Cao Fei

Biography of Cao Fei

Something of an enfant-terrible, Cao Fei is undoubtedly among the most important—and daring—artists to emerge out of China’s booming contemporary art scene. Since obtaining her degree from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2001, she has used digital media, video and photography to comment on the dramatic changes experienced in her homeland over the last 20 years. China’s vast economic growth, urban development and immense globalization have become the core subject matter of Cao Fei’s oeuvre.


While debuting as an artist at the turn of the century, Cao Fei’s works remained set in her native Pearl River Delta region. The 2004 film COSplayers depicted teenagers from the area dressed up as anime characters. In this work she sought to capture the internet’s power in bringing international subcultures to such remote parts of the world, and also to address the younger generations’ gradual rejection or disinterest in the traditional values so intrinsic in Chinese culture. Her experimental documentary San Yuan Li similarly studied the effects of development and globalization on long-established agrarian lifestyles.


Although San Yuan Li was commissioned for and by the Venice Biennale, it is Whose Utopia that has proved to be the seminal work of Cao Fei’s career. The film is set in the industrial city of Foshan where she documented the monotonous work of the factory laborers and then filmed them acting out their aspirations. Amidst machinery, the workers perform a huge variety of different acts, from ballet dancing to eclectic guitar playing, pulling viewers into Cao Fei’s somewhat unruly imaginative visions. 


In 2009 Cao Fei launched her major project RMB City: A Second Life City Planning by China Tracy (aka: Cao Fei). In this work she reimagined the future of Chinese cities using a virtual reality platform which allowed users, through their designated avatars, to purchase, trade, build structures, and interact with other avatars in a mesmerizing, artificial, utopian view of a future China.


As one of the most successful Chinese contemporary artists, Cao Fei has exhibited across the world, including at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Center for Contemporary Art Tel Aviv, and MoMA PS1 in New York. She has recently been featured in two seminal group exhibitions, Bentu: Chinese artists in a time of turbulence and transformation, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, and Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World at the Guggenheim in New York. Cao Fei has participated in the Guangzhou Triennial in 2002 and 2005 and represented China at the Venice Biennale in 2003, 2007 and 2015. Today the artist lives and works in Beijing, China.

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