Dystopia in Beijing: Cao Fei’s Haze and Fog – book review

Cao Fei’s film Haze and Fog reworks the zombie film genre and turns the lens on contemporary life in Beijing.

From 26 October to 7 December 2013, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester, United Kingdom, hosted an exhibition of Chinese artist Cao Fei’s film Haze and Fog. An e-book of essays with diverse critical assessments of the film was released to coincide with the exhibition on 25 October 2013.

Cao Fei, 'Haze and Fog', 2013. Still from the film courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space.

Cao Fei, ‘Haze and Fog’, 2013, still from film. Image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space.

Cao Fei (b. 1978) is a multimedia and video artist based in Beijing. She is among a new generation of artists emerging from Mainland China. Her work engages with the rapid changes taking place in Chinese society and often combines social critique with popular aesthetic sensibilities. The 47-minute long Haze and Fog is the first commission for the New Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art, a collaboration between CFCCA and the University of Salford.

The companion e-book, available as a free download, contains an introduction by Rachel Marsden and essays by Lindsay Taylor, Chris Berry, Xavier Aldana Reyes, Francesca Tarocco and Katie Hill.

Watch the trailer for Cao Fei’s Haze and Fog on Youtube.com

Magical metropolises

In Haze and Fog, Cao Fei takes on the zombie film genre, but unlike traditional western representations, here the zombies represent the death of the soul. The mundane day-to-day life of Beijing’s citizens finds expression in meaningless mechanical tasks, isolation and emotional vacuum, portraying ordinary people as mere steps away from turning into the zombies that also populate the city. Through the use of dull colours despite the work’s peak summer setting and tango music despite the serious theme, Cao Fei balances contradictions, absurd humour and a satirical look at life in what she calls “magical metropolises”. As Rachel Marsden, Research Curator at CFCCA, says in the book’s introduction:

The artist sees the cities as magical, “possessed by both the magic’s fanciful illusion and its devilish terror”, where those who have lost their traditional links in life have entered, as such, a “haze and fog” and a numb state of neutral modernity.

In the first essay, Lindsay Taylor, Art Curator at the University of Salford, discusses the decision to commission Cao Fei to create this film and its significance as the first commissioned work of the new Chinese collection at the University.

Cao Fei’s zombies

In his essay “Disconnection, apathy and chopped fingers”, Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes of Manchester Metropolitan University analyses the unconventionality of Cao Fei’s zombies. Cao Fei does not ascribe to the traditional usage of zombies as a horror element; rather, as Marsden says in the introduction, here the zombies are merely a “gestural cross-cultural reference”, there being no concept of the ‘zombie’ in Chinese culture. Cao’s zombies are more of a metaphorical representation of how life/death are defined and what it really means to be ‘alive’ or ‘dead’. Dr Reyes suggests that these zombies are almost an extreme exaggeration of the apathetic mindless lives of what the other denizens of the city already are: existing for the sake of existence.

Cao Fei, 'Haze and Fog', 2013. Still from the film courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space.

Cao Fei, ‘Haze and Fog’, 2013, still from film. Image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space.

Haze, imagery and visual narratives

Haze and Fog is a largely silent film with barely any dialogue, the absence of which highlights the isolation and lack of communication between people in a modern city. Chris Berry of King’s College London refers to it as a “new silent cinema of gestures”.

The film relies on strong but fragmented visual narration, with a series of tableaux playing out between different characters. Katie Hill from the Office of Contemporary Chinese Art and Francesca Tarocco of New York University Shanghai suggest that the perpetual haze in Beijing’s environment mirrors the collective psychological and emotional obfuscation faced by its inhabitants.

At the same time, the film is peppered with moments of serene beauty – usually arising from nature as opposed to the alien, artificial built environment, such as the repeated motif of a peacock – that Hill believes can “lift us out of the white haze” into a “world of creative possibility”. To quote from Chris Berry’s essay:

The whole work moves lightly, lifted by comic moments that relieve the tension but make the point all the more strongly. […] Haze and Fog’s pace, energy and rhythm move us smoothly through the film with a growing sense of delight at Cao Fei’s artistry, but the suffocating haze that blankets the apartments never actually disperses.

More about Cao Fei

Cao Fei’s work is concerned with the changes that urbanisation brings to life and the loss of tradition in the face of modernity. She often addresses the rapid and chaotic evolution of culture and collective consciousness. Cao Fei has exhibited widely, including at the 50th Venice Biennale, Mobile M+ in Hong Kong, the Biennale of Sydney, Moscow Biennale and Shanghai Biennale. She won the Best Young Artist award by CCAA (Chinese Contemporary Artist Award) in 2006 and was nominated for the Future Generation Art Prize 2010 and the Hugo Boss Prize 2010 at the Guggenheim, New York. She lives and works in Beijing.

Kriti Bajaj


Related Topics: Chinese artists, film, book reviews, art about urban life, events in Manchester, the art of Cao Fei

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