way the natural environment was being damaged by the construction of a hydro-electric power plant.
The landscapes at the source of the Nujiang might not have been as they had imagined them, but they did see, in a small ghost town, mules carrying sacks of cement for the power plant. In the oppressive context of China’s current difficulties, the “unbearable lightness” of this seemingly simple journey comes immediately to the fore.
As for the landscape the young people failed to see at the end of the journey, I spotted it in a poem by Ma Hua:
150 paces away, the mountain plays hide and seek.
Until it finally vanishes in a dark green mass.
12 li from here, the river sends us its lapping sounds.
The world is only 300 meters high and 30 steps away,
Jostled from all sides by the rain.
Two chestnut mules sparkling from head to foot are returning, stunned, from the beyond.
Ma Hua was a poet who unfortunately died young in a road accident on the banks of the Lancang River. Before his death, he had volunteered to run the primary school in the province of Yunnan. His poems speak of the unity of action and the creative vitality that helped to bring things and beings together: The world returns to the world, the soul reverts to the soul.
While the repeated appearance of churches in the Nujiang River Project is not fortuitous, this does not signal religious fervor in the usual sense, being rather a kind of metaphor of the quest for values: in the face of global shift towards cynicism and the crumbling of values around the world, can artistic creation help us in our life choices?
I’d like to add what seems to me an indispensable part of the Nujiang River Project: the journey along the Nu involves the very conception of life, because the voyage itself is already, furtively, pushing in this direction. This is no revolution of the masses; rather it represents a personal choice in the effort to honestly confront one’s own difficulties. In the course of time an incalculable number of individuals and minority groups whose members understand and get along well with each other will forge anew their dignity and responsibility.
Cao Fei, Nu, 2006, Video installation, exhibition view at Lyon Biennale, 2007
Our youthful narcissism now a thing of the past, we will perhaps be lucky enough to meet people of our own generation, and feel and live through the same confrontations. “[I shambled] as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.”(Jack Kerouac)
In an interview between Xu Tan and Cao Fei, Cao Fei pointed out: “We are living in a society without love, or one in which love is not advocated…sometimes I feel the reason of art’s existence is to rub smooth the social cracks. As an artist, I will try my best in this direction, instead of producing more phony things.”
And I’d like to add: at a time when the whole world is available to us, people still don’t have the possibility of buying themselves the pleasures of life on earth.
What differences are there between the First Life and Second Life?
Creation is a journey back to one’s true innermost emotions.
It is only with this foundation that we can have the possibility to talk about a work’s social functions and effect on others.
From here, we can now truly understand why Deleuze once said, “Books are not for repeated reading, but should be used to do other things.”
If we use this line in a work, perhaps articulating it in this manner will not violate the spirit behind the philosopher’s idea: “Works are not meant for repeated viewing, but should be used to do other things.”
Cao Fei’s works are very lovely to look at, but they are not merely meant for looking.
Take for instance, RMB City, which is a work to revolve around the viewer, far beyond works that are only meant for looking, Rather, it encourages and invites people to participate and interact with it, and through this propose questions about the construction of systems that will broaden the horizon towards greater developments in new directions. As Cao Fei said, “I feel that contemporary art should be more open and inclusive. Because we don’t have a term to describe our own work, for the moment, we are temporarily using the term ‘contemporary art’. But perhaps there could be other names, or even ones which are more free in nature.”
I would like to name it: that which embodies motion, freedom, the spaces between systems.
Cao Fei/ China Tracy, RMB City: A Second Life Planning, 2007, Video, 5 min 57 sec
I·Mirror depicted the beauty of the wilderness at the end of the world. However, it was not a work about the future, but rather about the present – this very moment in time.
The end of the world and the chilly, callous fairy dreamscape.
Should we hold idealised expectations for aesthetics of the future?
If we take the title of one of Lu Chun Sheng’s works: One of the most stupid attacks against science fiction is that it is unable to forecast the future, then maybe this is not an era during which we can have the aesthetics for fore-knowledge of the future, because we can’t even predict the present.
Alternatively, we could say that in reality, the aesthetics of the future is nothing mysterious.
It exists in the blurry, fused fringes between reality and imagination. It will gradually intergrate more with everyday actions of life. Meanwhile, artists will once again surreptitiously reside in their various tribes in different corners of the world, raising their voices in their own ways; they will not simply rest in the convenient pigeonholes allocated to them by the art system. The system will not get its way that easily.
Artists will commit themselves more into life. Through their own personal observations and creations, they will link up seemingly unrelated entities, such that ties previously severed in the world can be conjoined again and allowed to be mobile. On this note, perhaps through the opening query in Whose Utopia?, Cao Fei had already burrowed into her past sufficiently for it to lead into her future route:
The title acts as both a question as well as a statement. Utopia needs to be constructed by us working together – or to put it another way, some people truly need Utopia. I reckon that I am someone with a Utopia complex. I am not an anti-Utopia activist, although I am not entirely clear about its prospect, it does possess an inexplicable power to push me forward – and I would then move accordingly in that direction.
And there’s more – let’s say one day, if necessary, I can just toss out my artist status and go do something that involves more direct action. That is certainly possible.
Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006, Video, 20 min 7 sec
I figured that these images will always remain embedded within her consciousness. In this society that is constantly in flux, we should collectively preserve these memories of the future.
As such, we will be always on the road.
(All images: Courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Text: Vitamin Archive)