In a video produced by art:21, Chinese artist Cao Fei discusses the anti-hero characteristics she gave factory workers from Pearl River Delta, a region that experienced rapid growth in manufacturing, in a recent theatrical work.

Called PRD Anti-Heroes, the performance has the feel of a variety show, outlandish and comical, yet it addresses the realistic concerns of workers in the Pearl River Delta development. Click here to watch the video (4m:02s) on art:21.

Cao Fei, 'PRD Anti-Heroes', 2005, multi-media opera, Guangzhou Triennial, video with sound (2h:22m), courtesy Lombard-Freid Projects, New York. © Cao Fei.

Cao Fei, 'PRD Anti-Heroes', 2005, multi-media opera, Guangzhou Triennial, video with sound (2h:22m), courtesy Lombard-Freid Projects, New York. © Cao Fei.

Cao Fei, 'PRD Anti-Heroes', 2005, multi-media opera, Guangzhou Triennial, video with sound (2h:22m), courtesy Lombard-Freid Projects, New York. © Cao Fei.

Farces and soap operas influence Cao Fei

Fei speaks about watching Hong Kong soap operas and Cantonese farces while growing up, and about adapting this style for her play. The acting was done mostly by students and not by professional actors, which added a boorish element to the performance. As Fei explains in the art:21 video,

Growing up, I watched a lot of Cantonese comedies or farces, including soap operas from Hong Kong. They are very different from American soap operas. They’re more … pedestrian and more vocal. So I adapted this tone throughout my play. Sometimes when I watch it, I have the feeling that this play was not done by me.

Heroes and anti-heroes

In the interview, Cao Fei talks about the term “anti-hero”, the figure’s place in traditional Chinese legends and folklores and how she gave the unconventional characteristics of this type of protagonist to the factory workers. She says that

An anti-hero has a more folksy and wild way of doing things. He’s not likely going to follow social norms. I feel there’s more human[ity] in these characters. A hero is something for society to flaunt and taunt. They are the mainstream model. Anti-heroes often reflect something outside of the mainstream. They are often recognised for their accomplishments outside of the official ideology, regardless of their personalities or flaws. So you will see this kind of element in the female factory workers in the play. I gave them anti-hero characteristics. In other words, they are the heroes with no names, anonymous and unsung.

Second Life and Shadow Life

In the past few years, Fei’s exploration and study into the virtual world of Second Life has dominated her work. From 2008 to 2011, Fei created a virtual utopian city called, RMB CITY which was fabricated from her imagination. Cao Fei observes and participates in this virtual city and world through her second life avatar, China Tracy, who resides there.

Click here to watch an interview with Cao Fei in which she discusses avatars (2m:27s) on art:21.

Cao Fei, 'RMB CITY 6', 2007, digital c-print, 47.2 x 63 inches, 120 x 160 cm, courtesy Lombard-Freid Projects, New York. © Cao Fei.

Another recent work by Cao Fei is titled Shadow Life. This video features a Mao-like dictator and shows his interaction with his applauding supporters. The New York Times reported that Fei’s inspiration for this work came from a state broadcast of a Chinese Spring Festival Gala.

Click here to watch a clip of a video, called Shadow Life (10m:00s), by Cao Fei.

Cao Fei, 'Shadow Life' (still), 2011, single channel colour video with sound, 10m:0s, courtesy Lombard-Freid Projects, New York. © Cao Fei.

About Cao Fei

Cao Fei was born in 1978 in Guangzhou, China, where she attended the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, and currently lives and works in Beijing. She is well-known for her multimedia installations, plays and videos and often references the rapidly changing landscape of contemporary Chinese society in her films and installations. One of her most recent projects, RMB CITY (2008-2011), has been exhibited at Deutsche Guggenheim (2010), Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo, (2009), Serpentine Gallery, London (2008), and at the Yokohama Triennale (2008). Other work by the artist has appeared at biennales around the world including the 50th and 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), the Istanbul Biennale (2007), the 15th and 17th Biennales of Sydney (2006/2010), the Moscow Biennale (2005) and the Shanghai Biennale (2004). Fei was named a finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize in 2010 and won the 2006 CCAA (Chinese Contemporary Art Award) for Best Young Artist.


Related Topics: Cao FeiChinese artists, performance, video art, video interviews

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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