Cao Fei and husband Lim Tzay Chuen in their cinema studio, Beijing

In northern Beijing’s Chaoyang District, set back from a busy road, is a delightful old disused cinema. Built circa mid 20th century, its white tiled façade has a distinctly Russian feel. The cinema has been closed for some time now and an air of neglect is beginning to settle over the exterior along with a layer of dun-coloured Beijing pollution. But all the windows are intact and inside curtains hang at the entrance doors. In the foyer floors are swept clean and the walls, painted in pastel shades of pink and green, look fresh. Sadly, I learn that in the not too distant future possible demolition awaits this subdued old lady of a building.

Just over a year ago, Chinese multimedia artist and film-maker Cao Fei leased the building as a studio space – she found it advertised on the internet – taking the front half of the cinema auditorium, the foyer, upstairs projection room and several smaller rooms on the second floor. Cao shares the various spaces with her Singaporean artist-husband Lim Tzay Chuen. The rest of the space is used for storage by someone else. Back from her first museum solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) PS1 (3 April to 30 August 2016), we met at the studio to talk about Cao’s meteoric rise to international prominence on the world art stage. It is cold and she is soberly dressed in a long black padded jacket and jeans with workman’s boots. She has cycled to the studio and confesses to not owning a car in Beijing.

Cao said she does not entirely trust studios in China. This is understandable when one considers that several prominent Chinese artists have had their studios swept arbitrarily aside by the wrecker’s ball, including Ai Weiwei, Guan Wei and Yuan Gong. For a time, she worked from a room at home, eyrie-like in a Beijing high-rise that commanded views of similar high-rise apartments. ‘With new technology you hardly need more than a table … Perhaps also a coffee machine,’ Gao said mischievously. The cinema is by far her largest studio to date. Her previous studio in Beijing was ‘very, very small’ in comparison. But ‘because I am not an installation artist or painter I do not need a big space. I have a computer at home and for film editing I will sometimes use a post editing studio,’ she told Asian Art Newspaper.

At 38, Cao Fei has become one of China’s hottest art properties – albeit better-known overseas than in her home country. She has had work included in dozens of exhibitions throughout the world including Paris at the Centre Pompidou, London’s Tate Gallery, the Venice Biennale – and last year’s show at  MoMA PS1. Overseas audiences have taken to her surreal films that show the dreams and aspirations of a generation of China’s youth coming to terms with the country’s rapid transition to a capitalist economy and their retreat into a fantasy world far removed from reality. Her art, mainly videos, films and multi-media examines this disjunct between these two worlds and the sterile isolation that many feel growing up and living in anonymous cities. It would be easy to see her output as critical of China’s progress but she argues fiercely that this is not the case. Her work she says, perhaps a touch disingenuously, is social commentary and that she is an observer.

Cao studied film and communication at the Guangzhou Art Academy graduating in 2001 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. One of her earliest films was the experimental documentary San Yuan Li (2003) made with the writer and artist Ou Ning – they shared the director’s cap. The film catapulted her career forward when it was selected by Chinese curator Hou Hanru for inclusion in the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. San Yuan Li was a watershed for the youthful Cao and demonstrated her increasing engagement with the paradox of China’s rapid growth and the resulting social marginalisation it created. Filmed in a fast disappearing rural village on the fringes of Guangzhou city, San Yuan Li explores a burgeoning metropolis consuming everything in its path in the name of economic progress.

The themes of social alienation and exclusion at the advance of such rapid modernisation resurfaced over a decade later in Cao’s 44-minute zombie film, Haze and Fog (2014). Filmed the anonymous and ubiquitous housing projects of Beijing the film charts the bizarre and anti-social antics of young people and their disintegrating relationships. Only zombies that mindlessly consume each other can survive in this environment and Cao makes liberal use of such horror. It came as no surprise to discover that one of Cao’s favourite television series is the American horror drama, The Walking Dead, where on a post-apocalyptic stage zombies battle human survivors for supremacy.  

Cao grew up in Guangzhou in Southern China – of which she has fond and warm memories – a city often described as China’s industrial powerhouse. Its proximity to Hong Kong gave Cao easy access to Western culture that was beamed in via Hong Kong television. Bootlegged American CDs were also available from Hong Kong. ‘As a child and teenager I watched a lot of movies with my older sister,’ she said. Today Cao’s favourite directors are Frederico Fellini, Jacques Tati,  and the obscure Swedish director Roy Andersson, movie directors who liberally use, grotesque absurdity, strange comedy and ridiculous situations respectively, all tropes that were to make their way into many of Cao’s films.

But she was also influenced by the internet and its propensity to rapidly disseminate both pop and youth-culture, subcultures which continue to fascinate her. She credits her father, the Socialist Realist sculptor Cao Chong’en (who suffered during the Cultural Revolution and who learnt to do what was required of him to appease the Communist Party), as allowing her the freedom to pursue contemporary art. Stylistically father and daughter could not be further apart. 

An early foray into the world of fantasy is Cao’s 2004 film COSPlayers, which shows Chinese youth dressed as bizarre characters influenced by Japanese animé (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese cartoons). Set against the Guangzhou industrialised landscape the film defines how a bored generation seek escape in fantasy role-play. They cavort and act out curious, almost ritualistic scenarios, even wearing their costumes at home in what appears to be a disapproving alien family environment.

The separation between reality and dreams Cao defined in her seminal work Whose Utopia (2006). Filmed over six months in a Siemens light bulb factory in the Pearl River Delta she follows various 20 production line workers who act out their dreams in front of Cao’s camera. There are several moments of extraordinary bathos and a tragic sense of total futility as the workers briefly become ballerinas, break-dancers, and rock musicians.

Cao created her own utopia RMBCity in the online virtual world of Second Life, where her avatar was China Tracey, a randomly chosen name, Cao explained. RMBCity is a melange of architectural styles which juxtaposes Beijing’s Forbidden City, Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower and an enormous version of Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1951) alongside floating pandas and statues of Chairman Mao on the Second Life platform. Part toy town, part holiday getaway and part a perhaps dated version of what a futuristic city would be like RMBCity was limited only by fertility of Cao’s fertile imagination. RMBCity was eventually bought by the renowned Swiss collector of contemporary Chinese art, Uli Sigg who has since donated it to Hong Kong’s M+ Museum.

In this fantasy world or Second Life it was not long before China Tracey’s slipped into a romantic liaison with an avatar named Hug Yue. The relationship did not last but I was surprised to hear from Cao that she met her husband in this virtual world. Lim was a Cao Fei groupie who came looking for her and romance. ‘Do you think he looks like a revolutionary?’ She roars with laughter. ‘A hero from communist times perhaps. We met first as avatars. But Lim was not a good avatar. He was mysterious and only met me for fun. He was not an active avatar in the Second Life world. In Second Life it is like watching a movie where you are the player,’ Cao confided. They married in 2008 and now have two children.

Cao pre-empts my next questions when I ask if they are settled in Beijing. She said how she feels more alive in Guangzhou. ‘But I am too lazy to move. The children keep me busy. When we got the cinema I thought, now I have no time to move,’ she said. She laments the inconvenience of Beijing and its increasing lack of small neighbourhood shops. ‘Beijing is so big and expensive. In Beijing we buy everything online, eggs, groceries, everything can come to us. Internet shop owners you can trust. In Guangzhou every community has its own local shops, but not in Beijing,’ she commented.  

I wonder if Haze and Fog, the dystopic ironic paean to city life, is really about Cao’s own sense of being trapped. ‘I tell my friends if I lived in Guangzhou, or HK, I could not film Haze and Fog,’ she  explained.

To gain an insight into Cao’s life one need only look at her Instagram account; views from tower block windows (where I assume she lives) across a monotonous cityscape (very Haze and Fog), pictures of her children playing, domestic trivia, somehow bland and ordinary. The notorious Beijing pollution is seen through an apartment window. Lim occasionally pops into view. There are vignettes of the ordinary made extraordinary by curious juxtapositions, washing hanging on lines, curious rubbish in the streets, abandoned socks. Is this really the account of one of China’s most intriguing and alluring contemporary artists? Perhaps unfairly one expects more. Even so she has over 7,000 followers and I am one of them. 

Cao Fei is an enigma. She is an international conceptual artists with a prodigious reputation inhabiting a world riven by deep schisms, producing films that by their very subject matter are covertly critical of life in China; she appears on the covers of high-end coffee table magazines globally and she embraces being a wife and mother. And she has a gloomy dystopic view of the world’s future.

Nothing in more dystopic than the 2014 film La Town 2014, a 41.56 minute single-channel apocalyptic video of devastation, catastrophe and despair. It is also an extraordinary work of art created by Cao from a series of miniature toy dioramas. It is a microscopic world where miniature landscapes crumble before one’s eyes, tiny cars crash, and people make love in a violent and destructive land. La Town is a complete apocalyptic vision and a profound contemplation of a dehumanised society that has had its dignity stripped away. It is an allegory of the modern world struggling between a stultifying present and the yet to be realised future. La Town was shown at Cao’s MoMA PS1 exhibition. The New York Times art critic described it as ‘a masterpiece’.

We rattle on around the semi-empty studio space. Our footsteps echo. The furniture is minimalist just one of two desks uncomfortably placed. On one side of the auditorium is a conjoined row of seats from the 1960s that looking painfully uncomfortable. The light fittings downstairs are of the period with hints of an earlier Art Deco era. Upstairs it is different, more contained and where paint peels from the walls. I climb up into what would have been the projection room and peer through into an off-limits storage space leased to someone else. It is full of packing cases, but I can see midnight blue curtains still hanging at the proscenium arch and what would have been the cinema balcony. The faux leather seats and couches remain. They are thick with dust.

Last November, Cao picked up the Chinese Contemporary Art Award 2016 Best Artist award. I asked her if she had any lost dreams. She does not. ‘From the very beginning, I just wanted to be a film director’.

We do one last tour of the studio space and Cao explained, ‘Many artist studios are much bigger in China. But neither of us really care about space. We are here because we like the cinema. We are very excited to have it because in a few years it will be demolished. I think it is an interesting experience

Then as an afterthought she added. ‘Many people do not know where I am. I do not go out much in Beijing so when I do go to an opening many people will ask, “You still live in Guangzhou?” Oh, I say, I live here in Beijing for ten years already’. And I guess she and Lim will still be living in Beijing in 10 years’ time although not in this studio which remains an echo from another long lost world.

By Michael Young