Chinese youth identities in Cao Fei's contemporary photography

Seminar Paper, 2009

28 Pages, Grade: 6 (Schweiz)



1 Introduction

2 Biography of Cao Fei

3 Life in a Changing China
3.1 Theories of cultural globalization
3.2 Negotiating Chinese youth identities
3.3 Chinese youth identities and Storage Box (2001) and Fresh (2002)
3.4 Escaping alienation into Utopia: The Cosplayers (2004) series

4 The local and the global
4.1 Chinese art discourse
4.2 Positioning Cao in a local and global art discourse

5 Conclusions


Photo credits


1 Introduction

Cao’s art and photography is bizarre, playful and unusual: She uses video, conceptual photography, installation and experimental theatre and the Internet as means of expression (Wei/Lynn 2008). Her central themes are “the rapid social and cultural upheavals in China” as well the “‘Speed Urbanism’ with its processes of social and economic change” (Seifermann 2008). It’s her photography work on which I concentrate in this seminar report, which mostly was created as side-projects to video works (Cao 2009).

Hou Hanrou sees the main topic of her work in the “Brand-New Human Beings (xinxin renlei)” of China, the young generation of Chinese citizens. They experience “serious alienation and solitude generated by the ‘new values’ of urban and commercial society” (Catalogue Sittard 2006).

She evaluates Chinese youth identities through pop culture, which clashes with decreasing traditional Chinese values and sets them in relation to contemporary society and global and local influences. Her work, in short terms, could be described as abandoning current local art styles like political pop and cynical realism in favour of ambiguous vocabulary (Holmes 2007): “I want to see what happens when I connect with different pop culture all over the word. A bridge between art and pop culture, that’s what I want to be” she states (Oyama 2007).

The aim of this paper will be to investigate how Fei evaluates the lives of Chinese youth in artistic as well as presentational means. How does she situate herself in a global art discourse? What are the local and the global influences and traces in her work?

I will start with the artist itself, describing her personal influences and experiences, to continue with theories of cultural globalization, the melting of the local and global spheres and agencies to be able to explain in a next step the negotiation of Chinese youth identities in contemporary China. I will blend these insights with particular photographs of Cao’s work. In a final step, I will try to situate her in a local and a global art discourse, using the presented material.

The literature about Cao Fei is plentifull, but because she had her first solo exhibitions only five years ago (2004), there hasn’t been published a lot of extensive material about her yet. I will use information form group as well as solo exhibitions in which she contributed and complete it with magazine articles as well as philosophical literature about identity and contemporary Chinese youth culture.

In a final step, I will try to summarize the answers to my questions and reflect about problems and uncertainties faced during the working process.

2 Biography of Cao Fei

Cao was born 1978 in Guangzhou, a costal city in South-China and Special Economic Zone, which felt the changes of Chinas economic reform as one of the first places in the country. Both her parents are sculptors (her mother worked as an art school instructor), so she had imprints from such art discourses from an early age. Interestingly however, there are no obvious traces of sculpturing found in her work. She describes her major inspirations and influences for her work as comics, Japanese cartoons, break dancing, MTV, Hong Kong cinema and pop culture in general. The strong global influences reflect “China’s new hybrid society” that is constructed through the poles of rapid industrialisation with enormously increasing consumerism and Chinese traditions and communist leadership on the other side: one country with two systems (Oyama 2007, Groom/Smith 2007).

Her parents were strongly absorbed by their work, which left Cao quite a lot of freedoms. She learned break dancing behind their back and directed comedy musicals at her high school, which were totally different from traditional plays, “mixing all kinds of music” (Oyama 2007).

2001 she graduated from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and started to contribute to group exhibitions all over the world (Cao 2009): Taipei, Korea, Berlin, the Netherlands (Oyama 2007), Singapore, Sydney, and Moscow biennials, and at major museums, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and New York's Museum of Modern Art (Artcrush 2009). Her partner Ou Ning, a curator and graphic designer, who founded U-thèque, an independent film and video organization (Wikipedia 2009b), introduced her to film making.

Her early work consists of absurd or unusual situations and events: In the video Chain Reaction (2000) she shows morbid and horror like situations of medical treatment, which Groom/Smith (2007) see as a parody of Science Fiction B movies. She displays a cut off ear in nutrition-liquid, a poison filled syringe and masked doctors. In Public Space – Give me as kiss (2002) she shows a man in a public space, dancing crazy and trying to kiss strangers (Cao 2009b).

She is interested in the unusual, the outsider: In her theatre production PRD (Pearl River Delta) Anti-Heroes (2005) she presents outsiders (“Coolies, beggars, gamblers, mistresses, fortune-tellers, trash-collectors, sellers of pirated DVDs”) (Hu 2009) as demiurges of an alternative history where the “real driving force of the creation of history” (Hou 2005) are the people. “The nation’s history always credits the good hero, like Lei Feng. I am more interested in the folk. I am interested in common people. Different jobs. History never remembers them” (Cao/Strom 2006).

2006 she won the Young Artist's Prize from the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (Wei/Lynn 2008).

In her more recent work RMB City (2007) she is interested in escapism and the creation of self-imagined spaces. Her island RMB City is a utopian and dystopian place at the same time, showing the paradoxes of dreams clashing with reality: The island city consists of skyscrapers collected in a trolley which is floating in the sea, smoking sweets or a stranded ship. Her work can be visited interactively through the platform Second Life (Lombard-Freid 2009).

Cao was nominated for the Hugo Boss Prize 2010 (Vogel 2009). She lives and works in Beijing together with her new born son and her husband (Cao 2009c).

3 Life in a Changing China

3.1 Theories of cultural globalization

To situate Cao’s work in a global art discourse and to understand China’s fast changing society, I would like to deal with some major theories of cultural globalization. There exist different explanations for the phenomenon of cultural globalization: Sociologist George Ritzer spoke up for the McDonaldization of the world society, meaning basically a homogenisation of the cultural world and lifestyles through the spread of McDonalds, Starbucks, blue jeans, TV-series and other commodities all over the world. In this worldview, humans are what they consume and buy (Beck 1997) or put in a proverb “you’re what you eat” (Friedman 1994: 235).

Robert Robertson argues against this homogenisation theory. He states that cultural globalization works dialectic, and that localisation plays an important part in it. Globalization in Robertson’s concept always means de-localization and also re-localization as a temporal, continuous process. Robertson launched the term glocalization, to describe cultural globalization as process where localities and global influences collide, as a dialectic phenomenon, where cultures are paradox, instable glocal cultures (Beck 1997) .

Arjun Appadurai (1996) speaks of scapes: ethnoscapes (scapes of people which model the world), technoscapes, financescapes, mediascapes and idioscapes (which are not fixed to place and time, but are amorphous and flowing) that produce glocal cultures, being the result of the overlapping of different scapes that constantly change by themselves. This means, that imagination plays an important part in peoples everyday lives. People imagine a big spectrum of possible lives for themselves and produce localities through their imagination.

Patricia Alley-Dettmers developed the idea of transnational social spaces, of the places as for instance China, not as geographical entity but as an idea, a concept, a staging. Therefore, something like Chinese and China is created through the practices of people all over the world, through the actions and performances of people, through transnational business and political actions (Beck 1997).

Summarizing the different theoretical approaches to cultural globalization one can distinguish between a consumer centred approach (Ritzer), the production of locality as a dialectic process (Robertson) and localities as produced through the imagination of involved actors (Appadurai/Dettmers).

3.2 Negotiating Chinese youth identities

In a next step, I would like to link the presented concepts of cultural globalization to the current Chinese society and the life-worlds of Chinese youth. China’s young generation (people from teenage years till late twenties) make up 25,36% of Chinas 1.3 billion people, that is roughly 315 million people (Xi 2006). The young Chinese lives are influenced mainly by two strong changes that occurred during the last forty years: The fast change from a communist economy (centralized planned economy) to a socialist market economy with strong capitalist characteristics with the maintenance of communist rule and the initiation of the one child policy in the 1970s. Current Chinese youth identity can be seen as something negotiated between these two major influences.

The older generations call the young Chinese mockingly the little emperors or me generation (Weber 2002). These mock names come from the fact that today’s youngsters in China enjoy high material pleasures and are, as mentioned before, mostly only-children. This marks the other fundamental change that occurred in China over the last 30 years: Under the policy of Mao, big families were the norm and people had to suppress their individual wishes in favour of the goals of the communist party: The individual had to participate in the cultural revolution, work for the benefit of the party or so that one of their sibling could go to. Today’s young Chinese only-children get the bundled attention of their parents and relatives. They have much better educational possibilities than their parents but are under enormous pressure too: Competition between students is enormous, as it’s for jobs. Parents put all their hopes into their only child, who is asked to take care of them when they are old (Fong 2002).

As a result of the enormously fast changing economy and the change of values, Weber (2002) sees the Chinese youth as confused, because they don’t have any clear models or traditions they can stick to. The traditions and experiences of their parents are only partially useful in a society that asks capitalist skills, which their parents can’t learn them.

Weber defines the identity of Chinese youth torn between the urge to be individualistic in economic affairs but not in social matters of self-expression and self-realization. They are experiencing the problems of “one country with two systems” (Weber 2002: 347): capitalist economy and communist policy. Young Chinese have to seek their way “towards a functional coexistence of individualistic and collectivist values” (Weber 2002: 347). He summarizes his thesis as follows:

Youth face a difficult situation after 23 years of economic reform. Spiritually, Chinese youth are experiencing a void, despite the attempts by the government to re-establish Chinese consciousness through its spiritual civilization program. It has no model to follow with the system encouraging them to capitalise on the situation and make money, yet no provision for how to balance these material excesses in a system that does not recognise liberalisation of self-expression (Weber 2002: 365).

Summarizing the tendencies explained in this chapter, Chinese youth have to build their own identities in imaginative and dialectic way. Unable to rely on tested role models, they construct their own identities through interpretation of international and national media, consumerism and Chinese traditions. Poon argues, that “China’s rapid economic growth shifting to high gear is bound to whip out the last ounce of energy from every individual in his pursuit of prosperity” (Poon 2008) and that “The majority of young Chinese today lead a spiritually disoriented and rootless life. It is not a problem for young people to be rebellious. The problem is that this era does not provide any reliable set of values for them to rebel against, and thereafter to return to” (Poon 2008).

3.3 Chinese youth identities and the Storage Box (2001) and Fresh (2002) series

The photo series Storage Box (2001) (ill. 1-3) and Fresh (2002) (ill. 4-6) present the viewer bizarre insights of people which indulge in pop culture and its consumerism, wearing colourful cloths, combined with isolated traces of traditional Chinese culture (ill. 1-3). The backgrounds are plain spaces of orange or red, which convey a feeling of detachedness and surreality. A Chinese dragons head in Tattoos (ill. 1) or an ancient robe in Skateboard (ill. 2) are some rare signs of a traditional, western notions of Chinese culture. These traditional items are juxtaposed with goods of contemporary pop culture as a teletubbies puppet, a Calvin Klein underpants or a skateboard. The spaces in which the very artificial looking scenes art staged in, resemble commercial photography. The Storage Box (2001) and Fresh (2002) series were commissioned as a parody of commercial photography by a fashion magazine (Roberts 2005). In these series, excess-consumerism and playfulness seem to have replaced a natural identity or traditional elements. Modern urban culture and consumer society produce alienated and lonely persons, which replace lacking identities with consumption.


Excerpt out of 28 pages


Chinese youth identities in Cao Fei's contemporary photography
University of Zurich  (Kunsthistorisches Institut)
Global Issues in Contemporary Photography: The Politics of the Big Picture
6 (Schweiz)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
13734 KB
Chinese, Storage, Fresh, Cosplayers
Quote paper
Simon Meier (Author), 2009, Chinese youth identities in Cao Fei's contemporary photography, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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