The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Zombies in Beijing: Cao Fei's Haze and Fog

As soon as I heard that Cao Fei had made a zombie movie I was intrigued and amused - what else could we expect, after all, from the artist who created her own Utopian city on Second Life, complete with her avatar 'China Tracy'?

I had wanted to meet and interview Cao Fei for a long time, although the journey to her studio almost defeated me - and brought my driver to new extremes of exasperated swearing. With a text message of instructions in Chinese and an address (essentially entirely meaningless in most of Beijing, especially in hutong neighbourhoods and outlying villages) we circled around for over an hour, pulling over to ask taxi drivers, women with prams, security guards and anyone else who looked local. Eventually we pulled off the main road (steel and glass structures under construction, factories, new apartments, shopping malls) and instantly were back in winding narrow lanes with chickens wandering in front of the car and skinny dogs slinking along in the shadows or lying scratching themselves in the middle of the road. After emails and phone calls we eventually found the elusive courtyard with the red door. 

The article resulting from that interview was published last week in Creative Asia - here it is.

Cao Fei, Haze and Fog (still), 2013, High Definition Digital Video, 16:9, colour, with sound, 46 min 3 sec (end credit starting from 44 min 24 sec) image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space

In 1959 when Hollywood diva Ava Gardner was shooting the post-apocalyptic drama “On the Beach”, she famously declared that Melbourne was the perfect place to make a movie about the end of the world. Anyone who has spent time in Beijing might be forgiven for thinking the same, as they navigate through a blanketing fog of pollution, glimpsing masked people through the ever-present haze. Artist Cao Fei (曹斐), best known for her love of popular culture, performance, cos-play and the exploration of virtual realities, has given the Chinese capital the “Apocalypse” treatment, with an ambitious new 47-minute drama set in Beijing’s north-eastern suburbs - a zombie movie, with a twist.

With a cast of characters including real estate agents, cleaners and maids, security guards, delivery boys, bored housewives and nouveau riche apartment buyers, as well as a sex-worker who changes costumes quickly in apartment block fire-stairs in between clients, Haze and Fog examines the alienation of a society in which traditional Confucian values and revolutionary collectivism are being transformed by growing wealth and materialism. Class divisions are ever more glaringly obvious, underlined in the film through the relationships between those who are served (by an army of maids, cleaners, delivery boys, manicurists, guards and sex-workers) and those who serve them. The presence of a peacock and a tiger, repeated motifs suggesting the dissonance between nature and culture, are strange and unsettling. Together with a magical realist mise-en-scene and languid cinematography they place the work firmly in the realm of allegory, linking her narrative with Chinese tradition and mythology.

Cao Fei, Haze and Fog (still), 2013, High Definition Digital Video, 16:9, colour, with sound, 46 min 3 sec (end credit starting from 44 min 24 sec) image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space
While Cao Fei was breastfeeding her second child she became obsessed with watching the American TV series The Walking Dead. In conversation with me last month she wryly observed that during this period of her life she had a lot of time on her hands to think and dream as she pushed a pram around her neighbourhood. “Why zombies?” I ask. “I think it’s quite interesting, the idea of a dead city,” she says.  “I like the idea of making a video about an anti- Utopia.” In fact, she says, this is really an “anti-anti-Utopia” as it reverses many of the commonly held assumptions and conventions of the genre. Unlike most zombie movies, “It’s about how the people are the living dead while the zombies are alive - more alive than the living people. This is my feeling, living in this city in the past few years.”

She has been observing Beijing with the clear gaze of the newcomer since she moved there in 2006 from her home in Guangzhou. Moving from the south of China was hard, and she has struggled to feel at home, in an unforgiving environment. “At the beginning I worked on the virtual project so I didn’t need to touch the ground. I was always floating in the virtual world. Then I had two kids. That brought me back to reality!” She slowed down and spent a lot of time at home, feeling a little lost in Beijing.  Her feelings are distilled into the film. “Some of it is my sad feelings about life. I watch different characters in in my district. I take my kids to the supermarket and watch the security guards, I watch people in the gardens. It wasn’t like research for a project, this was my life, and I slowed down and took lots of time. You can feel the heartbeat,” she tells me.

“Is this really how you see Beijing?” I ask. “Not just Beijing, but maybe the whole country,” she replies. “People are stuck. They are living statues. The people are all the same whatever (their) social class. In the film you can see the city like a ghost city - empty real estate, (full of) excess.” She doesn’t want to be too critical, she says, but despite moments of humour the film is a damning portrayal of a lost place full of lost people, none of whom seem able to connect with each other. There is no dialogue, but an evocative cello and tango soundtrack enhances the strange atmosphere. Surreal and disturbing, Haze and Fog is immediately compelling from its opening sequence.  Apartment buyers arrive at an empty, de Chirico-like plaza where real estate agents are spruiking newly built apartments. They run over a cyclist, who turns into a zombie and staggers away. The middle-class buyers are oblivious to his plight, and to the humanity of the bored real estate agents. In Cao Fei’s bleak vision old notions of a common humanity have given way to an individualism that leaves each of her characters utterly alone, alienated from each other.

The ‘haze’ of the work’s title refers to more than the perpetual haze of pollution in Beijing,  In fact, it mirrors the collective psychological ‘haze’ of its inhabitants – an inability to see clearly which impedes human connection, empathy or any vision for the future. Haze and fog are not just weather conditions, but rather an inevitable emotional state in the liminal spaces of the contemporary city. Her characters are trapped in a situation from which they can see no escape.

I met Cao Fei at her studio last month and we spoke about her practice as one of China’s foremost new media artists, and a pioneer of virtual reality. Born in Guangzhou to artist parents in 1978, she creates work which explores a fluid, rapidly changing world and the dissonance between fantasy and reality. Growing up through the period in which southern China transformed itself into the world’s factory provided rich material for her work. Previously she has explored the imaginary identities of factory workers and the seriously weird subculture of Cos Play. This early body of work found its ultimate expression in the digital universe of Second Life, and the design of her virtual Utopia, RMB City, in which her avatar, ‘China Tracy’ acts as guide. She identifies key influences on her early work: “Pop culture, Hong Kong TV, music, Japanese Anime – but less than for my kids! The impact of western culture at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s was just starting.”

Cao Fei, Live in RMB City, 2009, 3D Machinima, 24 min 49 sec (end credit starting from 21 min 15 sec) image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space
In this new work Cao Fei has created memorable characters: the isolated old man on his walking frame; the bored housewife who chops off her own finger in a moment of savagery and is then shown having a manicure, lying listlessly on her sofa; the maid trying on the stiletto heels of her employer – they each reveal aspects of the new China. She pays homage to cinematic conventions, from the bleak urban landscape of Jean Luc-Godard’s Alphaville to a parody of the Hollywood musical, in which her zombies dance through the deserted aisles of the supermarket. The work explores how people can live in what she describes as “magical metropolises”.  She is interested in fantasy lives, the “magic reality” in which we all really live, most especially perhaps those people inhabiting a city in such continual flux as Beijing. People in China reinvent themselves all the time, but in the process, says the artist, they risk losing important parts of their culture, their moral compass and their identity.
Cao Fei, RMB City, image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space

‘Haze and Fog’ is a joint commission produced by Eastside Projects and Vitamin Creative Space, commissioned by University of Salford and Chinese Art Centre, Eastside Projects, and Bath School of Art and Design, Bath Spa University, with Vitamin Creative Space.

Watch the trailer!