Through October 30
by Kate Green
In Cao Fei’s captivating new film Shadow Life, the ancient Chinese art of shadow puppetry is used to reflect on universal issues of redemption and destruction. The subtlety of this approach may initially seem like a departure from the color and spectacle of the young Chinese artist’s (b. 1978 Guangzhou, lives Beijing) previous projects. Countless international biennials have featured Cao’s dramatic photographs of Chinese youth dressed up and role-playing as anime characters (COSPlayers Series, 2004), her installations involving factory workers enacting dreams—ballerina, rock star—amidst industrial monotony (Whose Utopia, 2007), and her work with the online virtual world Second Life, through which she created an avatar and a thriving metropolis.
Cao’s recent film Shadow Life—on view this fall at Arthouse—capitalizes upon the stark rather than the spectacular. Like her earlier work it spins the everyday into the surreal and depends less on words than on images and music to create scenarios that are rooted in Asian culture and resonate far beyond. The new film clocks in at only ten minutes, but is composed of three distinct pieces that are terrific, and therefore shorter than you might wish them to be. The first piece, titled A Rock, beguiles with a folk tale about a blind man who mistakes a rock for gold, which is later offered to a bodhisattva in return for the restoration of his sight. Accompanied by a beautiful score, the story is told through inky shadows cast by highly skilled puppeteers. Though related work by Kara Walker or William Kentridge might at first come to mind, Cao’s language is distinct. The puppeteers’ hands, as well as other body parts and forms, fluidly generate beings and objects that morph into one another: an elephant becomes a bird which turns into the old man, etc. In the last frame, we see through the blind man’s eyes as he regains sight. As his pupils widen, so does the world before him.
The second piece, titled The Dictator, is set to the unmistakable and disturbing march of a German World War II song. Because of the familiar allusion, this may be the most memorable piece of the three to Western audiences. Armies of fluttering fingers become malleable masses in front of a figure who could be Hitler, or maybe Mao. This slippage is furthered at the piece’s conclusion where, perhaps heavy-handedly, Cao includes several bellicose quotes that could come from either. Regardless, the work effectively dips into the dangers of blind allegiance.
The final piece strikes a note that is hopeful, but no less profound. Titled Transmigration, a term that can refer to the philosophy of reincarnation, this work is the most visually complex. In it, forms are layered to create an enchanting landscape that, at one point, is populated by a sea of temples which disintegrate as soon as they appear. While classical Chinese music rises and falls, people become animals, forests and more. As life forms die out, others spring forth from the earth anew.
Though Western audiences might not catch all of the references in Shadow Life, viewers will no doubt find themselves sitting in the dark as I did: hoping that Cao Fei’s heady reflections on the cycles of life might continue, if only a little bit longer.
Kate Green is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Texas at Austin, with a dissertation focusing on Vito Acconci’s performative work from the early 1970s. She has written art criticism for publications such as Artforum.com, ArtPapers and Modern Painters.