On June 30, 2007 the haudenschild Garage collaborated with the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) to present a talk with Cao Fei at the museum. The moderators were Hou Hanru (Former Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chair of the Exhibitions and Museum Studies Program, SFAI) and Aimee Chang (Former Director of Academic & Residency Programs, The Hammer Museum).
For Whose Utopia?, Cao Fei spent six months at the OSRAM China Lighting Ltd. factory in the Pearl River Delta in China. Located in Guangdong Province, the Pearl River Delta has led the massive boom in China’s economy since the late 1970s. From 1980 to 2001 the region’s gross domestic product grew from eight billion USD to just over one hundred billion USD. A major manufacturing base for everyday products for Chinese and foreign markets, the region has drawn workers from throughout China in search of economic opportunities and a better life.
According to Cao, “most of the workers left their hometowns in pursuit of their ideal and dream in the Pearl River Delta area.” In the piece she focuses “on the innermost feelings of every individual in this globalized production chain, this giant and complex system of business, placing them at the center of attention, so as to let them rediscover their personal value which is often neglected during the process of creating huge business value.”
The installation at OCMA (6/30 – 9/2/07) is anchored by the video Whose Utopia?, an eerily beautiful portrait of the factory and of the workers’ daily lives, fantasies, and aspirations. Scenes from a typical workday are interspersed with performances by a peacock dancer, a ballerina dressed as an angel, an electric guitar player, and a break dancer. The final segment of the video—My Future is Not a Dream—is named after the rock band that formed as part of the project. A statement that can be read as both a positive statement of the fairytale possibilities of the future or as a hard dose of reality, the sentiment captures the dual nature of China’s current economic boom.
About the Participants
Cao Fei was born in Guangzhou, China in 1978. She earned a BFA from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in Guangzhou, China (2001). Cao Fei’s work reflects the fluidity of a world in which cultures have mixed and diverged in rapid evolution. Her video installations and new media works explore perception and reality in places as diverse as a Chinese factory and the virtual world of Second Life. Applying strategies of sampling, role play, and documentary filmmaking to capture individuals’ longings and the ways in which they imagine themselves—as hip-hop musicians, costumed characters, or digitized alter egos—Cao Fei reveals the discrepancy between reality and dream, and the discontent and disillusionment of China’s younger generation. Depictions of Chinese architecture and landscape abound in scenes of hyper-capitalistic Pearl River Delta development, in images that echo traditional Chinese painting, and in the design of her own virtual utopia, RMB City. Fascinated by the world of Second Life, Cao Fei has created several works in which she is both participant and observer through her Second Life avatar, China Tracy, who acts as a guide, philosopher, and tourist. Cao Fei’s work has appeared in solo exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London (2008); Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California (2007); Museum Het Domein, Sittard, Netherlands (2006); and Para Site Art Space, Hong Kong (2006). She has participated in the New Museum Triennial (2009); Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2008); Prospect.1 New Orleans (2008); Yokohama Triennial (2008); and Istanbul, Lyon, and Venice Biennials (2007). Her work has appeared at the New Museum, New York (2008); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2007); P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York (2006); and Asia Society, New York (2006). Cao Fei lives and works in Beijing.
Whose Utopia? was produced as part of the Siemen’s Art Program, ‘What are they doing here?’, in which artists were invited to make work as part of a residency in a factory. Cao Fei chose the Osram lighting factory located in Foshan, near her home in southern China. Whose Utopia? documents the conditions faced by an increasing number of workers, as factories like Osram move their production to China, further integrating the country into the global economy. The repetitive work is contrasted with dreamlike episodes in which the workers act out their private dreams. The work is lyrical in its portrayal of subjective dreams within a working context, and of individual subjectivity in a rapidly mechanized world, in which individuality has traditionally been subordinate to class or other abstract and generic groupings.
Hou Hanru was the Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chair of the Exhibitions and Museum Studies program at SFAI. He was also the moderator for the 2004 symposium in Hangzhou, China Envisioning the Future of Contemporary Art From Different Glocal Positions organized in collaboration with the exhibition Zooming into Focus: Photography and Video from the Haudenschild Collection. A prolific writer and curator, Hou received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Central Institute of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he was trained in art history, with additional work in painting, performance, installation, and architectural research. He is a consultant for several cultural institutions internationally including the Global Advisory Committee of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Contemporary Art Museum in Kumamoto, Japan. Described as a significant international voice on cultural difference, Hou is the French correspondent for Flash Art International and a regular contributor to several other journals on contemporary art including Frieze, Art Monthly, Third Text, Art and Asia Pacific, Domus, Atlantica, Texte Zur Kunst, and Tema Celeste. Most recently, Hou was appointed Curator of the 10th International Istanbul Biennial, which will take place from September to November 2007. Other recent curatorial projects include the second Guangzhou Triennale where he co-curated Beyond: An Extraordinary Space of Experimentation for Modernization; Go Inside, the 3rd Tirana Biennale (Tirana, Albania, 2005); Out of Sight, organized by the De Appel Foundation (Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2005); Nuit Blanche 2004 (Paris, 2004); and A L’Ouest Du Sud De L’Est / A L’Est Du Sud De L’Ouest (Villa Arson, Nice, 2004). Hou is one of the first curators and thinkers to examine postmodern issues of nomadic identity, hybridity, globalized mobility, what he calls “in-betweeness,” and artists living in the diaspora.
Aimee Chang is currently the Director of Academic & Residency Programs at The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. She was formerly a curator at the OCMA.