To call Cao Fei an emerging talent is a misnomer. Born in 1978, the Chinese multimedia artist is new neither to the market nor to institutions. Part of the first post-Internet wave, like Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, Fei addresses mainstream culture as well as the fringes. Her practice, a combination of videos, installations and performances, allows her to embrace digital and pop culture as a medium as well as a subject matter.
“In the past media was secondary—the concept was the most important,” Fei says. “But new media not only can drive and change the way the artist performs, but also the artist can think through multiple dimensions.” Gleefully navigating these rapidly evolving systems and manipulating them to suit her needs, Fei is a trailblazer as well as a potent subversive.
Fei’s trajectory began at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, where she vacillated between video and performance. Two years after graduating, in 2003, the young artist was asked to show at the Venice Biennale—the first of three, to date. Early projects like COSPlayers (2004), a eye-catching video featuring a troop of sparring teens dressed in fetish costumes romping through the industrial landscape of Guangzhou, put her on the radar. Whose Utopia? (2006) followed on its heels; another sexually driven story, Fei dared her audience to indulge their deepest desires while observing a group of factory workers doing the same. (The work struck a chord at the Guggenheim, which snatched up a copy.) Insidiously appealing, these short films embrace a space between reality and fantasy. “My zodiac sign is Pisces,” says Fei, by way of explaining her duality. “I am always good at balancing between dream and reality, fantasy and fiction, love and hate, a variety of contradictory situations, environments and emotions.”
Her work is currently the focus of a new exhibition at MoMA PS1—her first U.S. solo show. This mini retrospective introduces New York to a figure who already has an extensive global reach. After this, in addition to two other solo shows in Asia, she’s finishing up the latest iteration of the BMW Art Car project, which will tour museums next year.