Cao Fei’s Fantastical Take on China’s Sociopolitical Climate


Monica Uszerowicz in Hyperallergic:

In Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, Marco Polo regales Kublai Khan with tales of his travels, musing about the strange poetry of each city and their intersections with memory and selfhood. These cities, in actuality, are not quite real, and whether we are to suspend our disbelief is not clear. As Marco Polo would have it, it’s the space between fantasy and reality from which one gleans the most insight. Regarding the city of Penthesilea, he asks, “Outside of Penthesilea, does an outside exist? Or, no matter how far you go from the city, will you only pass from one limbo to another, never managing to leave it?”

The artist Cao Fei has cited Invisible Cities as a reference point for her short film, “La Town,” which surveys a mysterious city in the throes of post-apocalyptic destitution. La Town is an amalgamation of many places, with its German grocery store, bombed-out McDonalds, and supernatural creatures: a giant octopus appears to have made its way through a window; Santa’s reindeer lay prone on a set of train tracks. The city is built of tiny plastic toys and models, scuffed and bloodied until they lose the inherent charm of being miniature. Two invisible narrators argue back and forth — in French — about the reality of experience, recalling the dialogue between the protagonists of the Alain Resnais 1959 film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, whose memories may or may not be founded in truth. “The illusion, quite simply, is so, so perfect,” says a woman’s voice in Cao’s film. “You saw nothing in La Town,” a man’s voice replies. “Nothing.”

In viewing Cao’s first stateside museum retrospective at MOMA PS1, I found myself continually returning to “La Town.” Its decisive fiction feels allusive of the aftershocks of rapid globalization or, maybe, the singularity. Cao is 37, and the show acts as a chronological timeline of her career, leading visitors from the experimental work of her time at the Guangzhou Art Academy to her recent video, “Rumba II: Nomad,” in which Roomba vacuum cleaners, unleashed at the site of demolished buildings, explore and absorb the urban sprawl like alien creatures.

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